Ep. 76 – Dr. Ken Ginsburg – Congrats! You’re Having A Teen!
- Myths about the teen years that cripple our connection with our child
- How to respond to our child in a ‘concerning situation’ versus a ‘hand-on-the-stove situation’
- Parenting with the perspective of family lasting decades beyond the time our children actually live in our home
Dr. Ken Ginsburg wants us all to know that having a teen is just as exciting as having a baby. AND that our adolescents need us as intensely as our toddlers.
In this episode he passionately dispels myths about pre-teens and teens, that compromise our care and connection with our kids.
Dr. Ken GinsburgDr. Ken Ginsburg practices adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and is a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He is also the founding director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, an online and in-person community focused on strengthening and deepening family connections.
On behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Ken has written 5 best-selling parenting books and has just released a 6th book titled, Congrats! - You’re Having A Teen!
As a father to two adult children, Ken is both personally and professionally a well-seasoned advocate for families. He writes about approaching parenting with awe and wonder, saying “Your child’s development will be breathtaking and your unwavering, loving presence will give them the necessary strength that will enable them to thrive through the best and most challenging of times.”
Ep. 76 – Dr. Ken Ginsburg – Congrats! You’re Having A Teen!
Rachel Cram – Ken, it is so good to be with you again.
Dr. Ken Ginsurg – Rachel, it’s a joy to be here with you. It’s a joy to be here.
RC – Last time I talked to you, we were right at the very beginning of the COVID pandemic. And I think you were sitting in this same room. Are you downstairs at your home right now?
KG – I am.
RC – And you had your bird on your shoulder. And I think your wife was living upstairs with your dogs because the two of you were frontline workers and you were trying to social distance so you keep working.
KG – You’ve got a really good memory. Life has returned to normal. The sad news that I do have to tell you is that the bird Poquito is in a cockatiel heaven now.
RC – Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.
KG – So he won’t be joining us today?
RC – Oh, did he make it through the pandemic?
KG – Most of it.
RC – Oh. Well, although we sadly won’t have Poquito here in this interview, I am excited for listeners to learn more about you Ken, and I have an introduction question that for some reason did not ask you last time, in your last episode, and I’m interested to hear how you’ll answer, so here it is, Aristotle stated, “Show me a child at seven and I will show you the adult.” And I’m wondering, Dr. Ken Ginsburg, you’re looking at me very seriously there. I’m wondering, is there an experience from your childhood that you see as formative into the person that you are today?
KG – I’m not sure that I can think of a specific moment. I can tell you when I was five years old, I was protecting two year olds. When I was an adolescent, I was protecting children on the streets. And by protecting, I mean protecting them emotionally and making sure they were heard. So I wouldn’t call that formative, but I would say you could have looked at me growing up and it’s not surprising that I’ve become someone who thinks about children all the time.
RC – That’s really interesting Ken. So, you’ve always had this sensitivity towards people?
KG – Yeah. Actually, when I was 17, I went through a pretty serious depression. And the depression was about being aware of the depth of my sensitivity. It hurts to feel that much. It hurts to think that hard. And when I was 17, I really didn’t like that about myself. On the other hand, it was predictive of a wonderful adulthood, right? Being sensitive and thoughtful and thinking a lot is exactly what makes people good parents and lovers and bosses and colleagues. So, so much of my life has been devoted to helping young people who are full of feelings, not deny those feelings, not to try to get past those feelings, but to learn to use and celebrate those feelings.
RC – Well, this is why I wanted to come to you today because I have a lot of feelings going on. But it’s interesting, when I approached you for this conversation, I came at it a little bit selfishly I think. The topic that I wanted to explore with you is ‘How We Raise Children To Let Them Go.’ And I have been struggling with that. This process of stepping away from control, stepping away from responsibility to a degree, my influence changing has been really disorienting, and when I asked you, you said, “Oh, I have a book that’s just about to come out addressesing this very topic. And so how has that been for you with your daughters? Have you found it disorienting to let them go?
KG – Absolutely. So I have identical girls and when I came home dropping the second one off to college, I couldn’t breathe. I remember getting out of the car and the space between my car and my front door is about 25 feet. And I couldn’t breathe. I needed to stop. I was so winded. So, yes, this was not something that came easily to me. My whole life was about being a dad. My whole life is about being child focused. But I’d like to be able to respond on multiple levels to this topic.
RC – Good. Good. Start wherever you want to. I’m listening and taking notes.
KG – Ok. The first thing that I want to say is raising a child is like having your heart on the outside of your body. You love more than you could ever imagine. You felt more vulnerable than you ever thought was possible, right? And you’re orienting everything towards how can I get it all in during these very few years? And that’s the mistake, Rachel.
In fact, our families last for decades beyond the time that we are actively rearing our children in our houses. And what we actually want to do is strengthen our family so that when our kids learn to be independent, they will choose instead to be interdependent with us. They will choose to continue to have us in their lives. And I have to tell you, my girls are now 27. I see them often. Very often. And now, as adults, we actually can support each other. There is mutual interdependence. Create the kind of family that your children will choose to come back to the nest and you will have decades of an ongoing relationship.
RC – Ok, that, what you’re describing there, is absolutely the kind of relationship that I’m hoping to have with my children, and I love the nuance of switching from independence to interdependence. That feels like the important jump point for this conversation. So when do you believe that kind of flight training, your saying our kids go into flight, when does that flight training start?
KG – I believe it actually begins when your kid is like a toddler, right? Human beings are supposed to learn to handle the world on their own. They’re supposed to learn to walk and to talk and to go to school and to not be easily seduced by people who are trying to harm them. These are all things that people need to learn to become independent.
So when we give kids wind behind their sails, celebrating their growing independence, celebrating that they can handle more and more things as they grow, our kids will learn to see us as supporters of them as individuals. Right. They will want us to continue to give them guidance.
Now, Rachel, you have three older children who have significant others. The question now is, will they want you in their lives or not? If you had parented when they were three years old, five years old, nine years old, 17 year old, telling them who they could hang out with and who they couldn’t, that you should never trust anybody but your mother. That every fight you have with an individual is a disaster. If you do that, your children, by necessity, in order to have a healthy relationship with their new spouses, will need to push you away and make it so that your visits are limited to holidays, so that they can control their lives and control you within their lives.
If, on the other hand, you served growing up as a guide rather than a dictator, as a sounding board rather than a lecturer, when you helped them learn that relationships are amazing and complicated and that the one thing they can always count on is your unconditional support, but not your intrusion into their small decisions, then you will be invited into their lives because you are not in competition with their new spouses.
So, it is the entire approach to parenting. Honoring independence, giving people more freedoms as they can handle them. Serving as a guide rather than a dictator. That’s what sets us up for lifelong interdependence and helps your kid know that “I can be independent, but I choose something better. And I choose to remain connected.”
Musical interlude #1
For highlighted quotes from this conversation with Dr. Ken Ginsburg, follow us on Facebook or Instagram. Find us at family360podcast and DM us with comments or suggestions for further episodes. We would love to connect with you.
RC – So where can we tend to miss that? I’m going to tell you a story that happened with me and I’d love your feedback. I think I know what your feedback is going to be, but I want to hear it from you and know if I’m right.
When I gave birth to my first child a couple days after postpartum hormones hit, and I was very weepy and teary and emotional, and this nurse came to visit me. She was lovely. And she was like, “Why are you crying, dear? Why are you crying?”
And I was loving my son in ways that I never imagined love was possible. Like I just wanted to eat him. Like I just licked him, smelled him. I was overwhelmed with love for him. And I said to her, “I’m crying because one day he’s going to grow up and leave me.” And he’s only three days old, but already I was just like, “I can never let him go. I love him so much.”
And her answer to me was, “That is why the good Lord gives us the teen years.”
And that has come back to me so many times because in my mind I was thinking, “Well, how bad could it be to ever break this incredible bond?
And I think that most parents, fully intend to become, like your saying, ‘interdependent’ with their children, but we all know families, possibly our own with our own parents, where despite the best intentions, it doesn’t work out that way. And eventually parents do become people their kids do only see on holidays or at an arm’s length and that was never what anyone wanted.
So, I think what I’m wanting to know about Ken is, how do we raise our kids so that they want to return to our nest? To visit not to live.
KG – Well, first off, you made a very good guess when you said that I was going to react to your story, because what I’m going to tell you is that that well-meaning nurse actually implanted a toxic message in you at three days of birth. At three days after birth, you were told that your son was going to stop liking you during the teenage years. And that is literally why I wrote the book Congrats You’re Having a teen, is so that people can understand that the teen years are not necessarily a time of storm and stress. They’re not necessarily times of kids pushing us away, but they are complicated years. So I’m not going to pretend that any human relationship is simple, not the one I have with my wife, not any of them. We have to invest hard in working with the relationships that mean the most to us.
RC – I like that as a baseline.
KG – Right. But let’s take these teen years and let’s understand why it is that kids do temporarily push us away. Because I’m not going to deny the roots of why the nurse said that to you. I am going to actively refute the message because the message is poison, because the message is, “During the teen years you won’t like them. You’ll want to let them go.”
The teen years are a time to engage fully, to be guides. A time to really be the rock that your kid can rely on when the rest of the world seems confusing. Your unconditional love, your presence. It’s so highly protective. It’s during the teen years that your knowledge of who your kid really is, all their goodness, all their rightness is exactly their North Star.
RC – So what happens to bring about this stereotype, and the reality, because honestly there are so many days where you like, blaaahh. What brings this relational dissonance?
KG – So, let’s talk about what happens during the teen years. So you have a five year old, a seven year old, and they’re sitting in this warm, fluffy, beautiful nest that you’ve made for them. Right. It’s all feathery. It’s got one or two birds that come and drop off these fat, juicy worms. And your child only has to open their mouth and they eat. Life is good.
And then the brain detects that pubertal changes are about to happen. So the brain changes a little bit before the body. The brain now suddenly says, “I’m going to at some point need to not be in the nest.”
But in order to get ready for that, that little bird looks at the nest and suddenly realizes, “You know, it’s not as fluffy and warm as I thought. It’s actually a little bit prickly. And, you know, these birds, they keep bringing me these fat, juicy worms. I’m actually embarrassed sometimes by the way they breathe.”
And then at the end of the teen years, think right before they’re going to be leaving the house. They look at that nest and they don’t see it as prickly. They see it as absolutely uninhabitable, otherwise they would never fly.
So your nurse is correct that there is a period of time, a temporary period during adolescence, where our kids go through a process of imagining they don’t need us, sometimes being embarrassed by us and wishing we were invisible and sometimes resenting all we do for them. That is a temporary process that is a reflection of how deeply they adore us, how fully they need us, and how completely they want us to continue to be in their lives. But because all of that is so uncomfortable for them, they act temporarily like they’re pushing you away. But just knowing that developmentally makes parents be able to breathe and to cry and say, “So you mean they’re not really rejecting me? It’s that they love me so much it hurts?”
RC – And that changes everything.
KG – Everything.
RC – The other day I was driving with my 16 year old son who’s just got his L. Do you have Ls in the States? It’s a learner’s driving license that you get in Canada and then you drive for a certain amount of time and then you get your N and then you can drive by yourself. So he can only drive with an adult in the car right now. He’s 16. And we were coming up to the stop sign and I was thinking we should be stopping and we weren’t. And then we went a little further and I was thinking we should be slowing down right now and we weren’t slowing down. And so my foot on the passenger side, I couldn’t even help it, it was instinctual, it slammed down on the rug. And he was like, “Mom, chill.”
So many thoughts went through my mind. But I just didn’t say them out loud. But life is filled with moments like that when you’re raising a pre-teen and a teen and you feel sad. You feel hurt. And I think just knowing this is part of them loving me. Oh, it does change everything. But it’s a big thing to get your mind around.
KG – Absolutely, but what your son was saying to you is, “I actually got this. Learn to trust me more.”
RC – But what about in the moments when they don’t?
KG – Yes. So this is the thing I was going to go to next is, you know, when you have a three year old, you let them knock a pile of books over. You let them break the lamp. You let them get muddy. But you don’t let them walk into the street and you don’t let them put their hand on the stove.
So we have these hand-on-the-stove moments where we have to intervene with our kids. So during the adolescent years, you’re going to have to distinguish between what are hand-on-the-stove moments and what are not hand-on-the-stove moments.
If something does not put their lives in danger or their morality at risk, then learning to fail and learning to grow from failure is actually part of development. And being a parent who stays on the sideline as someone who stands by you during difficulties and helps you get back up is exactly where you should be.
But there are hand-on-the-stove moments during adolescence, and on those issues you don’t stay all intellectual, thinking about development. You just save the kids lives. And their learners phase is exactly an example of that right? The learners phase is where you’re not supposed to go, “Well, you know what? I will let him crash into the tree.”
No, you’re supposed to shout when you need to shout. But you’re also supposed to take a deep breath and anticipate and go, “What is it about me being nervous versus this really being a hand-on-the-stove moment?”
And there is nothing that is given to us developmentally as perfect as the driver’s license period where we have to distinguish where they’re able to make mistakes and where you can’t let it happen.
Another example is, are you going to let them make mistakes with peers? You are, because that’s how they’re going to learn how to pick the right partners in life. Whether you’re talking about romantic partners or business partners, they’re going to learn from making mistakes. So that’s not a hand-on-the-stove moment, even though it’s hard to witness.
You know, what a hand on the stove moment is? A bunch of kids beeping on their car outside and you see them holding a bottle of beer and your kids trying to get in the car. Hand-on-the-stove moment. Absolutely, positively not.
RC – Yeah. Yeah. And it’s challenging to put it all together to respond quickly and wisely in those situations. Like my brain just spins and mouth doesn’t work well that fast. Especially when their friends are involved. I just want to say that.
Can we revisit your car scenario Ken?
KG – No problem.
RC – Ok. Say your child wants to go to a party and you, say they’re 16 years old, you’re pretty sure that there’s going to be drinking, possibly drugs at the party. So you don’t want your child to go. How do you address those hand-on-the-stove moments then, in a way that keeps your child moving towards that flying and leaving the nest?
KG – Okay. You know, Rachel, you’re talking about the party brings up a lot of different subjects for me because there are multiple levels at which we can work on this subject. The first is make it clear to your child why you have a concern about the party. If you make it this deeply personal issue, “I don’t like your friends. I don’t trust their parents.”
If you make it personal, your message will be rejected. There’s a ton of research on what messages kids accept from parents and which they don’t. If you make it personal about your likes and dislikes, your message is rejected, period. If, on the other hand, you make it about safety, “I am concerned about this party because blank, blank, blank. I’m concerned about your safety. And my job is to keep you safe.” Kids will actually appreciate that message. So that’s a starting point.
The next point I’d like to make about going to this party is that if we have a different set of rules than all of the other parents in our community, kids feel like freaks. So if your kid is the only one who isn’t allowed to go to a party, for example, without adult supervision, your kids will sneak out behind your house because they feel like freaks. But if we join together with other parents to create kind of a community culture; in this community, if there’s going to be a party, there’s going to be adults present. Then kids will accept that as just the way things are.
RC – I love the idea of that but there are so many nuances of how families evaluate and respond to their kids and what they’re wanting to do. I don’t think it’s possible to cover them all and get consensus.
KG – Right, so let’s stop thinking about these events and instead think about the process. And so the last point I want to make, I write a lot about dealing with peers. We wish we could wrap our kids in downy quilts and just protect them from everything. But it’s not possible and it’s not the way to grow their resilience. We also wish we had kids who would just say to their friends, “I’m sorry, but I am morally, ethically and spiritually opposed to your behavior because it does not match the good values my mommy and daddy taught me.” But that’s never going to happen. So let’s prepare our kids to deal with the real world. The world in which they’re going to want to maintain their values because they have values, because you’ve instilled them in them, but that they don’t want to lose their friends. Meaning we need a face saving maneuver to be able to get out of a situation without losing their friends.
So let’s imagine now you’ve taught your kid about how to be safe at a party. You’re sure that this isn’t a terribly unsafe party, but your kid might have social anxiety. Or your kid on any given party, you never know when you’re going to show up and then suddenly someone is going to bring out drugs. Your kid needs a way out.
So what every family needs is a code word, a way that a child can communicate to the family. “I’m in trouble, and I need to shift the blame to you.”
So you text your mom or your dad and you drop a code word. It might be, you know, “I didn’t get to walk Jojo this afternoon. Please take him out.”
But when you get that from your child, you call or you text back and you demand that they get home. And then they are allowed to go, “Oh, man, I’m having such a good time. But she said to me, I got to go.”
They shift the blame to you, allowing them to maintain their friendships and their values.
With all of that said, most importantly, do not punish them for being in an uncomfortable situation. If you make it so that them reaching out to you ultimately got them into trouble instead of getting them out of trouble, the intervention is lost. If, on the other hand, they learn, “You know, when I’m in trouble, what I’ve learned is my parents get me out of trouble. They keep me safe as long as I continue communicating with them.”
Musical Interlude #2
One of the ways we determine how we continue to put out episodes for family360 is through listener ratings and reviews. If you’re enjoying this podcast, go to the platform of your choice and leave a short review and rate us. We’d love to read what you have to say and regular reviews keep us going.
If you’d like a written transcript of this conversation, find links at family360podcast.com. It’s all there waiting for you.
RC – Love all of that. And speaking of punishments. Can I pick up on that for a little bit with you?
KG – Yeah. Anything.
RC – Okay. Awesome. Can we go right back into them being in the nest where it’s all cozy and safe, before it starts to be prickly? Can you take us through the cozy and safe stage and the prickly stage and the stage where they think, “This nest is no longer inhabitable,” with the topic of punishments? Do we punish in any situation? Are punishments ever helpful?
KG – So the first thing I’m going to say is stop using the language of punishment. You’re already losing if you’re using that language. Begin using the word discipline. Discipline does not mean to punish. It does not mean to control. It means to teach in a loving and supportive way. So the answer is you are always disciplining. You are teaching. But when you punish, the kids will feel as if you’re controlling them or angry at them or don’t like them. And it backfires.
So rather than having punishments, good discipline has consequences, and consequences are situations that occur because you need to teach a lesson and the child needs to learn exactly what happens when the mistake that they were making is not corrected. So you’ve got to think of the circumstance. You’ve got to think about what is the natural consequence and help the child learn from it.
So let me give you an example. If a kid is 15 minutes late from a party and in your head, you’re ready to call the police. You’re ready to send out the helicopters. You’re imagining all sorts of horrible things happening. And then they come home and you’re still running from the tiger. So what do you do? You ground them for two weeks for being 15 minutes late. You’re grounding them had nothing to do with them being late and everything to do with the fact that the only way you’re going to feel safe during those two weeks is if you know where they are.
But now look at it from their point of view. From their point of view, I was 15 minutes late and you’ve ruined my life for two weeks. That is going to make the punishment worse than the crime and therefore, they’ve learned nothing. Nothing except for to resent you.
If, on the other hand, you take a deep breath, hug your kid and listen. Maybe they have a really good reason they’re late. Maybe they were helping a friend. Let them talk. And then all you have to do to discipline is say, “I need you to know what I experienced when you were late.”
RC – Yeah, because they don’t know. They don’t think about that. We didn’t with our parents.
KG – Exactly. I need you to know what I experienced. And I wouldn’t have experienced this if you had only texted me.
RC – Yeah. I think on that note, I think in your new book you have a section called, I’m just looking for it, it’s called, “Brain Science Offers The Foundations For Effective Communication, and in it you explain the difference between cold communication and hot communication. And I found that really helpful. I originally thought cold communication would be the one you don’t want because I was thinking, well it’s cold and frigid and aloof. But it’s the opposite. And I found that terminology really helpful. Can you give a description of being a cold communicator and a hot communicator?
KG – You got it, Rachel. But first you got to let me give you a little science background, okay? So adolescents are emotionally brilliant and their emotional selves develops before their rational selves. And it makes total sense that an adolescent should have their emotional selves develop first. Why? Suddenly you’re attracted to people, they’re attractive to you. Suddenly people are beginning to be intimidated by you and are beginning to challenge you. Which means that a human being, as a matter of survival, needs to know who to trust and who not to trust before they understand algebra.
So it makes total sense that their emotional selves are brilliant before their rational selves. So there is another example of where understanding development helps you reframe it. Suddenly you’re not seeing adolescents as irrational, you’re seeing them as emotionally brilliant, learning how to navigate their lives.
But they are so emotionally brilliant and they don’t yet have the experience and the wisdom that says things like, “This too shall pass. Take a deep breath.” What not. That when their emotional brains are activated, they take complete dominance over their rational brains. And so if a kid is really stimulated emotionally, then they can’t think because they’re feeling too hard. So the question is how do we talk to our kids so that their rational side of their brain is dominant? And that only happens when the emotional side of their brain is relatively quiet.
So hot communication is when we are condescending, when we are angry, even when we’re exuberant, when we’re overjoyed over something they’ve done, then their amygdala or their emotional brains are going, buzzzzz, and they can’t think.
On the other hand, when we use cold communication, which is anything but cold, it’s deeply warm because we’re making kids feel safe. We’re letting them understand that we’re stable, that we’re going to let them figure things out on their own because they’re experts. We’re just here as guides. When we talk in ways that communicate things are going to be okay actually. I trust that. Then and what happens is their emotional brains are quiet and suddenly you have a kid who’s as rational as an adult.
RC – So it’s not necessarily that kids are overly emotional. It may be that adults have not yet learned how to talk to kids in a manner that bring out their best, their rational brain.
KG – You’ve got it. Yeah.
RC – And in your book that’s just coming out, you have over 100 pages just on development, so that parents can understand what’s going on in their kids’ brains and how to talk to kids to bring out their best. The parent’s and the kids.
KG – Yes. So you can understand what’s really going on, so you can apply the skill sets.
RC – And that explanation really explains high school in a totally different way. You think of the amount of times your kids come home. We’re saying, “How did you do on that algebra test?”
You’re looking at their grades. You’re wondering about are they getting their homework done? And they’re wanting to explore how this teacher scares me, how these friends are making me feel not included, how I’m feeling, overwhelmed with all my social responsibilities.
Would you even feel like that is the most important part about schooling for kids? Like is that more important during that formative stage to some degree than the algebra part of it?
KG – To keep me out of trouble can we not force me into which is more important and just let me say they’re both mighty important. I think a really good way of thinking about this, Rachel, for almost any of these questions is, “Who is the 35 year old I’m developing? And what do I need to support now in my 11, 13, 15 or 17 year old to raise a really good 35 year old?
And the 35 year old, you know, it is nice if they know algebra, but it’s utterly vital that they understand relationships. That they understand what they’re worth and how they need to demand people recognizing their worth. How they understand when someone is authentically supportive versus potentially exploitative. They need to understand all of this, and they’re learning this in high school through peer relationships.
RC – Which can be very painful to observe as it unfolds for parents as well. This is what keeps us awake at night, all the supportive versus exploitive situations but jumping in to save them doesn’t help either. And they really don’t want us to. So
KG – Yeah, one of the myths of adolescence is that kids don’t care what adults think about them. They only care about what peers think about them. Study after study shows that that’s not true. But another truth is that their brain has reward centers. When kids are near their peers there are parts of their brain that literally go buzzzz and get all happy. Why? Because this is ultimately how you’re going to get grandchildren. Your kids are supposed to be forming relationships outside of the home and the brain is literally wired to be happy and enthusiastic in the presence of peers. So that is true. But don’t take it to the next step and think to the exclusion of adults, because that is not true. They care most about what we think about them.
RC – Which takes a degree of confidence to be able to keep stepping into a relationship where someone doesn’t really seem to be wanting to be in relationship with us. That takes courage. That takes tenacity to keep going in again and again, believing that desire for connection is there, even though we don’t always see it.
KG – It sure does. But you know, Rachel, you know what else takes courage. Marriage. You know what else takes courage? Going to the workplace and working for a boss who doesn’t always give you the affirmation that you crave. So life takes courage. And let’s remember again, plugging it all in developmentally, kids want us in their lives. And the amazing thing about an adolescent or a human being or a spouse is that the same kid who pushes your way in the morning is cuddling with you at night and coming into your room saying, “Mom, I had a bad day.”
And if you put this on your timeline. “I have some wisdom to impart on your dear child, and I’d like to give it to you at 3:00.” Then you are going to be disappointed.
But if you understand that there are moments when a kid needs to fail on their own, needs to keep things privately and come up with their own solutions. But if you keep the door open, literally and figuratively, the door open to your child coming to you in times of distress, you will find that that kid will use you when they need you the most.
Musical Interlude #3
Thanks for listening to family360 and our conversation with Dr. Ken Ginsburg. There is more to come.
Our next guest is Debbie Reber. Prior to becoming a parent, Debbie spent years building a successful career as a consultant for clients like the Girl Scouts, and the Disney Channel. She produced documentaries, for Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network in LA. She loved her career, and THEN, she gave birth and Debbie’s passion shifted to supporting kids who are “neurodiverse.” Among many avenues of influence, Debbie is now the host of the popular TiLTparenting podcast, and author of differently wired – a parents guide to raising an atypical child with confidence and hope, and an incredible resource for people and families who are finding their footing. Join us for her conversation!
And now back for the conclusion of our conversation with Ken as he talks about how we keep our door open so our kids can come in for help and connection.
RC – I’m interested in how you’re pulling in partners and bosses, I feel like I’m getting a lot of multi-use from this conversation. Can you talk about what it means to keep the door open figuratively? I think I’ve got a handle on what it means to keep it open literally. In your book you write about the need to temper our parental instincts. And I wonder if that’s a bit of what you’re saying here?
KG – Absolutely. A little bit of that is about reactivity, Rachel. If you’re going to be hysterical or break down when something bad happens to your child, they will not tell you what’s going on in their life because they’re not going to want to bring you pain. If they see you as a highly judgmental human being, they are not going to share their turmoil with you, their anxieties with you, their unevenness with you, or the complexities of their thoughts and feelings.
So you are being watched and you’re being watched in terms of judgment. And one of the most important ways that they’re looking at you is how you judge yourself. So when we as human beings are deeply self-compassionate, forgiving of our own unevenness and frailties. Continue to love ourselves despite the fact that we’re messed up in so many ways and that we’ve made so many mistakes and that we’re dropping so many balls because we’re juggling too many. When we allow ourselves to be forgiving of ourselves, not only is it good for us, not only is our kid learning resilience skills from watching us, they are also collecting data. And the data says, “My parent is forgiving of themselves and I’m going to need them now because I need them to be forgiving of me as well.”
RC – As you say that, I’m just thinking, how amazing to be able to step out of what we learn from raising our kids, the not taking things personally. The not judging. The letting people evolve into whoever they are. And to be able to offer that to everybody. That’s what we need. We need to be people like that. And that would be the hope. That’s what I hear you describing.
KG – I believe so emphatically and we have to grow together. And growing together involves knowing that we all are vulnerable. As individuals we are all fragile as the stick that can blow or break in the wind. You join together with one other stick, you become nearly immovable. You join together with a series of sticks and for a reason that has something to do with physics and everything to do with spirituality, we are stronger than the sum of our individual parts. So allow yourself to be human and show who you really are.
If you look like the duck just gliding smoothly on the water, that no matter what happens on the river, you’re still just going to handle it all. You might look good in a photograph, but you’re not going to look real to your kids. If, on the other hand, you show who you really are, which is that you’re a duck that’s floating on the water, but only because your little feet have learned to paddle like crazy. And we show kids, I’m good because I work at it. I’m good because I draw other people in to support me. When we do that, we parent effectively and then we are models of resilience, and then we earn vicarious resilience because in the act of modeling resilience for our children, we actually learn how to care for ourselves. And there’s nothing better you can do for parenting than that.
RC – But what about the times when the duck, isn’t floating well? And the flapping flippers aren’t keeping up? Waiting for resilience can be a long and lonely wait.
KG – Absolutely. You know I spend most of my time teaching professionals, youth serving professionals, how to support kids. And when I give a talk, it might even be an all day talk, I tell them that the point I’m about to make with you is the most important point that I teach. And that is how to have a human being’s back.
We all know how to be supportive to human beings when things are going well, but we don’t know how to be supportive to human beings when things are not going as well.
What happens? The kid comes, it could be your own child coming to you, or it could be them going to a teacher or to me as a doctor and someone says, “Hey, Dr. Ken, I got straight A’s,”
The cheerleader side of me, the side of me that just wants to support the content of what they said, wants to go, “Look at you. I’m so proud of you for getting those straight A’s. You worked so hard. You’re going to have your dreams come true. You know, for all these reasons, that’s why you succeeded.”
And the next time the kid succeeds, they’ll come and they’ll tell me. And the time after that, they’ll come and they’ll tell me. But you know, when they’re not going to come to me is when they’re failing. When they’re depressed. When something bad happened to them and their teacher took it out on them. They’re not going to come to me because their fear is of disappointing me.
So when we as parents, or we as youth serving professionals, receive information and we celebrate the content of what they’re saying, we run the risk of not being there for them when they need us the most, because they have a fear of disappointing. “Gosh, my mom was so proud of me when I got straight A’s. Now that I got a D, now that I got suspended from school, now that I got caught shoplifting, there’s no way I can include her because she won’t be celebrating and she’ll be disappointed. And it’s clear to me that the thing she likes most about me is when I succeed.”
On the other hand, your kid comes to you with good news and you go, “I love always being included in your life. I love hearing your news. I can’t tell you how important it is that I know what’s going on with you.”
So you figure out 15 different ways to celebrate relationship and communication. So you’re happy the communication is happening. You’re happy that it’s rooted in your relationship and you spend less time celebrating the specific content. Then when your kid gets in trouble, they’re going to go, “You know what makes my mom really happy? Me including her in her life. Dang, I need her now.”
RC – Yeah. Oh, that is so powerful. And I have messed up on that so many times. That so makes sense. But it’s so natural to respond to the content because you’re proud of them and happy your child is happy. But responding to the relationship that will take some thinking on my part, but I’m going to pursue this.
KG – It is so powerful, Rachel, and it really makes the biggest difference. As a doctor, it’s nice when kids know I’m proud of them, but I save their lives when they come to me for things that they know I won’t reject them about. And that is infinitely more true for parents than it is for doctors. And we have to remember that. And we also have to remember that when we send the message to kids that what we want is we want them to be well, to thrive. Let’s focus less on the word happy. Because sometimes life isn’t about feeling happy. Sometimes life is about having a sense of purpose. Knowing that you matter to other people. Really caring about something intensely, choosing to repair the world. These are things that matter. And so when we talk to kids, let’s focus less on ‘Your parent wants you to be happy as your parents want you to be your best self.
RC – Well, it’s about thriving. Your parents want you to thrive.
KG – Right. Your parents want you to thrive. Because we don’t want kids to feel bad when they’re not happy. Sometimes being unhappy is exactly what drives our sense of mission to repair the world. So let’s keep that in mind. And while I’m there, can I make one other point?
RC – I would love that. You can make as many points as you want.
KG – So we want high expectations for our kids. Right. And when you just say, ‘have high expectations,’ the first thing that most parents are going to think about is grades or trophies or scores or something like that, right? But actually, the most protective thing in a kid’s life is to be known, to be seen and to be valued for who you are in all of your goodness and all of your complexity. Not based on the behavior that they might be displaying.
We love not just because it’s biological like it was for you when your son was three days old, but we love essentially and most meaningfully so that the human being in front of us knows that they’re worthy of being loved, that all I have to do to be worthy of love is to be me.
RC – Ok, that Ken, could be a great ending right there, but I think we have a bit more time and I’d love to ask you one last question if you’re ok to keep going for a few more minutes?
KG – I’m okay. I’m loving this conversation. It just feels like we’re, like, in my living room having a great conversation.
RC – I’m good. You keep going. I just don’t want. I want to be able to have many more conversations with you. So I don’t want you to hang up and go, “She just drained me,
KG – No, this is. This is Candy. I love this.
RC – Ok. Well then, I want to pick up on the tagline to your book, Congrats You Having A Teen, which is ‘Strengthen Your Family And Raise A Good Person.’ And I think one of the many strengths of your book is that it refutes myths about teenagers. And you’re passionate about proclaiming, wide and far, the truth about teenagers. So, I think as a good closing question I want to know Ken, why do you do that? Why is that is important to you?
KG – Yeah, that’s a really insightful question, you know, we began discussing this when a nurse gave you a mother of a three day old boy, a warning about what it would be like to have an adolescent. It happens on a daily basis when the mother of a ten year old is standing in line and her daughter has her head on her shoulder and the mother of the 15 year old or the community wise lady looks at you and says, get those hugs while you can because they’re not.
RC – They’re not going to last forever. Yeah,
KG – It’s not going to last forever. She may become a monster you don’t recognize. The most fundamental question that parents of adolescents ask as their kid goes into the teen years is, “Do I still matter?”
And not only do you matter, but you probably matter more than at any other age except for 0 to 3. Your role as an ever present guide is critical to your child’s well-being. And there are mythologies about adolescence that push parents away and make them think they don’t matter. So if you believe that kids are inherently risky, that they think they’re invincible, then you are going to protect them from themselves instead of develop them. Well, those are not truths.
Truths are that kids are natural experimenters and they test their limits. And it’s our job to set safe boundaries and to create golden opportunities with those limits With that truth, we engage instead of control.
If you believe that kids don’t like adults and don’t care what parents think, you’re going to just choose not to talk. The truth is, that study after study shows that teenagers care most deeply about what parents think. And as a result, knowing that truth, you will engage fully with your views, your thoughts and your feelings.
If you believe that teenagers can’t be spoken to rationally, that they’re purely emotional, you won’t engage. But if you understand the truth, which is that they’re emotionally brilliant and developing their brilliant selves, then you can use the skill set we talked about earlier to learn to use cold communication to bring out the most thoughtful nature of your teens.
So this book, Congrats You’re Having a Teen is about saying “Let’s really engage. Let’s take advantage of this critical time to shape our future, to never stop loving our kids, to grow into the kind of relationships where we’re going to have good, strong relationship for decades to come long after our kids are in flight.”
But if you believe the myths, you’re not going to do that. So we start with the truths. Then in this book, we give you the developmental background that it will allow you to then implement the skill sets that the whole rest of the book is about.
RC – Ken, clearly you are so passionate about telling the truth about teens and strengthening families. And the long list of endorsements from renowned and respected professionals at the front of your book all speak to the necessity of your message and how brilliantly you deliver that message.
KG – Thank you.
RC – This has been such an important conversation for me. I am so grateful to you. I feel like I am ready to run home right now and just show up differently for my kids. I’m so grateful for you. Thank you so much for this time with me.
KG – It was a joy and an honor. I really, genuinely enjoyed talking to you and your transparency. I love your honesty about the fact that this is hard stuff. I just love talking to you.
KG – Oh well, I will be back for more. Thank you so much.