John Duffy is the author of an excellent book (in the opinion of keenreaders.org) on teens entitled The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens (Viva Editions). He is also a clinical psychologist and certified life coach with a thriving private practice in the Chicago area. Dr. Duffy works with both teens and adults and specializes in helping parents maximize satisfaction and minimize conflict in their relationships with their teenagers. In addition to clinical work, Dr. Duffy also consults with individuals, groups and corporations in a number of areas, including emotional intelligence, stress management, balancing work and family, conflict resolution, goal-setting and the power of thoughts in bringing about change.
Q: How important is reading for building empathy?
A: In my experience, two things happen when teenagers read, either fiction or non-fiction. First, they do learn to empathize with the people they read about, and many teens choose to read about people they feel they can relate to. It’s so healthy for kids to lose themselves in the stories of others for a while. Also, teens often understand themselves ever-more-clearly, and feel better understood themselves, when they read.
Q: You quote 15-year-old Jane, “Now my parents are paying me for grades. Makes me feel like a loser.” What should parents concerned about their children’s school performance do instead and why?
A: Parents need to act as empathic investigators into the psyche of their children. Ask questions that might provide you, and your child, with some insight as to why they might perform the way they do. In effect, listen and you will learn a lot.
Q: You say a parent’s job is not to make teens better people, but to “be available.” Explain?
A: In my opinion, all teens are already good people. But an unconditionally loving, non-judgmental, emotionally available adult can, without question, help kids better understand themselves and their motives for what they choose to do and not do.
Q: If teens bring home an edgy book (sex, harsh language, etc.), how should parents react?
A: The teens may be doing so for a “shock factor,” but if we as parents don’t ask openly, carefully and without judgment, we don’t really know. At the very least, such a book opens the door for parents to talk with their children about the subject matter. I suggest parents read some of the same books as their children to open the door to easy discussion, seamlessly.
Q: When a teen’s grades plummet, you advise parents not to write it off as growing pains, nor to punish him. You say seek help if the teen assures them nothing is wrong but their intuition tells them otherwise.
A: I think we parents have a strong sense of intuition regarding our kids. If we can really listen to ourselves without anxiety, we can follow our instincts with confidence. And we know that when something changes, like a sudden drop in grades, it is no accident and merits our attention.
Q: There are parents who read to their children from a very young age, recognizing it as a valuable bonding activity. And there are those who realize (as their child becomes a preteen or teen) that they neglected to do this, and fear it’s too late. You say “hope for a connection is never lost.” Please advise?
A: Many parents fear that the “ship of connection” has sailed by the time their child reaches a certain age but this does not need to be the case. Read with your children, and you will begin to re-connect. My son, a sophomore in high school, was assigned The Odyssey this past year. We read it aloud together, and not only was his comprehension significantly better than it would have been otherwise, but we had a great time connecting.
Q: You recommend drawing up a contract with teens for expected behavior, and offer some great, photocopy-ready examples. What might such a contract include that involves reading, writing and homework?
A: Add some summer and semester reading, as well as a family writing assignment based on the reading. Family journaling is also a great idea. Parents should do these “assignments” as well, to establish a de facto family book club. (This really works for many families, by the way!)