Facing Down Monsters

Facing Down Monsters

“‘Stories don’t always have happy endings.’

This stopped him. Because they didn’t, did they? That’s one thing the monster had definitely taught him. Stories were wild, wild animals and went off in directions you couldn’t expect.”

~ A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness

 

A Monster Calls is a book and movie that is beautiful and devastating all at once. It is about a 13-year-old boy, Connor, with a mother who is battling cancer. This story is told from Connor’s perspective when he begins to have nightmares about a ‘monster’ visiting him and telling him parable-like stories that make him reconsider all he has been taught. This story, while fictional, paints a perfect picture of what happens when trusted adults cause a negative effect in a serious situation faced by a teen.

 

We attempt to protect teens from pain.

The biggest issue within this story is that no one ever explains to Connor how serious his mother’s illness is, even after she is hospitalized. There are hints at multiple visits to the hospital, her hair loss, scenes of Connor doing chores and making meals, but no one ever tells him what is happening. Why is this? The adults are attempting to protect Connor by keeping him out of the loop. They are wanting him to continue to live his life as if nothing is changing. This is incredibly damaging because it just leaves him confused and worried without knowing why. The ‘monster’ that Connor begins to dream about, helps him to start understanding what is happening in a way that the adults refuse to.

In the story, Connor begins experiencing bullying and becomes angry. His actions are shouting out for help but the adults do not respond. This happens often with our teens. Adults are not always aware of the signs of an emotional disturbance. Very rarely do we ask the victim of bullying why they decided to fight back. Very rarely do we have an opportunity to genuinely ask what is happening at home. Very rarely do teens innately understand how to deal with serious situations on their own. Very rarely do teens have the words to ask for our help. These are situations in which we, as adults, should be asking questions to help teens process their actions and emotions in order for them to begin healing from stressful events.

 

We attempt to say the right things.

As the story is told, Connor’s father attempts to offer words to support him. I say the word ‘attempt’ because what is said hurts Connor in multiple ways. Connor’s father has a second family and lives in another country. When the father meets with Connor, he tells his 13-year-old son, to ‘be strong’. When I first read this part of the story, I was reminded of any time when I had been told this or something similar. These words, while sounding nice, would make me feel angry and hurt. These sentiments come from good intentions but end up causing more harm.

Telling a teen struggling with a ‘monster’ to “be strong”, “it will get better”, or “others have suffered more”, etc., creates a space where teens become more confused by what they are feeling. Teens who are experiencing a difficult time should not have to be strong. We cannot guarantee that things will be better. We should not compare suffering. There are ways to provide support without causing damage. We can do this by simply being there and allowing emotions to be felt in the moment. We can acknowledge that we do not know how a teen is feeling and state, “I am so sorry for what happened.” We can offer to do something specific that they enjoy doing and not make the situation about ourselves. These acts can do more to show support than any others.

 

We should attempt to face down the monsters together.

The positive side of A Monster Calls is when Connor finally understands that this world full of stories that rarely have black and white endings. He understands that the line between good and evil can be blurred, that not all the good guys get to win in the end, and sometimes the bad guys do win. He begins to understand that suffering is a part of his life story.

Teens already face an emotional upheaval almost on a daily basis thanks to the level of brain development that is taking place and an increase in hormones. The thing is, we are all emotional creatures; adults just hide it better. The world can seem overwhelming to a teen. This becomes especially true when that teen is facing a life changing event. When a teen is struggling to face down their monster, they should be given space to get angry, to cry, to be held. They do not know what they need, but we can be there to help them understand how to deal with the ‘monsters’ in their lives. We all have stories that do not have happy endings. We get angry, sad, mad, and there is nothing wrong with that. This is why teens need reassurances to feel what they need to feel because not every story ends happily but every story lived is important.

 

Here is a review from another professional about how this book has helped patients of all ages:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2200270/A-Monster-Calls-The-heartbreaking-childrens-book-cancer-adult-read.html#ixzz57xwvMWq2

Shelbie Fowler is currently a volunteer for Teen Life and has her Masters in Family Studies. She is passionate about being an advocate for family life education in order to grow families stronger.
Navigating Relationships

Navigating Relationships

Talking to teens about love and relationships is awkward. They have questions, they say inappropriate things to test boundaries, they may have more experience than they should, they may witness unhealthy relationships at home, they may not even know what they are feeling. Relationships in the teenage years are difficult, and they need trusted adults to help them navigate how to have a healthy relationship. Teens who have relationships in high school are beginning to build the foundation for which they will base future relationships, so we need to do our best to set them up for success by remembering how emotional teens are and how hard learning to be in a relationship was for all of us.  

 

Adults forget (or suppress) what it was like to be a hormonal teenager.

Let’s face it, hormones are a real struggle. They literally change a teen overnight and daily thereafter. There is a heightened sense of being on an emotional roller coaster, seemingly without end. As adults, we suppress the memories of those out of control feelings and place pressure on teens to feel differently when they begin talking about relationships. Our teenagers are in a constant state of change, and we need to give space for them to feel what they are feeling when they feel something. Teens trust adults who are willing to hear them out and listen to their reasonings for their relationships. We should assist teens in navigating their feelings and help them understand the many aspects that come with being in a healthy relationship.

 

Relationships are hard. No matter the age.

Since I have journeyed into young adulthood, I have found it so incredibly easy to pretend like I know how to have a completely healthy and ‘normal’ relationship. Here’s the thing though: that is so not true. Adults (me included) like to pretend that things are better and perfect, but this lie can be so damaging when talking to teens. Teens are more responsive when they hear that an adult they respect has struggled or still struggles with creating healthy relationships. By admitting that relationships are difficult no matter how old we get, teens are able to make more informed decisions for their own lives. They can learn from our mistakes and our successes. Most of the teens we work with are coming from homes that do not have a model of what a healthy relationship looks like which can lead them to making some risky choices. Trusted adults should be the ones who model what is healthy and then allow teens to ask questions about relationships (with no judgement), no matter how awkward they may be.

 

As adults, I believe it is important to be open and honest about how hard relationships are. Teens feel so out of place as they attempt to define who they are and the best way to support them through figuring out relationships is to simply give them space to ask questions. We can also ask these questions of them:

What do you like about the person you are with?

Do you have boundaries that have been shared?

What are some things you like to do together?

What do you expect out of your relationship?

Shelbie Fowler is currently a volunteer for Teen Life and has her Masters in Family Studies. She is passionate about being an advocate for family life education in order to grow families stronger.
Teaching the Power of ‘No’

Teaching the Power of ‘No’

Two letters in the English language seem to be some of the most difficult for people to say to each other: No.

I have struggled with saying ‘no’, and my friends, family, and the teens I have worked with also struggle with saying ‘no’. Despite the struggle we have all experienced with saying ‘no’, we place high expectations on teenagers to be able to say it when they are being put under pressure in serious situations by their peers. Saying ‘no’ is such a powerful weapon and is a concept that we should be teaching teens through example. 

Why is saying ‘no’ so difficult, even for adults? Here are some reasons that lead to the internal struggle of verbalizing ‘no’. 

 

We are (kind of) brainwashed.

Since being a child, I have been taught that saying ‘no’ is rude. I should not refuse any food at a table even if I know I do not like it. I should not reject a friendship even if I do not enjoy that person. I should never reject a gift, no matter how horrible it is. Then, as a teenager I was told to say ‘no’ to boys, sex, drugs, alcohol, and any other ‘rebellious’ behavior. It felt like a sudden shift from never saying ‘no’ to being forced to say it in situations that are uncomfortable.

As adults, we need to focus on how hard it really is for teenagers to go from the expectation of never refusing anything to refusing those things that they may feel pressured into doing by their peers. Trusted adults should help teens understand when saying ‘no’ is acceptable and how to say it tactfully in those tough situations.

 

Saying ‘no’ once does not mean ‘no’ all the time.

As a teenager and young adult, I always worried that if I said ‘no’ to going out or spending time with friends, those people would never invite me out again, or I would be forgotten. This constant worry of being left out is a concept that can carry over into adulthood if it is not addressed early on. Teenageers have a need to be liked and accepted by their peers which can lead to difficulty navigating negative situations.

Adults should be models of what healthy friendships look like, which often includes saying ‘no’, even when everyone else may be saying ‘yes’. Helping teens understand how to build trust that someone will be there even when they say ‘no’ occasionally is an important aspect of learning how to develop their boundaries. Saying ‘no’ to hanging out is not the end all be all and can actually be really beneficial. Teens need to be reminded that saying ‘no’ does not need to include long excuses or reasons. If a person is truly a friend, they will still be there even when you sometimes say ‘no’.

 

How we can help teens learn the power of ‘no’?

Encourage teens to be assertive when the situation calls for it. This is a difficult concept (even for some adults), so it is crucial that we educate teens on how to be assertive without becoming aggressive. This can start with talking to teens about these topics:

Help teens understand their boundaries. What are they comfortable doing and what makes them uncomfortable?

Ask teens about their priorities or goals. Understanding how their decisions now can affect their futures can be a good incentive to learn to say ‘no’ when it matters.

Teens often have a role model that they admire. Ask them who are their role model is and why. Are they a role model for someone? I know several teens that have talked about how they need to be better because their younger sibling needs them. This can be a great incentive for a teen to learn how to say ‘no’ assertively in any situation.

 

Shelbie Fowler is currently a volunteer for Teen Life and has her Masters in Family Studies. She is passionate about being an advocate for family life education in order to grow families stronger.
Choosing Kind

Choosing Kind

“When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.” – Dr. Wayne W. Dyer

Before the holidays began this year, a new movie called Wonder premiered based on a book of the same title written by R.J. Palacio. This is a story about a middle-school boy named Auggie who has a facial deformity and struggles to learn to trust new friends as he begins his journey in a public school setting. He is bullied, shamed, and loses a bit of his child-like trust on this journey. More importantly though, Wonder reveals through several narrators how one act of kindness by one person can make ripples throughout an entire student population. This story really left me wondering about the way I treated my peers growing up and even now. I have asked myself, “Have I chosen kind over being right?” The answer is not always.

R.J. Palacio wrote this story after her own child had an encounter with a girl with a facial deformity, and her response was to remove her crying toddler and leave. Since that moment, she has felt guilt and anger about her actions. Why? Because she missed out on an opportunity to show her child how to react in kindness. She missed out on a moment to teach her child that just because someone looks different from us, our first response should never be to run away, even though that is often easier. We should choose kindness, even in uncomfortable moments.

The interesting part about how she tells the story of Wonder is that it is based on the children’s perspectives. The adults are shown through the eyes of their children which helps us understand a little more about what is being modeled in their homes. The bully in this story is shown with his parents one time, and that one moment is enough insight for us to see that he has only been told that he is never good enough. We see how a friend’s home life is nothing but a mother who drinks and is never there to support her. This friend ends up lying all the time and distancing herself from what she sees as a ‘perfect family’. These are teaching moments for how quick we are to judge others, to be right, and to justify our actions, but we are often slow to choose kindness.

Wonder does an excellent job of setting up on how our negative reactions can bring another person down. As Auggie struggles to cope with overtly negative interactions, he becomes distant, sad, and disinterested in things he enjoys. The thing that changes him slowly is when one person makes a choice to sit with him at lunch. That’s it. One person showed up and started a ripple effect. I know it may seem like a fantastical set up, that only one person can have an impact, but according to relationship experts, multiple positive interactions with one person can actually make up for negative interactions.

The magical ratio for positive to negative interactions is 5:1 and was originally developed by John Gottman. This ratio means that for every 1 negative interaction, it takes 5 positive interactions to overcome that 1 negative moment. How powerful is it that to overcome one negative comment we need five positive comments to feel better? Our human nature calls for us to need positive interactions on an emotional, physical, and spiritual level in order to thrive. Otherwise we simply struggle to cope as Auggie does in Wonder. I have no doubt that we can all remember a person who has hurt us and never made up for it in some way, those memories are more prominent because we need positivity to continue on. One moment of kindness changes everything within us.

Teenagers are primed to be shown how to be kind, what steps it takes to stand up to for themselves or for others, and the majority want to do what is kind but may be intimidated. Wonder talks about ‘precepts’ and how these are words to live by, they’re kind of like life quotes that reflect a person’s values. I think the easiest step to take in making a decision to be kind is to choose our own precept and then encourage teens to find theirs. R.J. Palacio even wrote a companion book to Wonder all about precepts because she believes it is important enough for everyone to understand how our thoughts speak into our words, and our words are turned into actions.

NPR did a quick interview with R.J. Palacio on her inspiration which I touched on briefly.

This link gives more insight into how the 5:1 ratio can be applied in a classroom like setting.

Shelbie Fowler is currently a volunteer for Teen Life and has her Masters in Family Studies. She is passionate about being an advocate for family life education in order to grow families stronger.
The Dangers of Distracted Parenting

The Dangers of Distracted Parenting

Parenting is often described as one of the best, most stressful jobs that a person can take on in this life.  While becoming a parent may not always be a decision made or something that is planned, it is an incredible responsibility that comes with a new set of rules, never ending questions, and the need to constantly be “on”. So, what happens when parents go from being ‘on’ top of things, to just being ‘on’ their phone maybe a little too often?

The term for this phenomenon is “Distracted Parenting”. You may not have heard this term before, but I am willing to bet you have seen it. At a restaurant, an entire family on their phones, not speaking to each or even making eye contact. At the park when a child is behaving in a way that would likely be corrected if their parent was not on the bench completely immersed in their phone. At a school or church event and that one kid is running out of the door with no adult present and you think, “Where is the adult?!” The situations are too commonplace and have caused concern among pediatricians.

The American Pediatrics Association recently revealed that more children are being treated for severe injuries from playground accidents than in the past. They asked why this is occurring when the playground equipment is actually the safest it’s been in decades. Literally. The answer: Distracted Parenting. Parents were observed at playgrounds where they looked at their phones, talked to each other, and did ‘other things’ more often than they looked at their child. The researchers point out that children pick up on when they can partake in risky behaviors and tend to do so when they perceive that their parent is distracted. Some children take risks even when the parent is paying attention, so I can only imagine what those children do when they realize no one is watching!

Not only is there potential for physical harm when distracted parenting happens, it can also be emotionally damaging if a child or teen feels that their parent is too busy to talk or participate with them. Too often parents are sharing that perfect Instagram pic of their kid going down the slide rather than watching them in real life. Too often parents are more interested in posting about their “family” dinner rather than participating in a conversation at the table.

An article on Psychology Today shares that being distracted as a parent is expected, especially with multiple children in the home or with parents working, however it is the level to which the distraction occurs that matters. Children and teens are not always the most observant people, but they do notice when the important people in their lives are not paying attention and will take advantage by testing what they can get away with, whether it’s jumping from the highest point of a jungle gym, sneaking out at night, or skipping school among other risky behaviors.

This is why I encourage all of us to focus on putting the phone away and have actual conversations with the children, teens, and adults in our lives. Have a conversation with your teen at dinner, play with your child at the playground, watch your child so they don’t run out the door before you can catch them. I promise, no one will care if pics are posted after the fact, but your child will notice if you go down that slide with them in the moment, they will remember the conversations they have with you, and they will remember the times you give them your undivided attention to help them.

If you think you may struggle with being a distracted parent, leader, teacher, or caregiver, think about your habits and ask these questions:

  • When was the last time you played with your child or teen?
  • What was the last conversation you shared as a family?
  • Ask your child(ren) if they feel you are distracted. (Honesty can go a long way in opening up communication. Respond in kind and avoid responding defensively).
  • Think about the last conversation you had with an adult: were they on their phone? Did you make eye contact? Did you feel heard?
  • What makes you feel heard? (The same probably applies to the children and teens in your life. Have an open conversation about what listening looks like in different settings.)

 

Shelbie Fowler is currently an intern for Teen Life while completing her Master’s in Family Studies. She is passionate about being an advocate for family life education in order to grow families stronger.

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