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'Ask Mike'

Some parents complain that their children just don't listen; others worry that their kids won't open up and talk. In either case, it's not easy.

Parents with these concerns emailed their questions to our family and adolescence counselor, Mike Riera.

Riera answered the following letters:

Dear Mike,
My husband and I are separating after 16 years. Our 15-year-old daughter is unwilling to talk with me about her feelings about it. She opts to talk with friends. Her father has yet to accept that we are leaving, so he has not talked with her about it. She fears that he can't live without us. How should I handle this?

Mike's Response:

Many kids in this situation would do exactly like your daughter, for a number of reasons.

At 15, friends are a teenager's first level of support. Research out of Carnegie-Mellon shows that if you ask a child up until the age of 12 who they would talk to about a problem, they list, in order: parents, teacher, friends. Ask a teenager and the list reverses itself: friends, teacher, parents.

And in a divorce, kids are always conscious of split loyalties - they are often hyper-vigilant about keeping the loyalty even between mom and dad. Since dad is not talking about it and you are, she would feel disloyal to dad to talk with you. She's also worried about dad, and can't talk to you too much about this without feeling guilty.

Finally, research shows that we all deal with grief differently. Some of us talk and emote lots, while others don't say much and work it out through their daily lives. So this may be the way your daughter deals with her grief.

But also understand, once the actual separation occurs she may respond very differently.

One thing I always suggest to parents of teenagers who are divorcing is to offer, but don't insist, in find her a counselor to talk with. A counselor is a safe person who won't affect loyalty to mom or dad.


Dear Mike,

My 13-year-old son will not clean up after himself. He is such a pigpen! We have tried everything from grounding him to helping him straighten up the room. I have even forbid him to have friends over with his room looking like that. We have a new house and he has a great room (but) he has towels, dishes and clothes everywhere. How can we handle this?

Mike's Response:

Seems like we get this question in one form or another every year or so. First, if this is the biggest problem you have with your 13-year-old son, know that you are way ahead of the game!

Also, in this regard, I want to point out that many parents focus on the state of the room because they see it every day, and it feels like it is something they can control. It's almost as if some parents think that if the child's room is clean it'll make them impervious to the more perilous temptations of drugs, alcohol, and sexual experimentation. Trust me, there is no correlation between these behaviors and a clean room.

Second, I think it's important to distinguish between personal and communal spaces in the home. That is, kitchens and living rooms are public spaces, and everyone needs to contribute to their upkeep. Private spaces are another matter, as long as they meet minimum health standards -- and I expect some parents will disagree on this point.

Q: It sounds as though you're saying there's a middle ground here., What should these parents do to find it, amid all the clutter?

I believe in compromise. Sit down with your son and agree on standards that are a compromise for both of you -- cleaner than he would like, messier than you would prefer.

Then come up with a system to monitor this compromise: 'When I see your room crossing the line, I'll leave you a note or tell you. Then you have 24 hours to get your room back in shape. If you don't, then either I'll clean it (most teenagers hate this idea and will clean their room just to avoid you coming upon something that they prefer you not see) or I'll hire somebody to clean the room and take the money out of your allowance.'

But finally, just remember that the room is that private place where every teenager lets down his or her guard, so often it comes to be the physical representation of all that is going on in their heads. That is, it's a bit chaotic.

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