How to Say It to Teenagers
AT THE CROSSROADS:
Helping adolescents build character through adversity
by Christine Ratliff
BUILDING DURING ADOLESCENCE
As our kids grow, they are no longer the sweet and snugly children
of yesteryear. The amount of time they spend with us dwindles, along
with their interests in anything we have to say. Despite this inevitable
distance, it is not too late to take an active role in fostering values
and character development.
In their book The Seven-Year Stretch, family therapists Laura S. Katsner,
Ph. D., and Jennifer Wyatt, Ph. D. present the idea that, "The
often-missed opportunities for character building rise out of the
three D's of experience: disappointments, difficulties and dilemmas."
How can we steer our children down a road paved with strength, wisdom,
individuality, fortitude, courage and perseverance? How can we enable
them to be responsible, active, problem-solving participants consciously
mapping out their own lives?
DIFFICULTIES: DOES ADVERSITY BUILD CHARACTER?
Sometimes, bad things happen. They can be a direct result of poor
choices, but other times, they happen simply because that is how life
is: unpredictable and often beyond our control.
Andi Waller, a single mom who lives in Oakland Park, was diagnosed
with cancer three different times. The first time, her daughter, Sarah,
was 7. The third time was the morning that both daughters graduated
from elementary school - an emotional day even without the added burden
of being told your cancer is back.
Andi has spent years healing from her own adolescence, when her father
was diagnosed with cancer. Although his death was imminent, it was
never discussed, planned for or dealt with. As a result of her family's
denial and utter lack of communication, Andi carried a heavy load
of regret and low self-esteem for many years following the death of
Because of that experience and its troubling consequences, she says,
"I communicate with Sarah about everything. We talk about sex,
drugs, cancer, and AIDS. "This is how I feel," I tell her.
"Tell me how you feel because I want to know."
"The best thing my mom did," Sarah says with certainty,
"was to never give up hope. We needed a plan in case my mom should
die, and we had one. That helped me a lot. I didn't have to worry
so much about what would happen to me."
By being open and honest and sharing their feelings consistently,
somehow Andi and Sarah managed through the worst of times. "Once
or twice," Sarah says, a shadow passing over her dark eyes, "my
mom would try to keep things from me. That was the worst. Not knowing
what was going on was really scary for me."
THE THRILL OF VICTORY, THE AGONY OF DEFEAT
Suppose your son goes out for the football team and doesn't
even make second string. Or your daughter tries out for cheerleading
only to learn that she's just not cheerleader material? How do we
deal with our kids' disappointments while simultaneously helping them
to build character, an acquisition that lasts much longer that football
that they are not going to be a winner at everything, but that they
shouldn’t give up.
- Have your
child talk to the coach and see where you went wrong. Find out which
areas need improvement in order to make it the next time
- Have them
start getting ready right away to try again.
to expect from your child:
expect your kids to jump off their beds, wipe their tears and get
to work right away, though. It takes some time for the whole experience
to sink in, to be assimilated.
your kids to choose to be resilient. When you're resilient, you can
survive almost anything -- being hurt, frustrated, or let down; losing
friends, making mistakes, and much more.
Edison’s teachers told him that he was too stupid to learn anything.
He read all the books in his local library on his own and became the
greatest inventor of all time, with more than 1,000 patents issued
in his name.
music teacher once proclaimed: "As a composer, he is hopeless."
- A newspaper
editor fired Walt Disney because he had "no good ideas."
- An editor
told Louisa May Alcott that she would never be able to write something
that would have popular appeal.
- 23 publishers
rejected Dr. Seuss’s first book, And to Think That I Saw It
on Mulberry Street.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO.
A dilemma is a situation that requires one to choose between two alternatives.
A dilemma may seen, especially to an already overwhelmed adolescent,
much like an unsolvable puzzle. Sometimes, we may find our kids splayed
across their beds, heads burrowed beneath their pillows, overwhelmed
with the choices they are suddenly expected to make.
During this phase of our parenting careers, as dilemmas come and go,
we have several courses of action from which to choose:
- We can
advise our kids, tell them what we would do.
- We can
"mount a high moral horse, expose a bias, dropping a few pearls
of wisdom about friendship, loyalty and commitment," write Kastner
and Wyatt in The Seven-Year Stretch.
- We can
guide our children toward their own problem-solving skills, their
own reasoning techniques, and help them arrive at their own unique
As parents, we will try all three at some time or another, often in
combination. But what works best in the long run is the method of helping
kids arrive at their own right decisions.
If we force our kids to do things our way, they learn something about
us. If we allow them the time and the space to make up their own minds,
they learn something about themselves.
Undoubtedly, the years ahead will not be easy. The three D's will splash
in and out of our lives like waves crashing relentlessly on a rock.
The goal, I think, is like that rock, to stay firm while growing smoother
as a result of difficulties, disappointments and dilemmas that wash
over us all.