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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 today.”

“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 reviewed 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 sometimes 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 willpower 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 simplest 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 narrative. 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 responsibility 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.


Baytown Student Highlight— Brian “Beard” Burnham

What is your name and age?
Brian Burnham, 29

When did you join Elite MMA?
December of 2014

Why did you decide to start taking martial arts?
I was always interested in martial arts and took Tae Kwon Do as a kid. As an adult, I became interested in Jiu Jitsu after watching a UFC event and becoming obsessed with MMA.

In the past what had caused you not to take martial arts?
Fear of the unknown and fear of being exposed for being frightfully out of shape and uncoordinated.

Is this your first time taking martial arts and what classes do you take?
Besides a little Tae Kwon Do as a child, this is my first time taking martial arts classes. I attend the adult Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class, as well as the Advanced and Endurance Jiu Jitsu classes.

If you had any concerns about joining Elite MMA, what helped you with your decision?
My good friend, Clint Russell, eventually convinced me to take the leap and come try a class. Once there, our awesome coaches (Robert Yamashita and Julian Vega) and training partners made sure I was taken care of, felt comfortable, and showed me the ropes.

Since you have been part of Elite, please share what you have been able to accomplish?
I have lost around 90 pounds since I started at Elite MMA and I have gained a huge extended family from all 4 Elite MMA schools around Houston. I have competed in numerous competitions and recently won my first IBJJF Gold Medal as a blue belt.

Anything else you want to share with someone who is looking to get involved with martial arts or looking to change their current lifestyle?
Just do it. You don't need to be in shape to start training and it is never to late to change your life for the better. 


Westheimer Instructor Highlight: Pat Swan


Pat Swan is responsible for the Boxing curriculum at our academy. After winning several Toughman Contests and the Houston Golden Gloves, Pat went on to become a world ranked Professional Boxer in the super middleweight division. Pat has had 35 Professional bouts and has fought all over the world against the best competition including 5 world champions and multiple top 10 contenders. Pat went on to attain a 16-5-3 (12 of his wins are by knockout!) record as a Professional Boxer.

Pat has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Physical Education and coaching (K-12) and is a full time Physical Education teacher in the Katy school district. His position as a Physical Education teacher and his vast experience in the ring have given him the necessary tools to help his boxing students excel. 

What is your martial arts teaching history and where do you currently teach?

I teach Boxing at Elite MMA.

What is your rank in martial arts?

I was a world ranked professional boxer.

What caused you to start practicing martial arts?

I always enjoyed competing in sports so wrestling, martial arts and boxing were just another way to do that.

What is your educational background?

I have a Bachelor's degree from the University of Northern Iowa in Physical Education.

Do you have a competitive history in martial arts?

I was a two time Toughman Competition Champion and I was the Houston Golden Gloves champion. I was a world ranked professional boxer and fought for several titles.

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

Self confidence!

What is your favorite part about practicing martial arts?

I enjoy seeing my students learn and grow.

Where do you hope martial arts will take you later in your life?

I just hope I have the privilege to continue to teach boxing for many years to come!

Good Reasons to Take Vitamin Supplements

Many people think that consuming well balanced diet gives all the vitamins and proteins required for a good health. In normal circumstances, yes this is the case, but in fact there are several reasons why you should have vitamin and nutritional supplements to cope with living today. Consuming vitamin supplements when necessary is a good technique of optimizing your dietary sources of nutrients, providing you follow proper instructions on the product labels.

Following are some of the circumstances when you may require supplements:

1. Poor Digestion

Even when you intake good food, incompetent digestion could restrict your body’s uptake of vitamins. Some ordinary causes of incompetent digestion are not chewing healthy enough and eating very fast. Both of these result in larger than usual food element size, too large to permit full action of digestive enzymes. Many people with dentures are not capable to chew as powerfully as those with a full set of real teeth.

2. Alcohol

Consuming too much of alcohol can damage the liver and pancreas that are vital to digestion and metabolism. It could as well damage the lining of the intestinal area and could have other adverse effects on the absorption of nutrients, cause to sub-clinical malnutrition. Alcohol effects accessibility, incorporation and metabolism of nutrients. Regular use of alcohol increases the body’s requirements for the B-group vitamins, chiefly thiamine, niacin, pyridoxine, folic acid and vitamins B12, A and C plus the minerals zinc, magnesium and calcium.

3. Diet

Many diets miss out on complete groups of foods could be gravely lacking in vitamins. Even the accepted low fat diets, if taken to an extreme, could be lacking in vitamins A, D and E. Vegetarian diets that could keep out meat and other animal sources, have to be very dexterously planned to avoid vitamin B12 deficiency that may further lead to anemia.

4. Antibiotics

Some antibiotics even though effective in fighting infection, kill off friendly bacteria in the gut that would usually be producing B-group vitamins to be engrossed through the intestinal walls. Such deficiencies could result in a variety of nervous conditions, so it might be sensible to use supplement with B-group vitamins when on a lengthy course of broad range antibiotics.

Call Ashley at Zoetic Compounding Pharmacy for more information on how to restore your overworked adrenals.

Ashley Nguyen, PharmD  

Zoetic Compounding Pharmacy


Ashley has been a student at Elite MMA since 2005.  She is currently a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.  She founded Girls in Gi’s in 2009, which was a project she took on to empower and enroll women mentally and physically and by using BJJ as the platform for that. She is also a wife, mother, and a pharmacist that loves helping people to feel better, perform better, or just feel as normal as possible.

Greenway Student Highlight— Hunter Beilue

What is your name and age?

John Hunter Beilue, 35 years young. 

When did you join Elite MMA?

I finally looked this up. First joined in 2005, took hiatus when Kicksport (a satellite gym in Greenway Plaza) closed, and then re-joined in 2007 after graduate school was over. Left to chase a job in 2009; came back. Left again to get married in 2011; came back again in 2013. Sooo…I guess pick an average and go with that. 

Why did you decide to start taking martial arts?

I had always wanted to take some form of martial art starting in elementary school when several of my friends began their first Tae Kwon Do classes. This is Texas, so of course I thought I had to go and play football and only football and I never set aside the time to train when I was growing up. After being put out of football my senior year in high school by the last in a long series of concussions, I had to look for other things to do in college. Kinda sucks when you’ve got a letter from Ohio State and another from Notre Dame saying they wanted linebackers, but sometimes those things just aren’t in the cards. Picked the martial arts thing back up in college with Aikido and some light TKD work, but the Aikido is what brought my interest over to grappling. A friend of mine who happened to be the VP of the Aikido Club at A&M showed us an old school video from some backwoods martial arts website (YouTube wasn’t around yet) to illustrate to us the importance of good grappling. In said video, there were these brothers in Brazil that just kept beating everyone from every discipline they could find. They went into dojos, on the beach, in the street, alleyways, in the ring in Rio’s no-holds-barred circuit; anywhere. I asked what it was and the Paul tells me, “Oh, yeah, that’s jiu-jitsu, all the guys in the UFC train that now.” That was probably ~2001. Fast-forward to graduate school, and I’ve got a job and some money to fill my time with something and all I can think of is that video. And now here we are.

Although I’m not sure that answers why…my best explanation to my folks at the time was that if there were people out there that knew this stuff, and it was so effective, I wanted to know it too. 

In the past what had caused you not to take martial arts?

Yikes! Got carried away above. I think this was answered up there but the truth is I never set aside time because it would take time away from football. 

Is this your first time taking martial arts and what classes do you take?

Not the first time taking a martial art. Took Aikido and TKD in college. Classes I’ve taken at Elite MMA are many: Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, Judo back in the day, MMA, Fight Fit, and Cardio Kickboxing.

If you had any concerns about joining Elite MMA, what helped you with your decision?

I had no concerns. The first person I met was Hai, the second Was Eddie. Both made me feel right at home and made the transition back into a martial arts school absolutely seamless. 

Since you have been part of Elite, please share what you have been able to accomplish?

That would take a long time. I’ll put it simply: If you were to talk to anyone that has had dealings with me in the last ten years, be they professional or social acquaintance, they would tell you that martial arts experience has been at the root of my character, and therefore my accomplishment, in that time. Physically, I have lost substantial weight and have kept it off. Never a bad thing. Additionally, both strength and endurance have increased. After several years of CrossFit and competitive weight lifting at a gym that has produced Regionals Games athletes, it has become obvious that the workout regimen at Elite MMA stands up against the most rigorous physical competitions in the world if the student is willing to take it that far.

Anything else you want to share with someone who is looking to get involved with martial arts or looking to change their current lifestyle?

Often, it is prudent to “look before you leap” so to speak. Not the case here. This can be a safe place for those who need safety or a trial for those who seek challenge at any level. Whatever your personal needs, if you are considering a change, you can feel confident starting the conversation here. 


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