Monday, October 15, 2012

'Don't Question a Teen with an MBA!' Guest Article by Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D.

This is the fourth guest article in a series from parenting expert Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D. This article is based on his latest book Surviving Your Adolescents. He is also known for the popular 1-2-3 Magic series.

Don’t Question a Teen with an MBA!
by Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D.

It’s very difficult to think about a teenager objectively. After all, teens can be weird, inconsistent, argumentative, uncooperative and distant. Is my child just being a “normal” teenager or are there big problems that I need to do something about? Take a moment to get a better perspective on your adolescent. It’s all too easy to focus so much on one or two aggravating issues that you lose your perspective on your child.

All Teens Have Their MBAs!

How serious are the different types of problems your adolescents come up with? If you stop to think about it, not all problems are created equal.

Many things that adolescents do—or don’t do—fall into the “MBA” category. That means they are “Minor But Aggravating.” It’s very important for parents to keep in mind that their level of aggravation about a problem is not always a measure of the seriousness of that problem. Just because you get ferociously angry about something, in other words, doesn’t mean it is a sign of a major character flaw, mental illness or sociopathic tendencies in your offspring. It may be just one irritating part of normal adolescence.

What kinds of problems fall into the MBA category? One of the best examples is the use of the phone. Do you know that long, pointless and apparently stupid conversations between teenagers over the phone are normal and healthy? Endless dialogues are what kids are supposed to be doing at this age!

The phone rings and your 16-year-old daughter dives for it. The following conversation ensues:
“Hi. What are you doing?”
“Nothing. What are you doing?”
Two hours later not much more of significance is being discussed, but everything’s still cool. You, however, are not cool. You begin fuming, thinking about your phone bill, and about how your daughter could better spend her time doing extra-credit work for biology.

Relax. Conversations like this are good for kids. They are making contact with each other. They are learning how to handle relationships. These connections are good for their self-esteem. Would you rather they weren’t talking to anyone?

If you’re concerned about the phone bill, make a deal that the kids pay for any charges over a certain amount per month. Otherwise, leave them alone or don’t listen.

Another MBA-type “problem” has to do with dress and appearance. This issue involves clothing, hair, earrings and other attachments to the body. It’s not reasonable to expect your teens to want to dress like you. Remember, part of their thinking is that they often want to look as different from you as possible.

One solution to the appearance problem: the kids can wear anything that the school will let them in the door with. Of course, schools’ criteria are not too strict these days, but this policy does offer some control.

Another MBA? That messy room. What a pit! Your stomach writhes in agony every time you look at it. Do you know that there are no studies that prove that teens with messy rooms grow up to be homeless persons, schizophrenics, or have a higher divorce rate than the rest of the population?

What’s the solution? It may be to close the door and don’t look. Or leave the door open and close your eyes as you go past. A sloppy bedroom is aggravating, but it isn’t really a major problem or a sure indicator of deep psychological trouble. Also, be realistic. If all the nagging and arguing and lecturing you’ve done over the years hasn’t convinced your 17-year-old son to clean his room regularly, he isn’t going to start now no matter what you do. We respectfully suggest that you have lost the battle. It’s not the end of the world, and you don’t want arguing about a messy room to be the end of your relationship.

If you already have your own rules about the MBAs we just discussed, and your rules are working just fine, pay no attention to the advice here. What does “working just fine” mean? Two things. First, the rules are not unreasonably restrictive. Second, the rules do not result in a lot of nagging, arguing or lecturing.

Other MBAs

Here are some other probable Minor-But-Aggravating issues that you might consider staying away from:
Musical preferences Eating habits
Grammar Use of allowance
Not going on family outings Using your things
Intermittent negative attitude Forgetfulness with chores
Certainly these problems can all be aggravating—in fact, very aggravating—but they should not necessarily be taken as indications that your child is emotionally disturbed. Remember this cardinal rule for parents of adolescents—especially as the kids get older: never open your mouth unless you have a very good reason.

On the list of other possible MBAs are things like arguing, bedtime, swearing and bumming around town. These items may or may not be serious, depending on your situation. They are usually less serious the more competent your teenager is, the better your relationship with the child is, and the better you are doing yourself.

By the way, can you guess which two problems bug parents the most? Not drugs and drinking, not even smoking. In our surveys the “winners” are consistently arguing and sibling rivalry. This fact does not, of course, mean they are the most serious—simply the most frequently infuriating.

What Are Not MBAs?

Adolescence is difficult enough for kids and their parents, but sometimes certain psychological problems—which are definitely not MBAs—are added to the picture. These can cause intense suffering for adolescents as well as their parents. Parents should not try to manage these difficulties on their own; professional evaluation and counseling are usually essential. These more serious, non-MBA problems include the following:

Anxiety Disorders: some children are biologically predisposed to have excessive fears. These anxieties can relate to social situations, separation, obsessive thoughts and life in general.

Depression: true clinical depression involves a consistently gloomy view of life and, in adolescents, persistent irritability. It lowers self-esteem, takes the joy out of things, and is often accompanied by appetite and sleeping disturbances, social withdrawal and underachievement.

Attention Deficit Disorder: definitely the most common childhood and adolescent problem. The poor concentration skills and frequent intense temperaments of these children can affect all areas of their lives—at school, at home, and with peers.

Conduct Disorder: perhaps a euphemism for what used to be called “juvenile delinquency.” CD kids are defiant, abuse the rights of others, and prematurely act out in areas such as sex, drugs, stealing and fighting. These children blame everyone else for their problems.

Eating Disorders: anorexic girls refuse to maintain a normal body weight and have very distorted images of their own bodies, seeing fat where none exists. Bulimics can maintain a normal weight but often engage in binge-purge routines that jeopardize their physical health and trigger intense shame.

Alcohol and Drug Abuse: it is common for teens to experiment with alcohol and marijuana. Some, however, overuse these substances or use them in combination on a regular basis. A major problem exists when the drug use becomes a central life activity for the adolescent, especially when this use interferes with school, social, work and family life.

Divorce-Related Problems: kids are resilient, but recent evidence suggests that parents’ divorce can be especially traumatic for some children. When remarriages are involved, adolescents are harder to merge into the “blended family,” sometimes causing extreme stress on second marriages.

Sexual Abuse: estimates of the percentage of girls who have been sexually abused vary widely, but there is no doubt the number is high. The effects on a child can range from precocious sexual activity to chronic guilt, poor interpersonal relationships and low self-esteem.

Worrisome and irritating adolescent behaviors are not all the same. Take a moment to reflect. Perhaps you’ve been having fits about some relatively minor things. On the other hand, perhaps you’ve been ignoring a problem with which you and your child need professional assistance.

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Adapted from Surviving Your Adolescents: How to Manage & Let Go Of Your 13-18 Year Olds, 3rd Edition by Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D. © 2012 (available both as a book & an audiobook). Nationally recognized as an expert on child discipline and Attention Deficit Disorder, Dr. Phelan has practiced for over 25 years and he appears frequently on radio and TV. Over 1,300,000 copies of 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 books, videos and audiobooks have been sold (Spanish versions are also available). Visit your local bookstore for Surviving Your Adolescents, 1-2-3 Magic or any of Dr. Phelan’s other books, or call toll-free 1-800-442-4453 or visit

Dr. Thomas W. Phelan is an internationally renowned expert and lecturer on child discipline and Attention Deficit Disorder. He appears frequently on radio and TV, including regular appearances on "Fox News in the Morning" on WFLD-TV in Chicago. He has been quoted in numerous publications, including Parents Magazine, Reader's Digest, Today's Parent, Ladies Home Journal, and The Wall Street Journal.

A registered Ph.D. clinical psychologist in private practice since 1972, Dr. Phelan has produced many video, book and audio titles for parents and teachers

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