The Good Enough Teen: How To Raise Adolescents With Love And Acceptance (Despite How Impossible They Can Be) - by Dr. Brad Sachs
(HarperCollins, January 2005)




Q&A: The Good Enough Teen

Although I tried to cover as many developmental bases as possible in THE GOOD ENOUGH TEEN, the extraordinary range of issues, worries, dilemmas, and problems that parents of typical teenagers confront far exceeded my capacity to address them in a single book -- instead, I tried to offer readers a framework that I believe has applicability to a wide variety of situations and scenarios.

However, because there are so many questions that parents repeatedly ask me in my practice and at my workshops, I thought it might be helpful to devote a section of my website to specifically addressing these common concerns, in the hopes that doing so will amplify and clarify the general perspective that I put forth in the book.

If you would like to contribute a question of your own at any time, please feel free to do so through the Contact Dr. Sachs link, and I will try to address it, and publish my response, at this site. However, due to time considerations, I cannot promise a personal reply to every query.

Thank you for your interest in THE GOOD ENOUGH TEEN.

Click on any of the following question(s) that interest you, and you will be directed to a response:
  1. Should we insist that our teenager get a job?
  2. How do we handle our teenager’s constant complaining?
  3. How do we modify our teenager’s hyperselective approach to the college search process?
  4. What role should we be playing when it comes to our teenager’s homework?
  5. Should we continue home-schooling our teenager now that he’s going into high school?
  6. How do we handle our belief that our teenager is stuck in a dead-end relationship?
  7. How do we respond to our teenager’s difficulty with not excelling in every academic subject?
  8. How do we convince our teenager that we’re proud of her and her accomplishments when she insists that we’re not?
  9. How do we help our teenager get over his broken heart?
  10. How do we provide responsible sex-education during late adolescence?
  11. How can we help our teenager to be a little less driven and competitive?
  12. What role should we be playing when it comes to our teenager’s exposure to the mass entertainment media?
  13. What can we do to bolster our teenager’s fragile self-image?
  14. How do we handle our teenager’s insistence on repudiating our values?
  15. How do we respond when our teenager asks about birth control?
  16. How do we handle our teenager’s lack of interest in sex?
  17. How do we respond when our teenager makes comments with a suicidal tone?

1) Our 16-year-old son, a junior, is not a hotshot student, nor is he involved with any sports or other extra-curricular activities at school. He’s home from school by 2:15, generally has a minimal amount of homework, and then just hangs around the house playing videogames, watching tv, and downloading music from the Internet. We’ve decided that it’s time for him to get a job so that at least he’s out of the house and doing something productive with his time, but he keeps insisting that there aren’t any jobs, and isn’t showing much motivation when it comes to finding one. We helped him to get his learner’s permit so that he’ll eventually be able to drive back and forth to work. We’ve picked up a couple of applications for him, but he leaves them lying around the house, as if to make sure we know he hasn’t filled them out. One time we made him complete one, but he never turned it in. Then we made him turn it in, but he never followed up with a phone call. Do you think we should stop pushing him and let go of this idea because he’s not showing much interest? We’ve offered to pay him for doing things around the house and in the yard, but he’s pretty lackadaisical, and then complains when we don’t pay him what we promised, but that’s because he really doesn’t ever do a thorough job. What are our options?

A healthy young 16-year-old should be involved in a good deal more structured activity than your son currently is. It’s difficult to have much self-respect when you’re not taking on a certain amount of challenge in your life, and my guess is that he’s somewhat short on self-confidence, which is why you’re not seeing much initiative on his part.

A job outside of the house would be serve many functions—it would fill some of his free time, provide more of an opportunity for face-to-face socializing with peers and adults, give him the opportunity to learn some new skills, and allow him to experience more self-worth. I wouldn’t bother arranging to pay him for chores around the house—most adolescents do much better work for any adult other than their parents. In fact, that’s one of the additional values of his holding a job, which is that he’ll learn that everyone, not just his mother and father, has a certain set of expectations that need to be met if reinforcement is to be forthcoming.

However, because he appears to be in a bit of a lull, you’re going to have to push it somewhat more than you have up until now. You can’t ever ensure that he’ll actually get a job, but you can certainly ensure that he’ll begin developing the habits that will greatly raise the odds of his procuring employment.

With this in mind, I would make his electronically-based entertainment contingent on his displaying concrete, job-seeking behaviors. You could, for example, clarify that he is not allowed to watch tv, play videogames, or get on the computer unless he has completed at least two verifiable, job-related tasks that day—such as getting, completing or turning in an application, setting up or going on an interview, or making a follow-up phone call to assess the status of his application.

If he’s got his learner’s permit and is in the process of learning how to drive, you could make sure that at least part of his practice driving time is devoted to scouting out possible places of employment, going for interviews, or picking up or dropping off applications.

Finally, I would make sure that you are not underwriting his indolence. It’s fair, for example, with a sixteen-year-old who is not busy with any regular extra-curricular activities, to shut off any allowance and to make it clear that there will be no further subsidies—no freely-given twenty-dollar bills for movies and snacks, or unearned “extras” like CD’s or videogames or pricey mocha-lattes. Most adolescents have some desire for disposable cash, but if your son can always count on bumming it off of you, that will diminish his motivation to go out and earn that cash.

My guess is that the combination of your insistence that he demonstrate employment-seeking behaviors, along with your refusal to be his personal ATM, will significantly increase the likelihood that he’ll first find a job, and then begin enjoying the benefits associated with keeping one.     [back to questions]

2) My 14-year-old son is a chronic complainer. He complains about his teachers, about his homework, about his complexion, about our neighborhood, about the weather—he even complains about my car (and it’s not even his!) I try to be sympathetic and understanding, but it doesn’t really seem to help—no matter how much I listen to him, he’s like a bottomless pit of dissatisfaction. And the reality is, his life isn’t so bad at all—in fact, it certainly seems to be a lot better than mine was when I was his age. How can I get him to be a little more upbeat and optimistic?

Your question reminds me of a cartoon in which a man responds to his colleague’s question about how he’s been doing with the comment: “Oh, can’t complain, but I do.” Nothing can get more tiresome than having to listen to the dreary drumbeat of a disaffected teen. This is especially true when there doesn’t appear to be anything that is truly awful about his life.

The first thing that’s important to remember is that he’s entitled to be unhappy with his life, but that doesn’t mean that you have to provide a willing audience for his grousing and grumbling. It’s not your job to be his personal cheerleader and perpetually pep him up, but it is your job to inform him that, while you can understand he may be dealing with some difficult matters, after a while you (and probably others) weary of his cavils, and lose interest. With this in mind, it’s fair to ask that he keep his negativity to himself or share it with others besides his parents.

Second, while it’s typical for teens to eagerly express their dissatisfaction (“My life sucks!” has almost become this generation’s adolescent mantra), if his complaining has become chronic, it’s important that you take the opportunity to ascertain whether there might be some underlying issues that are truly troubling him. Sometimes kids complain about trivial matters just to blow off steam, but they may also be covering up more serious concerns. The problem is, his constant carping can feel like such a steady background noise that you basically tune him out. So it’s important that you take the time to tune back in to him and let him know that you’re wondering if his steady state of disgruntlement is actually masking some more worrisome matters.

Third, be sure to observe your own and other family members’ behavior and see if there might be ways in which you are unintentionally contributing to his dour outlook. In one family that I worked with in which there was a similar problem, the parents and the two older siblings were all so unrelentingly cheerful and chipper that it was as if they had used up all of the available positive energy. It was no wonder that the third child was so sulky—someone had to carry the family’s negative energy. Another family presented the opposite scenario—the father “wondered” why his daughter was such a whiner without realizing that his general conversation seemed to consist mostly of criticizing everyone and everything he came across—in this case, the apple hadn’t fallen very far from the tree.

Finally, take note of his interactions with others. Many adolescents appear one way in the home, and quite differently outside of the home. It’s possible that he reserves all of his bellyaching for his family, which actually frees him to engage with his friends and other individuals with a little more verve and good humor. In this case, there’s really not all that much to worry about, and it’s more a matter of patiently tolerating his gloom until he leaves home or grows out of it, whichever comes first.     [back to questions]

3) My daughter is driving herself, and everyone else, nuts with her desire to get into an Ivy League college. She’s still only a junior, but it’s all she talks about, and it’s like everything she does—from her choice of classes to her extracurricular activities to what she’s going to be doing this summer—is geared towards maximizing her chances of being admitted to any of these schools. While we’re very proud of her and her achievements, we really don’t think this craziness is coming from us. Her father and I haven’t put any pressure on her at all to get into a top-notch college—in fact, we’re not absolutely sure how we are going to pay for these universities if she does get in, and we certainly don’t want her taking out a hundred thousand dollars in loans. Her older brother just completed his second year of community college, and is going to transfer to a local branch of the state university system while continuing to live at home, which is just fine with us, as it works for him and is the most inexpensive way for him to get a degree.  Of course, we’re not only worried that she’s gotten so carried away with all of this, we’re also worried about how she’ll handle things should she not get into the colleges she wants to go. Where is all of this coming from and how can we help her to settle down a bit and give it a break?

As we have seen throughout THE GOOD ENOUGH TEEN, it’s not always easy to explain teenage behavior. On the one hand, I’m sure you’re aware that it’s a positive thing that your daughter has been unafraid to set ambitious goals for herself, and that she seems to be methodically achieving these goals in a highly concentrated, focused way. On the other hand, you’re right to be concerned that she’s gotten so single-minded that she’s become over-focused, losing the well-roundedness and light-heartedness that are two of the essential components of a healthy young adult.

While her older brother is moving ahead nicely with his life, the fact remains that your daughter, despite being younger, is apparently going to be the first child to actually leave home.  The process of cutting that umbilical cord is a profoundly anxiety-provoking one for teenagers, and that anxiety makes itself manifest in many different ways. Sometimes, it expresses itself in blatantly self-sacrificing or self-destructive ways, but other times, it expresses itself through over-achievement and over-functioning, which present their own unique problems.

It’s important to give your daughter credit for wanting to excel, and I would be certainly be careful not to criticize her for “making you nuts” with her highly-charged aspirations. But I would also begin to talk with her more specifically about your concerns, and about developing a more balanced approach to her last couple of years of high school.

She has to hear that the important thing about choosing a college is that it be a good match for her—not just intellectually, but also socially. She has to hear that successful people come from a wide-range of educational backgrounds rather than solely from exclusive universities, and that success has much more to do with creative persistence and hard work than with one’s alma mater. She has to hear that if she goes to one of her fantasy schools, she may begin her adult life with a heavy load of debt that will limit some of her post-graduate options, and that she could be just as well off, if not better off, going to a fine and challenging, but less pricey, school, and/or earning a scholarship somewhere. Perhaps most importantly, she has to hear that she’ll still be loved no matter where she winds up going.

She should also be asked to think realistically about her chances of getting into one of the colleges of her dreams, and to have reasonable back-up options that can be exercised without her feeling like she’s letting you, or herself, down. And she should be reminded that the college-admissions process is illogical and capricious, one that is not purely objective or merit-based, so that she doesn’t take it too hard if some of the likely rejections come her way.

I would also be careful not to become helpless, afraid to set limits when you feel that things are getting out of hand—after all, you’re still the parents, and you still have the right to step in. You may, for example, have to push her to go out on the weekend with her friends rather than stay in and study, or you might decide it’s more important to spend your money on a nice, long family vacation during the summer rather than pay for some expensive, elite summer-school program that is designed solely to burnish her image for the college of her choice.

These comments and actions are not going to automatically quiet her down and dramatically change her outlook. However, over time they may take the edge off of some of her fretfulness and self-absorption, and help her to understand that there should be more to adolescent life than constructing an appealing resume for college admissions officers to appraise.     [back to questions]

4) What role should we be playing in our son’s homework at this point? He’s in ninth grade, and it seems like unless we’re there to check up on him, he’s always falling behind. We’ve arranged for him to have a tutor once a week, and she’s been helpful when it comes to his becoming more organized, and preparing for tests. But every day it’s the same routine—I ask him what he has for homework, and he’ll tell me, but when progress reports come out, there’s always missing or poorly-completed homework showing up that drags his grade down. My husband asks to see all of his work and goes over it with him, and sometimes I’ll secretly check the school’s website in the evening, because they’ve got all the homework posted there, just to see if he’s keeping up and doing what he’s supposed to be doing. But even that isn’t foolproof because his teachers usually don’t list the long-term projects and assignments on the website, just the daily stuff. We’ve tried instituting consequences when he’s not turning stuff in, but nothing really seems to make much of a difference. I feel like giving up, but then I worry that he’ll completely fall behind, and start failing his classes. What are our options?

My belief, which may or may not be shared by your son’s teachers, is that the primary purpose of homework is to provide an opportunity for students to learn how to independently manage their lives. Making choices about how much and how hard to study, establishing a personal standard of acceptability or excellence, deciding where and when to work and how to balance academic responsibilities with recreational, social, and extracurricular activities—this, to my way of thinking, is where the real instructional benefit of homework occurs.

Your job, at this point in your son’s life, is to begin weaning him from your supervision, and to use the next couple of years of high school to promote his capacity to handle his work autonomously—whether he goes on to college, into the military, or straight into the work world, functioning independently will be a necessary skill for him to have developed. Unless you begin this process now, it’s unlikely he’ll be where he should be by the time he graduates high school, and he’s certainly not going to have you there on a daily basis to help him manage when he’s on his own.

I would let him know that it’s time for a shift to be made, and that there will be some changes in how homework is handled. I’d begin by refraining from asking him if he has homework, or what he has for homework (since you can never be sure if he’s telling you the truth anyway).

Instead, I would try to involve him in starting to take more personal responsibility for his homework. I would ask him how much time he believes his homework should take, on the average, and check in with his teachers as well, if you have not already done so, to get a sense of what their expectations are (you can probably glean this from the school’s website as well).

Then, I would solicit his input on when he thinks he is most productive, and make that his standard homework time. It might be turn out to be one long segment, or two to three shorter segments, but it should be clear that there are to be no other distractions during this time—no phone, computer, music, television. If he comes home saying that he has no homework one day, you can gently remind him that there’s probably reading, test-preparation, or reviewing to do, and that you expect him to stick with his designated study session(s) nonetheless. I would also tell him that while you’re available to help him should he want to consult with you, you’re no longer going to check up on his work unless he’d like you to.

This will be a big change for all of you, and you have to be prepared not only for a lack of improvement, but even for a temporary decline in his productivity. However, I believe that, over time (and, being that he’s still only in ninth grade, you’ve still got some time), this is the best way to promote his commitment to his own work—as long as you’re busy supervising and monitoring, you’re unintentionally, but significantly, diminishing the possibility that he’s going to take charge of his own work and find ways move himself ahead.     [back to questions]

5) We’ve been home-schooling our son since fourth grade, a decision that was made because he was not fitting in well socially, and seemed to be somewhat bored academically. In the past five years, he’s made excellent progress, although his social life remains pretty much at a standstill. Now that he’s completing eighth grade, we’re considering enrolling him in a public high school. We want him to have more opportunities to socialize, and to be able to take advantage of some of the higher level math and science courses that would then become available to him. What do you see as the risks and benefits of this transition, and, if we decide to go ahead with it, how can we best help him to prepare?

I applaud your decision to have taken your son’s education into your own hands when he was struggling in elementary school, and it appears that, from an academic standpoint, things have gone very well. That he is not as connected with his peers as you might like him to be may concern you, but that doesn’t mean that he would have been better off if you’d have kept him in public school—perhaps he might have cultivated some friendships and social skills, but perhaps he would have felt increasingly lonely and isolated.

In any case, it’s wise to re-evaluate his education now that there would be a natural segue into high school. As you are already aware, one advantage would be that he’d be able to tap into a richer curriculum than you might be able to provide for him at home. A second advantage is that he’d have an easier time meeting like-minded peers and developing some new friendships, both in the classroom and through involvement in extracurricular activities—by high school, many (although certainly not all) students have begun to outgrow their middle-school immaturity, and individuals who might have been cruelly tormented or ostracized in previous years are often able to carve out a comfortable niche in the great diversity of a typical public high school community.

A third advantage is that you would be providing him with the opportunity to be exposed to, and have to adapt to, a range of instructional styles. A key component to success in adulthood is the ability to get along with, and learn from, different people, and he’ll certainly have more opportunities to strengthen that ability if he goes to high school.   On the other hand, there are ways to broaden his home-schooling experience without having to re-enroll him in the school system. Many colleges allow committed high-school students to take a class or two each semester, and many local businesses and agencies are happy to set up internships with young adults as well. If you are able to cobble together a variegated curriculum that exposes your son to a range of influences, and enlarges the prospect of regular interactions with peers and solid adults, such a modified home-schooling program might work just fine.

Remember, also, that this decision, like most parenting decisions, is not irreversible. You could start him in public high-school and, if his adjustment does not seem to be a positive one, pull him back into home-schooling, as you did when he was in fourth grade. Likewise, you could start him in home-schooling, and, if he doesn’t seem to be maturing in the ways in which you’d like him to, consider enrolling him in high school.

The more open-minded and flexible you are, the greater the likelihood that he’ll have a successful high-school experience, wherever it takes place.     [back to questions]

6) My sixteen-year-old daughter has been dating a boy for over a year now. There’s really nothing wrong with their relationship, it’s not abusive or self-destructive, like some teenaged couples I’ve seen—in fact, I would say that her boyfriend is basically a good kid who has always treated her decently. The problem is that they just don’t seem to be going anywhere as a couple, and I feel like they’re kind of stuck. They do the same thing every weekend—order a pizza and watch a video at our house, usually with my husband and I. Now and then they’ll go out with some friends and do something, but not usually.  She does a little bit of complaining about how boring things are, but whenever I suggest that maybe it’s time to break-up, she just tells me that there’s “more good than bad”, and continues seeing him—it appears to be inertia more than anything else that’s keeping them together right now. Is there anything I can do to get them disentangled so that they can each move on?

Watching our teens’ fledgling relationships can be a wrenching experience, if nothing else because it stirs up painful memories of our own first clumsy forays into the land of intimacy. We desperately want them to avoid making the same mistakes that we made, even though, despite our best efforts, they are not only destined to do just that, they, in fact, need to—it’s really the only way for them to learn.

Your daughter is to be commended for being able to sustain a year’s worth of connection with her boyfriend. While there are obviously plusses and minuses to that much monogamy at that age, it sounds like it has basically been a healthy relationship. If nothing else, she has most likely learned a lot about herself, and about the qualities that make for a successful relationship, through her on-going bond with him.

You’re probably correct in your observation that the two of them have gotten into a bit of a rut, for whatever reasons, and it’s not a bad idea to see if you can help rock them out of it. On the other hand, being that it’s not a particularly contentious or problematic relationship right now, you shouldn’t feel compelled to intervene, particularly if she’s not complaining all that much about it, nor should you underestimate the important role the relationship may be playing in their lives.

After all, it may be functioning as a stabilizing rudder that is keeping them in check, and actually preventing problems. Adolescence, as we’ve learned, is an uncertain, unpredictable time, and it’s not unusual for teens to link up with a steady partner in an effort to help steady the ship while they’re navigating turbulent waters.

I would make sure she knows that you understand the significance of this relationship. I would also give them some specific suggestions for things they might do together that would air out their relationship a little bit, like encouraging them to meet up with other friends more often, or finding some things to do together that don’t involve repeatedly hunkering down in front of a television for the evening.

I’d be sure that you’re differentiating her life from your life, too, because all of us are prone to merging our own experience with our teen’s. You need to be alert to the possibility that part of your motivation to get your daughter unstuck is not because she’s all that unhappy, but because you are. After all, you justifiably point out that she and her boyfriend need to be more creative when it comes to how they spend their time together, but being that it sounds like you and your husband are also home watching a video most Saturday nights, the same would apply to the two of you. So be sure to take a good look at your marriage, and address whatever it is that you and your husband may need to change to get some flow going, rather than focusing exclusively on your daughter and her boyfriend.

I know that you want more for her than she currently has, but this relationship is clearly serving a purpose in her life right now, and, even if you were capable of severing it, which you’re not, I wouldn’t assume that that would be best. Credit her with what she’s been able to create with him, encourage them to open things up a little bit, and let one or both of them decide when it might be time to consider moving on.     [back to questions]

7) My daughter is a sophomore in high school, and has always gotten excellent grades and been one of the top students in her class until this year, when she got a C in Physics during the first marking period. All of her other grades were A’s, as usual, but she was devastated, and now is saying that she wants to drop Physics and take an easier course. We’re torn between wanting her to stick with it—after all, she’s not failing, at least not at this point—and granting her wish, which would take some of the academic pressure off of her. What do you think is best?

It’s natural for you to want to remove some of the pressure from her, but, in this case, it sounds like the pressure comes from inside, not outside. The experience of having a steady stream of successes over the years, like your daughter has had, is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it surely contributes to a sense of pride and personal accomplishment. On the other hand, it may have prevented her from learning some extremely important skills, including the abilities to tolerate the shock of being ordinary in some areas, to accept being less than the best, to fail gracefully and without self-loathing, to maintain spirit and self-worth in the face of frustration and disappointment, and to realize that there’s a big difference between being imperfect and being worthless.

You are right to point out that she is currently doing C-level work—that suggests that she is probably struggling with the material, but handling it decently, nonetheless.   After all, let’s not forget that, even in our grade-inflated culture, a C does mean “average”, not “awful”.

With this in mind, allowing your daughter to transfer out of Physics simply because she is struggling with it, and because her perfect academic record has been marred, would actually create more pressure for her, rather than less. She would still be tormented by the belief that she is not allowed to make the slightest slip without feeling like she has ruined everything. She would be forced to constantly avoid situations in which she might temporarily look bad, and come to rely more on external, rather than internal, criteria to assess and judge herself. She would constantly be haunted by stabbing questions such as, “Will I still be loved if I’m not always a success?” and “Can I handle defeats and disappointments without giving up on myself?”

If it becomes clear, through the next marking period or two, that she really is over-matched intellectually in this class, and not coming close to grasping the material, a schedule change should be considered. Otherwise, it would be best for her to be asked to stick it out, and to allow the experience to build her character and increase her capacity to accept herself, “warts and all”.     [back to questions]

8) Our sixteen-year-old daughter consistently tells us that she doesn’t think we’re proud of her. This boggles my mind, because the fact is we are very proud of her, we tell her this all the time, we think she’s a wonderful young lady, and we’re absolutely mystified as to why she doesn’t know that we feel this way. We celebrate all of her successes, we’re always sure to praise her when she’s done a good job at something, and when she does slip up, which is rare, we don’t make a big deal out of it, and are quick to remind her of all of her other talents and strengths. What can we say or do that would help to reassure her, and enable her to understand how proud of her we really are?

Often, when teenagers make accusations such as these—“You’re not proud of me”, “You don’t really love me”, “You don’t care about me”—what they’re really saying is, “You don’t know me.” Adolescents become frightened when they believe that all we see, or are willing to see, are their shining virtues and attributes, because they feel as if these don’t comprise their whole being, which, of course, they don’t.

At some level, they actually need to have their worst qualities acknowledged to as great an extent as their best qualities, so that they’ll know that, despite their rough edges, perhaps even because of them, they’ll still be cherished and accepted. That’s usually why they become angry and irritable when they are overly adored and revered—the pressure to preserve their parents’ idealized image of them starts to feel like a tremendous burden, and they’re beset by constant worry that they’ll inevitably be exposed as stupid, awkward, and valueless imposters when their inner inadequacies and incompetencies are finally revealed to everyone.

All teenagers need to know that they are endorsed and admired for what they are accomplishing and working towards, and it sounds like you’re doing a fine job on this front with your daughter. But she also needs to know that you have an interest in seeing her for who she really is, not just for who you want or imagine her to be. When she accuses you of not being proud of her, she’s also telling you that she’s not feeling very proud of herself, and that’s something that you need to help her to learn more about.

The next time she brings something like this up, rather than too quickly or blithely trying to reassure her that she’s great, I would try to address this theme with her in a little more depth. I’d ask her what it’s like for her to sense that you’re not proud of her, why and how that matters to her. I’d wonder if she feels as if the two of you really know and understand her now that she has changed. I’d invite her to assess her own level of pride, and inquire as to when she’s proudest, and least proud, of herself.

She needs to hear that your pride in her is balanced by a realistic appraisal of what she is, and is not, capable of doing—that will enable her to trust you more when you do offer approval and acclaim. And she of course needs to be reminded that that you’re always going to love her no matter what combination of flaws and attributes she embodies, so that she doesn’t have to feel ashamed of, and compelled to hide away, the downside of her life.

Remember that your goal here is not to offer her some falsely blanket reassurance regarding how proud of her you are, but to convey to her your interest in becoming more aware of who she’s already become, and will continue becoming. That, in the long run, will help to promote her growth a good deal more than endless praise and accolades.     [back to questions]

9) My son’s been absolutely miserable ever since his girlfriend dumped him a couple of weeks ago. They’d been going out for about eight months, and even though he appeared to see it coming, it’s just devastated him. He’s lost interest in school, he mopes around the house, and he looks absolutely terrible. It probably doesn’t help that he was so involved with her that he lost contact with his boyfriends, who tired of him spending all of his time with her and blowing them off. I’ve told him it’s time to get over it, already, but it doesn’t seem to get him over the hump. I broke up with my share of girlfriends when I was his age, but it never got as bad as this. How long do I let this go on before we intervene and get him some help?

Let’s face it—could there be any break worse than a broken heart? Shakespeare’s words—“If you have tears, prepare to shed them now”—could never be more applicable, as adolescents, filled as they are with dreams, passion, vulnerability and sexual energy, are especially prone to heartbreak. And when it happens (as it did for just about all of us), it is as if a gaping hole in their world is ripped opened—the pain just about consumes them, and all of their energy goes towards trying to manage, metabolize, and make sense of it.

Your son is entitled to grieve for the end of this significant relationship. In our culture, we tend to give females much greater liberties than males to fully experience sorrow and loss, but both genders have the need to do so. Males sometimes have a harder time with break-ups precisely because they are discouraged from recognizing and giving in to the depth of their desolation, when doing so would actually help them move through it more easily. You say that you were never feeling things this intensely when you were growing up and enduring similar losses, but the strong possibility exists that there were such strong sanctions against your experiencing that intensity that you chose to bury it, or simply not remember it in much detail.

In any case, that is not to say that you should just sit back and ignore him while he languishes. On the contrary, your job is to be a companion to him in his mourning, and to help him to cope. You need to normalize, rather than criticize, his reaction, helping him to view it as a phase that, over time, will come to its end. You certainly should encourage him to try to re-focus on his schoolwork, find some pleasant distractions, and re-build his relationships with his boyfriends, but you also need to be patient with him as he slowly tries to sew back together what was suddenly torn asunder.

If, in the coming few weeks, you don’t see any improvements in his mood or energy level, it would probably be wise to arrange for a consultation with a therapist, just to see if there’s more going on than a broken heart, if this loss somehow churned some other, older losses to the surface.

But for now, just a couple of weeks after the end of an eight-month relationship, I think your best bet is to summon as much empathy, understanding, and compassion as you can, and give his legitimate sadness some time to slowly dissipate.     [back to questions]

10) We have two teenagers now, one boy and one girl, and want to know how we can best educate them sexually at this point in their development. We’ve always been honest and open with them ever since they were little, and between what we have taught them, what the school has taught them, and what they’ve been exposed to in the media, they have probably known “the facts” for years, now. With this in mind, what is left for us to do besides hoping that they’ll use (or are using!) good judgment?

While it is clear that many parents delay sexual education until it is way too late, it is just as clear to me that many parents wrap up this process way too early. If we, as a society, narrow the definition of sex-education to matters of biology and safety, which is often the case, then we really haven’t done our job, and will unavoidably leave our children under-prepared for the complexities of intimate relational life.

Facts are never enough when it comes to understanding sexuality—teaching your teens how pregnancies occur and how to prevent them, for example, will not teach them anything about the important and useful role that sexual pleasure can play in their lives, how they can find a balance between their desire and their partner’s desire, and how couples can incorporate sexuality into their lives in a way that enriches rather than depletes their sense of communication and closeness with each other.

Because of our understandable desire to prevent STD’s and unwanted pregnancies, adolescent sex-education can wind up taking on a negative bent—sexuality is often presented in worrisome terms, and is seen as a threat, a pitfall, a reckless and impending disaster, rather than as a beautifully complicated but ultimately wondrous universe to be explored and experienced throughout the entire course of one’s lifetime. When teens are told that “the only safe sex is abstinence”, while simultaneously being inundated with sexual advertisements and enticements, and feeling the insistent tug of their own sexual urges, how are they then supposed to explore their sexuality?

With this in mind, you do still need to remain available to address factual matters. It’s unwise to run the risk of assuming that your children know as much as you think they do, or as much as they think they do, and always better to take the time to find out exactly what they do know, even at the risk of appearing pedantic and eliciting reflexive sighs and eye-rolls.

But you also need to deepen the conversation that you have with them about sexuality, and move it into the emotional as much as the physical realm. They need to know that they can talk about the mixture of feelings that they have about sexuality, that it needn’t be seen as “all good” or “all bad”. They need to have their experiences, their fantasies, their regrets, and their confusion normalized. They need to be able to distinguish between the “fantasy” sexuality that they have already been bombarded with through the mass media, and the “real” sexuality that can be achieved and enjoyed between two young adults. They need to understand the diversity of sexual expressiveness, the vast territory within which sexual energy can articulate and reveal itself. And to help them with this, they even need to know more about how you have navigated this territory, both when you were their age, as well as now. This doesn’t mean that you have to go into excruciating detail with them about what you do or don’t do in bed (they will have left the room long before you’d get to that point!), but it does mean that you have to clue them into the nature of the lifelong continuum of sexuality, and how it runs like a strong and steady river through our ever-changing developmental landscape.

Broadening your discussion of sexuality in these ways will not only help to educate them, but, more importantly, enlighten them, and leave them better equipped to find a safe, healthy and fulfilling mutuality with their chosen partner.     [back to questions]

11) My son has got to be the most competitive person around, and it’s making him, and the rest of the family, miserable. He’s in ninth grade, and has to be the best at everything, no matter what he’s doing—school, sports, music, even video games. And if he isn’t the best, if he loses or fails at something, he has no tolerance whatsoever, and just goes bonkers. We know that it can be a good thing to be competitive, but it’s not such a good thing when he can’t do anything but compete, and when he’s such a horrible loser. We’ve tried ignoring him, we’ve tried talking about it with him, and we’ve certainly gotten fed up and annoyed with him, but nothing seems to have any impact. How can we help him to get a grip?

Humans are naturally competitive, some more than others, and our competitive spirit expresses itself in different ways and to varying degrees. I’m glad to hear you acknowledging the value of being competitive, because competition, at its best, spurs us on to excel, to do our absolute best. Many of our finest, most meaningful accomplishments might not have been attained had there not been some competition with a (real or imagined) rival fueling us.

On the other hand, if all we do is compete, if we don’t have the capacity to exert some control over our competitive drive, we’re destined for a difficult life, since there will invariably be someone who is better or more successful than us at just about everything we do. So it’s important to be able to balance one’s rivalrousness with reality.

First of all, if you have read THE GOOD ENOUGH TEEN, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear me suggest that you should begin by looking at the role that competition plays in your life. Are you constantly comparing yourself to others, or your children to others’ children? How much of your self-worth is tied up with how well you compete in the areas that are meaningful to you? To what extent might your son be carrying your own competitive urges, either because they make you so uncomfortable that you have disowned them and displaced them onto him, or because you have made it clear to him that his being the best is somehow crucially entangled with his being loved and accepted.

Having personally given some consideration to these questions will enable you to help him consider some of them as well. Rather than simply being annoyed with him, or ignoring him, understandable as those reactions are, I would inquire as to what is behind his competitive intensity so that he develops a greater understanding of himself. You might wonder when, exactly, he began to think that he had to be the best at everything he did, what he is afraid will happen when he’s not, and whether his fears are well-founded. You might ask him what it’s like to feel like he has to constantly be the winner, and whether he ever tires of carrying that burden. You might invite him to think about which feelings besides satisfaction accompany his triumphs, and which feelings besides disappointment accompany his setbacks. You might relate to him the stories of your own defeats and comedowns, the redeeming, humanizing value of these experiences, and how, in the long run, they may have helped you to become humbler, less perfectionistic, and more tolerant of yourself.

A discussion of this sort will not automatically quench his competitive fire, but it might help to ease it such that he can give himself options other than mauling himself every time he experiences a loss of one sort or another. Your job is not to try to make him less competitive, but to create the possibility that he can gain some mastery over his competitive nature such that it can work more fully to his advantage no matter what outcomes he encounters.     [back to questions]

12) Our 15-year-old daughter is on the depressive side of life, and seems to gravitate only to that which is dark and dreary. The books that she reads, the music that she listens to, the movies that she watches, all seem so somber and gloomy. We think that all of this is contributing to her depressed outlook on life, but, unfortunately, we haven’t really been able to steer her in any other directions. When we’ve tried to expose her to lighter or more wholesome fare, she just spurns us, telling us that we don’t understand her and we never will. I want to respect her choices, but I’m worried about her, too, and don’t want to just sit back if she’s doing something that’s ultimately harmful to her health. How much of a problem is she creating for herself, and how strong a stand can and should we be taking with someone who’s pretty independent-minded?

It’s easy to point the finger at the mass media and assign blame for their malignant influence on our youth, but just because it’s easy, that doesn’t mean it’s right. Our creative heritage, in whatever form it takes, usually emerges from the wellspring of our culture, rather than the other way around. For example, I don’t believe that the violent imagery associated with gangsta rap creates violence in underprivileged communities, or that prohibiting gangsta rap would lead to an elimination of violence in these communities—it’s an art form that, upsetting or distasteful as it may sound to some, speaks in an honest and daring way to many of the conflicts and dilemmas confronting the urban poor.

Likewise, with your daughter, I don’t believe that the books and movies and music that she favors are creating her depressive outlook. More likely, they are speaking to her in rich and meaningful ways, helping her to feel less alone and isolated, validating her inner experience, and perhaps even serving a cathartic function and discharging some of the disturbing thoughts and images that she is struggling to make sense of.

With this in mind, it’s really not in her best interest for you to patrol her psychological borders and attempt to isolate her from that which you find distressing. Your efforts are not only bound to fail, you may wind up alienating her at a point in her life when she needs to feel more, rather than less, connected with other people. Instead, I would make an attempt to join her, despite your concerns, because that will help you to understand her, and her inner world, better.

Ask her if you might read some of the books that she has enjoyed once she’s finished them. Invite her to rent some of her favorite movies so that you have the chance to watch them at home, either with or without her. Borrow her headphones and listen to some of her CD’s or radio stations. She may not appear to respond enthusiastically to your efforts to travel through her universe (although it’s also possible that she might), but that doesn’t mean that she won’t secretly value these efforts nonetheless.

This approach has another advantage, as well, which is providing you with additional leverage when it comes to broadening her horizons a bit. If you’ve made the time to read what she reads, watch what she watches, and listen to what she listens to, she might be more likely to do the same with you, giving you an opportunity to slowly leaven her steady diet with some of the “lighter fare” that she deserves to encounter as well.

In general, though, I would imagine that her immersion in this imaginative underworld, disquieting as it may be for you, is more beneficial than harmful for her.

Try to keep this in mind so that you’ll be a little better able to tolerate it.     [back to questions]

13) My daughter suffers from low self-esteem. She’s always putting herself down, even when there’s no need to do so. She does well in school, taking some tough classes, but is always calling herself “stupid” and “dumb” nonetheless. Her lacrosse coach told me that he thinks she’s got a lot of talent, but she’s the first one to tell me how poorly she played after every game. Of course she thinks she’s ugly, even though she’s quite pretty. I’ve always tried to praise her when she does well, don’t feel that I put excess pressure on her, and am very understanding when she’s not having success, but it doesn’t seem to have any impact on her. When I attempt to point out to her the contrast between how she sees herself and how others see her, she just blows me off, telling me, “You’re just saying that because you’re my mother.” What can I do to bolster her self-image?

Actually, there’s not much that you can do to bolster her self-image, because, as you correctly imply when you use that phrase, it’s her self-image, and thus can only change from the inside, not from the outside. The more effort you expend getting her to depict herself more benevolently, and with more accuracy, the more effort she is probably going to expend resisting you.

What’s more important, and probably more productive, is to help her to understand what function her self-diminishment seems to serve. Self-esteem is not immutable, like one’s shoe-size—it changes according to what is going on in an individual’s life, and often presents itself differently in different settings. Thus, you cannot assume that how your daughter describes herself in your presence is a precise, or complete, reflection of how she actually views herself.

I think that you’re better off gently, and good-naturedly, pointing out some of the discrepancies that you see, and taking a more detached outlook. “It’s funny that your coach keeps someone who plays as poorly as you think you do in the starting line-up, game after game—I wonder what’s wrong with him,” or “You may be dumb, but I’ll bet that there are a lot of smart people who wish they had your grade point average.”

You might also wonder about the role that her self-putdowns might be playing, both in general, and/or in her relationship with you: “You’re so intent on making sure that everyone doesn’t think very highly of you, it makes me think that you’ve got something up your sleeve—are you afraid you’ll sound boastful if you acknowledge any successes? Are you worried that too much will be expected of you if you allow others to see your talents?” Even if you’re off-base with your speculations, you’ll be planting an important seed which might eventually bear the fruit of self-recognition.

Remember, also, that low self-esteem is only a problem if it’s creating problems in a young person’s life. In her case, if she’s actually playing lacrosse, rather than talking herself out of it because she doesn’t think she’s very good, or if she’s registering for challenging courses rather than ones that are below her capacity, the case can be made that her self-esteem is more than adequate—otherwise, she wouldn’t be summoning her reserves to take on these challenges.

With this in mind, I think that you’re better off commenting in ways that make her curious about her negative self-talk, but that will also convey to her that you’re not really buying it, and that you can easily see the talented person who, for whatever reasons, is hiding behind the talk.     [back to questions]

14) I worry that my 17-year-old son is making decisions simply to show us that he’s different than we are, and that this is eventually going to catch up with him and result in a very unhappy young adult. For example, although we’re not wealthy, my husband and I have done very well in the business that we started up a decade ago, but it’s almost like our son feels guilty that we have as much as we have and goes into self-denial mode—he won’t buy new clothes, won’t let us get him his own car, even though many of his friends have cars, and even puts up a fuss when we want to go to a resort or someplace nice for vacation. We’re concerned that he’s going to be so intent on rejecting what we stand for that he’ll never be able to figure out what he stands for. He’s even said that he isn’t sure he wants to go to college if all it means is that he’s going to be “stuck behind a desk” for the rest of his life. How can we help him to keep some of his normal rebelliousness within bounds so that he doesn’t go too far in the wrong direction?

I can understand why you’re concerned about these developments, but the fact is that finding ways to distinguish oneself from one’s parents is an important step in establishing a healthy identity. Just because he’s beginning the process of becoming his own person by repudiating what you stand for doesn’t mean that that’s where the process will end—it is simply a starting point, a first step in the direction of his ultimate self-definition and fulfillment.

Being that the choices he is making in an effort to remind you (as well as himself) that he is his own person appear, for the most part, to be healthy ones, I don’t think that you have all that much to worry about right now. After all, he may be rebelling not just against the success that his parents have achieved, but against our culture’s incessant focus on materialism, the “you-are-what-you-have” mentality that’s so pervasive amongst our youth. So it’s not such a bad thing if he’s looking to create a different set of priorities for himself.

Most teens who are given a respectful opportunity to express their opinions and freely experiment with different options and possibilities during adolescence and early adulthood eventually make decisions which are primarily guided by their own, unique vision of themselves, but that still incorporate and integrate aspects of the original vision provided for them by their parents, as well as the visions of other influential peers and mentors. Despite being driven by a healthy urge to distinguish themselves and cover new ground, they will at some point vanquish the fear that their sense of self is imperiled simply because some of what they go after in life might actually be approved of by their parents.

With this in mind, as long as his choices continue not to be self-destructive ones, I would suggest understanding and appreciating his courageous efforts to formulate a unique blueprint for his life, and trusting that his current defiance-based course will eventually be guided by other winds as well.     [back to questions]

15) I know that I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but my 16-year-old daughter recently floored me by asking, completely out of the blue, what kind of birth control I believed she should use. She’s been seeing her boyfriend for more than six months now, and while I have assumed that they’ve been physically involved with each other, I was hoping that they had not progressed to the point where they were having, or considering having, sex.

I’m so mixed up, I guess I’m really not sure how to go about answering her question, because I don’t believe she should be having sex in the first place—on the other hand, if she is having, or is going to be having, sex, I certainly want her and her boyfriend using contraception. What’s the best way to tackle this?

First of all, you should be very pleased that she came to you with this question because it tells you that a high level of trust has been established between the two of you, that she senses your willingness and availability to talk about such meaningful matters, and that what you believe is important to her.

Second of all, you’re also right to give careful consideration to how you approach this matter. Many parents, when confronted either starkly or subtly with this question,  assume that their teenager has already made the decision to become sexually active (meaning, for the sake of this discussion, penile-vaginal intromission), and settle for a factually-based discussion of the pro’s and con’s of the various contraceptive methods available. My sense, however, is that when teens ask about birth control, they’re also asking to talk both about their sexual unfolding in general, and their readiness to engage in sexual intercourse in particular.

Parents often underestimate the extent to which even seemingly savvy and sophisticated adolescents struggle to make sense of sexuality, and how valuable it can be for them to learn more about their parents’ opinions and attitudes. And, as we have seen in some of the case studies presented in THE GOOD ENOUGH TEEN, just because a teen vigorously opposes our point of view doesn’t mean that she sees it as insignificant, irrelevant, or outdated (despite the fact that she’ll say otherwise!)—usually, the degree to which she objects to what we think is simply a measure of her level of internal conflict.

Bearing this in mind, while I would certainly make sure that you do, in fact, share your thoughts about the specifics of healthy and effective contraception, I would be just as sure to broaden the discussion to the issue of her preparedness for this step in her relationship with her boyfriend. She should hear that there is a broad repertoire of sexually-satisfying interactions that do not carry the risk of pregnancy and/or sexually-transmitted diseases, and make sure she knows what they are. She should hear that sexual intercourse irreversibly changes a relationship, and makes it more difficult for partners to disengage from each other at a later point, should one or both want to do so. She should hear that sex is to be shared by individuals who not only deeply care for and trust each other, but who are also prepared to accept the responsibilities of the possible outcomes of sex, including abortion, adoption, childbearing and childrearing, and STD’s. She should hear that the decision to have sexual intercourse should not be a response to peer pressure, or a test of one’s love or commitment, or the result of any form of physical or emotional force. And, of course, she should hear what you think about her readiness for sex, but also that you will always love her, and that you want to maintain an open dialogue about this very sensitive area, no matter what she ultimately decides.

Responding in this way will not only answer her immediate question, but, more importantly, help her to continue to develop a healthy sexual identity, one that she will be able to carry with her not only in this beginning relationship, but in all of her subsequent ones as well.     [back to questions]

16) I know this is probably the opposite problem that a lot of parents of teens have, but my 17-year-old son seems to have absolutely no interest in sex. He doesn’t have any contact with girls that I’m aware of, aside from in school, he doesn’t visit pornographic websites, as far as I can tell, he never mentions anything that’s even remotely sexual in our conversations, and I’ve seen no evidence of wet dreams or masturbation—it seems as if he’s completely asexual. I know that sexual development occurs at its own pace, but I would’ve thought that I’d notice some evidence of sexual expression by this point in his life. Should I be worried about this, and, if so, how should I address my worries with him without embarrassing him or making him feel like there’s something wrong with him?

Sexual development does indeed occur at its own pace, as you rightly note, so it would certainly be premature to conclude that there’s something wrong with a 17-year-old who is not yet displaying much sexual interest or initiative. Puberty can continue well into one’s early twenties, and your son may still be awaiting some natural physical and/or emotional changes that will be harbingers of a more overt sexual expressiveness. Also, if he has experienced any psychological or physical injuries or traumas in the past, such as sexual or physical abuse, accidents, or surgeries, these could also be contributing to a temporary forestalling of his sexual evolution.

However, don’t neglect the possibility that, for whatever reasons, he’s successfully attempting to keep his sexuality “under wraps”. You cannot presume that he’s “asexual” simply because you have not yet witnessed any concrete evidence of sexual interest. Adolescents are quite inventive when it comes to masking or concealing their sexuality, and your son wouldn’t be the first or last teenager who was able to keep his erotic explorations, be they personal or interpersonal, private.

Furthermore, a teenager’s sexuality will often reveal itself in disguised or unrecognizable ways. Creative expression, imaginative fantasy, athletics and physical activity, spiritual practice, intellectual pursuits, and socializing with same- and opposite-sex peers all can provide constructive outlets for a teen’s libido, diminishing the likelihood that it’ll manifest itself in actual or observable desire or contact.

Bearing all of this in mind, I still believe it’s valuable to broker a discussion with him about his sexuality in a gentle and non-judgmental way. You might begin by asking him if many of his friends seem to have much of an interest in physical intimacy (I’d be careful not to ask if his friends are interested in the “opposite sex” in case part of the reason that he may be shying away from sexual matters is because he thinks he is, or may in fact be, gay).

If he’s with you on this, I would then see if you can move the discussion into a more personal arena, inquiring as to where he’s at when it comes to his level of sexual interest, being sure to emphasize what we noted above, that sexuality always expresses itself at its own rate and in its own unique way. You might share some stories about your own, or your friends’, sexual journeys, pointing out the wide variety of ways in which individuals of each gender and sexual orientation become comfortable with this important part of their identity.

Finally, I would be certain to reassure him that celibacy, for any length of time, is a legitimate choice, that he should never feel abnormal if he’s not interested in sex nor succumb to any pressure to have sex, and that sex is most enjoyable, and most gratifying, when it takes place in the context of a loving, trusting relationship.

Approaching the issue in this way will probably reduce whatever anxiety or uneasiness either of you may be experiencing, and increase the likelihood that he’ll be that much better able to allow his sexual energies to gradually materialize in a healthy and fulfilling manner.     [back to questions]

17) Our son generally seems to be doing okay, but from time to time, he’ll lapse into a horrible mood, and make comments like “I’m sick of my life” and “I can’t go on like this.” We know enough to know that these comments need to be taken seriously, but we’re not convinced that he would act on them—sometimes we think he’s doing it just to get our attention (a commodity which we feel he already receives plenty of). We don’t want to ignore a serious warning sign, but we don’t want to over-react, either. How should this kind of situation be handled?

Suicide is the second leading cause of death, after accidents, for American adolescents. Adolescents are vulnerable to suicide because they tend to be impulsive, and because they do not know that the feelings of anguish and despair that they are wrestling with are temporary ones. Fearing that they will be oppressed forever by their despondency, they tend to look for an exit that will provide them with instant relief, not fully understanding the true significance and irreversibility of the suicidal escape route.

Amongst the adolescents that I work with, the most salient predictor of self-destructive action is unresolved family difficulties. Teens who have made suicidal comments or gestures invariably experience their families as deeply conflicted, characterized either by open hostility or barely suppressed contention. Meaningful communication has broken down, having been replaced by constant quarreling, tense silence, or superficial chatter. There is a pervasive feeling of disorganization and contradiction within the family, a state of perpetual crisis that seems never to be ameliorated.

These struggling young adults have usually been sending repeated signals about their disheartened hopelessness to their parents for some time, signals that have been ignored, minimized or incorrectly decoded. Many of my suicidal patients also feel as if their parents’ expectations for them can never be met—their inability to save their parents’ marriage, for example, or to be sparklingly proficient at everything that they do, leave them feeling as if they are abject failures.

You are on the money when you note that not every adolescent who makes a suicidal comment is necessarily lethal, and likely to act on his thoughts. However, even if these comments are an attention-getting mechanism, the question still needs to be asked, “Why would talk of suicide be his way of getting attention?” Usually, this choice suggests that the family is in some serious disrepair, and not functioning well enough to maintain the teen’s sense of value and self-worth.

If your son has expressed these thoughts more than once, you should immediately consult with a mental health professional to see what’s on his mind, to help him to regulate his moods, and to help you to find ways to bolster the family so that it more effectively supports and maintains his well-being.     [back to questions]