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Teen Spirit

Helicopter parenting has crippled American teenagers. Here's how to fix it.
By Dan Griffin

Ian was sitting at his usual place during what his parents had decreed was his nightly homework time. But he had his chair turned away from his open books and calculator, and he was removing the fourth raw hot dog from the package. He gingerly placed it sideways on the family dog Walter's muzzle and commanded him to "walk." Ian got the idea after a liberal sampling of YouTube's stupid pet trick videos.

Ian's mother, Debbie, peeked in on her son and then turned around to stare at her husband. It was a look that said: "Your turn. Get him back to his homework. I've reached my limit to-day."

"Ian, its almost 8, let's get going!" Michael yelled.

Four minutes passed.

"Ian, if you don't get started now, I will not help you with your math."

Ian commenced homework but soon drifted to watching more dumb pet tricks on YouTube.

The key is figuring out how to get kids to tune into their own motivation, and to get the parents to tune out of their motivation to shield their kids from failure and disappointment.

Michael and Debbie had realized early that Ian was extremely bright but that he couldn't often work up to his capabilities. He was disorganized, easily distracted (the stupid pet tricks!), and discouraged by the slightest failure. So they did what many dedicated parents do these days: turn themselves into a rodeo tag team to keep him on track at his competitive Washington, D.C., private school. Every evening, they re-viewed his homework assignments, made a list of priorities, kept track of upcoming tests, reviewed long-term projects, and made plans to get a tutor if the work was confusing. Then the next night, they did it again.

Lately, we have been schooled on the hell that is adolescence, and more specifically, the collateral damage this phase of life inflicts on parents. The recent New York magazine cover story includes several examples of families locked in the kinds of pointless battles I just described. The stories might leave parents who read them with a strong sense of recognition, and also hopelessness. But as a clinical psychologist specializing in family systems, my job is to help parents and kids get past the deadlock. The key, it turns out, is figuring out how to get kids like Ian to tune into their own motivation to get their work done, and to get the parents to tune out of their motivation to shield their kids from failure and disappointment.

"Ian" and his family are recent patients of mine at my private Washington, D.C., practice, and the teenager has the typical profile of many I see. They are often boys, smart but underachieving, possibly with some diagnosis—ADHD, a learning disability, or something on the autistic spectrum. Their parents work diligently to help them succeed: cajoling and pleading and threatening and occasionally employing more intrusive techniques copied from mob debt collectors. The worthy goal of these enormous efforts is to insure that these kids feel good about themselves, and failure to achieve that goal is often equated with failure as a parent. I consider it my job to teach every member of the family to succeed a little less and fail a lot more in the service of a greater goal, developing character. Teaching them to make space for failure is a monumental task and often requires begging on my part.

In my nearly 30 years as a psychologist and family therapist, I've learned that parents can only play one of two possible roles at any given time: cheerleader or Texas high-school football coach. The cheerleader's main goal is to keep the spirits up. As soon as the child is born, he is offered fun activities that are some-times mildly challenging, so long as they leave the glow of "something positive just happened" —stimulating crib toys, managed play dates, rec sports. The cheerleader has learned to "praise the effort, not the outcome" so mom and dad ignore the score and pass out prizes to all. The coach's main job, on the other hand, is to build character. Built into that lesson is an assumption of challenge and possible, eventual failure. The aim is to develop a "character repertoire" that includes will power and the ability to delay gratification and to accept hardship as part of life.

It won't surprise anyone to hear that we live in an era of cheerleaders. Many sociologists and parenting experts have diagnosed (and complained) about this prevalent style. In my experience the approach works well in the younger years; there is something charming about encouraging effort over just winning, about boosting self-esteem. But then in the middle-school years it often all comes crashing down. The kids are wholly unprepared for what they'll face and the parents, stuck in cheerleading mode, wind up like Michael and Debbie, like the parents Jennifer Senior profiles in the New York magazine cover story: desperate to "bring back that loving feeling"—the positive glow and sense of parental gratification.

Over the past decade Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck have conducted six studies of 412 fifth graders, ages 10 through 12, comparing the goals and achievements of children praised for their intelligence with those of youngsters commended for making an effort. "Praising children's intelligence, far from boosting their self-esteem, encourages them to embrace self-defeating behaviors such as worrying about failure and avoiding risks," said Dweck, lead author of the study. Po Bronson warned about the risks of this parenting error in his 2007 story "How Not to Talk to Your Kids." Keep praising middle-school kids who are struggling and their grades might never recover, he writes, because they never learn strategies to deal with failure.

So what can parents do? Unfortunately, it's really hard to motivate parents to shift from cheerleading to coaching mode this late in the game. It's no fun, and it is not rewarding for parent nor child. It is also counterintuitive, particularly for parents who have spent more than a decade helping their child be as happy as possible and avoid pain. It requires parents to be witnesses to minor and possibly major train wrecks: getting F's for missed homework, being sucked into the black hole of online games, discovering marijuana—things that make pet tricks look like harmless fun by comparison. The phase requires parents to tolerate anxiety, self-doubt, and failure, not just in their child but—even harder in some ways—in themselves as parents.

But it's absolutely critical because parents and their kids construct a reality together that at this stage only the parents can undo. As parents, we can get caught in the day-to-day unfolding "story"—the sim-plest sequence of events in our lives. We find places for our child to have fun and succeed. He is happy. We are good parents. We are happy. End of story.

What I try to do is get parents to appreciate some grander "narrative" —a system of stories, related to each other, that extends the single "story," say, a failure to prepare for a test, into a larger evolving nar-rative. Along with David Black, a clinician and research neuropsychologist at the National Institutes of Health, I am developing a program called "Transitions X: Working With Families to Build Autonomy" that includes many such experiments in teaching middle- and high-school parents and their at-risk kids independence. What's hard is getting the parent commandos to commit to an exit strategy of gradual, real troop withdrawal because it feels to them like neglect or even abuse. We want them to evolve from what has been referred to as "Helicopter Parents" to "U-2 Parents": observers instead of combatants—present, attentive, but largely undetected from such a distance.

So let's say Ian spends the night before an exam doing pet tricks instead of studying, but this time, his parents, Michael and Debbie, refrain from the usual exhortations. (This is a true story, names changed) Ian fails the test, and he is demoralized. The next week he does the same thing again and still they don't intervene. This time he's also angry. "This really sucks, and it is your fault!" he yells at his parents. He is called into the dean's office and asked to account for his drop in grades. The dean tells him he has to improve his performance or he'll get placed in a lower math level.

Ian is still angry at his parents for "not caring" about him, but he really doesn't want to get a math demotion. This is the first time it's occurred to him that he might not get into a great college, which is what his parents have been signaling to him is his inevitable fate. It takes a lot of work to get his parents to stick with the program at this point. Michael and Debbie were really worried he would become overwhelmed or even break down. I convinced them that if they intervened now, they would only be delaying a train wreck until the first year of college. Sooner or later, he had to learn what to do when he failed.

Used to being bailed out by his parents, Ian was confused. Eventually he came up with the idea of asking his teacher for help. The teacher was willing to help but only if Ian made the appointments himself and showed up consistently. In these private meetings, Ian learned that his revered double honors math teacher had failed calculus the first time. The teacher was blunt in telling Ian that if he did not take re-sponsibility for his own learning, he should give up on the idea of being a math or science major in college. Ian had been counting on this teacher for a strong recommendation. Once again, his sense of inevitable success was shaken, so he was scared into being responsible. Ian is still showing up for the appointments.

Motivating kids who have reached their teenage years without accruing much intrinsic motivation is a complicated affair. Some adolescents have been shown to dramatically increase their test scores with something as simple as the promise of M&M's. For some kids—the confident ones—cheerleading by laying the compliments on thick spurs them to take on challenges. For the less confident kids, overpraising is disastrous.

Dan Griffin is a clinical psychologist and family therapist in the greater Washington area.

Elite MMA News

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Baytown Assistant Instructor Highlight—Damion Oranday

What is your martial arts teaching history and where do you currently teach?
I teach in Baytown Monday through Thursday kids/teens classes.

What is your current rank in martial arts?
I am a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and a brown belt in Goju Ryu Karate.

What caused you to start practicing martial arts?
Watching UFC. I was inspired that in submission grappling it wasn't necessary to bloody someone's face in order to win the fight.

What is your educational background?
I am currently homeschooled and a sophomore in high school.

Do you have a competitive history in martial arts?
Yes. I compete every chance I can at the highest most competitive level possible.

What do you see is the main benefit the average individual can receive from martial arts?
Great physical fitness.

What is your favorite part about practicing martial arts?
The lifestyle, I enjoy staying in great physical condi-tion, I enjoy training with my family everyday, I also enjoy traveling to compete as much as possible. I love the friends I've made and the amazing bond with my coaches.

Where do you hope martial arts will take you later in your life?
I hope to be a multi-time world champion. I also hope to own and operate a school with my family.

Kingwood Student Highlight—Tracy Lewallen

What is your name and age?
Tracy Lewallen I am 44 years and I work at Harris County Sher-iff's office. I am a patrol Deputy.

When did you join Elite MMA?
3 months ago and I enjoy coming when my schedule permits.

Why did you decide to start taking martial arts?
For fitness and defensive tactics. I like mma, and since Im a la-dy I wanted be able take BJJ for ground tactics against bigger opponents. Since the age of ten I wanted to take karate and never did it, since I'm an officer I thought Jiu-jitsu and Kickbox-ing would be a good skill set.

In the past what had caused you not to take martial arts?
Time and money.

Is this your first time taking martial arts and what classes do you take?
Yes, I currently take jiu-jitsu and Kickboxing

If you had any concerns about joining Elite MMA, what helped you with your decision?
Everyone was helpful and nice. I don't have to worry about what to do because everyone is so sup-portive of my learning. I enjoy the gym.

Since you have been part of Elite, please share what you have been able to accomplish?
Not a lot, but when I was trying to detain a suspect I was able to use what little I know to defend myself on the street with a suspect. After taking him to the ground I was able to use my jiu-jitsu. When he rolled to his back I was able to pass his guard and secure side control and keep him from striking me. Without the knowledge I have gained, I wouldn't have been able to think through that situation with such clarity.

Anything else you want to share with someone who is looking to get in-volved with martial arts or looking to change their current lifestyle?
I think it is a positive activity for anyone who is looking for fitness, defensive tactics, or even a place to build self-esteem. Without the help of my classmates and their patience with me (God bless them!) I wouldn't know what basic things I know, and without that knowledge I could be at a severe disadvantage on the street. My thanks to all.

Westheimer Student Highlight—Cherie Armstrong

What are your name, age, and profession?
Cherie Armstrong – 41 – Commercial Property Manager

When did you join Elite MMA?
October 2010

Why did you decide to start taking martial arts?
Member of a gym for several years and wanted a different method of exercising.

In the past what had caused you not to take martial arts?
Lack of knowledge about it

Is this your first time taking martial arts and what classes do you take?
Yes, Cardio Kick Boxing

If you had any concerns about joining Elite MMA, what helped you with your decision?
Atmosphere and the welcoming staff…priceless

Since you have been part of Elite, please share what you have been able to accomplish?
Overall workout (tight in areas never thought possible) and mental relief by being able to release everyday life's stress

Anything else you want to share with someone who is looking to get involved with martial arts or looking to change their current lifestyle?
I am so addicted to cardio kick boxing as there was a time period I could not make the clas-ses due to a new job, I was truly depressed. Staff members are exceptional; they are truly concerned about you as a person and strive to achieve your goals. I will be a lifetime mem-ber…no doubt.

 

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