Dr. Adam Cox Practical Advice for Real Families

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Family Matters - September, 2006

Tough Jobs Are the Medicine of Choice for Tough Kids

It seems that almost everybody knows a troubled teenager these days - often within one's own family. Usually these kids have been in trouble more than a few times, sometimes with serious repercussions. Many parents and schools ask me about what to do about them. How should we treat or educate tough, emotionally troubled teenagers? It's a great question and here is my answer: We should immediately make them leaders.

"Are you kidding?," you may ask.
No, I'm not.
"How can these kids lead when they haven't yet learned to follow?"
Well, as it turns out, many troubled teens learn to follow by leading first.
This is because:

Leadership is the antidote to apathy, not a reward for compliance.

For many kids, (boys especially), compliance feels dull and apologetic

What I mean is that the opportunity to lead is an opportunity for status, acknowledgement and confidence. These are the "drugs" of success. Once a teen gets a taste, he or she almost always wants a little more. In essence, what I'm suggesting is that we try to get troubled kids hooked on success - after all, being a leader feels good! If we wait until they have been obedient or compliant enough, we may miss the opportunity to get them "hooked." Thus I'd like to make the radical suggestion that we immediately take our most troubled, difficult, tough kids - and make them leaders. Let's encourage an alliance with adult values rather than opposition. That alliance can only occur if we give these kids a chance to shine, and to feel the thrill of what it's like to have constructive authority.

The idea is somewhat radical because most of us have been raised with the premise that respect is earned. I know I was. Years ago, when I first began working with troubled youth, I did my best to convey this principle - and it fell on deaf ears. I learned I had to make a choice between standing my ground and succeeding with the kids I was trying to help. I chose success, which meant rethinking my therapeutic priorities and approach. The first step was allowing myself to be taught something by these teens - giving them the respect of being my teacher in some important ways.

We all learn best by teaching others. For years, therapists have understood the value of this insight, and have often made older troubled kids mentors for younger troubled kids. When a teenager has to coach a younger child about behavior or self-control, it helps the adolescent learn himself, by putting these important principles into words. When a young person learns to explain the "cause and effect" of a principle, that principle begins to sound more logical and familiar. It takes deeper root in a young person's psyche.

We can probably agree that some kinds of leadership will, by necessity, need to be supervised and structured - no problem. And while common sense dictates that we don't put troubled teens in situations where they can hurt themselves or others, we need to find situations that offer the chance for real performance and authority. When we're called upon to make a leap of faith and put such kids in a leadership position, we have to remember how powerfully motivating it can be for them to have a chance to experience the positive regard and respect of others - without feeling that one has "capitulated."

The key is that all kids need a chance to lead somewhere in their lives. Many have heard the saying, "the world is flat." In my work with kids, I take this to mean that the old days of elitist leadership are over. Today, all kids will be leaders at some time or in some place. In my Mighty Good Kids programs, I insist that kids define where in their respective lives they can and will lead.

There are important social differences in how genders express leadership. Pre-teen and adolescent girls are often pressured by peers to be circumspect about their desire to lead and achieve, and tend to pursue status through social networks. So we need to be aware that being placed in a hierarchical leadership position may have unintended social liabilities for some girls. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't offer troubled girls opportunities to lead others, but it does mean that we need to thoughtfully consider how we intervene, so that leadership feels good and powerful.

Boys, on the other hand, are often reinforced for emulating iconoclasts and rebels. Clinical work has taught me that many boys find "compliance" highly unstimulating, if not downright dull. For strong-willed boys, it can even feel apologetic. These are psychological states inconsistent with the way boys want to feel about themselves. If we try to force- feed the message of compliance, we will surely encounter resistance and closed minds.

Instead, let's catapult these individuals into "tough jobs," positions of leadership where accountability is regularly assessed. I'm not suggesting we turn the welfare of others over to troubled teens, at least not at first. But I am suggesting that we give them meaningful authority and responsibility to generate ideas, set an example, or be of service. The acknowledgement and respect derived from these opportunities are the best performance enhancing drugs our society knows.

What's News

The gender wars continue to rage. The news of late has been filled with contradictory reports about whether there are any real differences between males and females, especially with respect to how their brains work in the classroom. Anyone who has read Boys of Few Words knows my perspective: individual differences may be relatively small, but for many, these differences can make a profound difference in how we learn, relate, and perceive one another. And there are literally piles of research to support the significance of these differences.

Neuroscientists have known for some time that estrogen is associated with the more efficient learning of phonemes, the word sounds that are the building blocks of whole words. This past summer, a team of researchers at McGill University in Montreal found that estrogen is also associated with better working memory (also an important thinking skill when it comes to learning to read). The research team examined post-menopausal women who experienced a reduction in estrogen, and found that those women had decreased working memory as a result. When one considers how crucial working memory is to daily mental functions like multitasking, it becomes clear this is an important finding. It also helps to further define the brain-based differences between the genders - and particularly why boys seem to consistently have less efficient working memory than girls in school. And this also helps to explain why boys are so much more frequently diagnosed with a variety of neurodevelopmental syndromes - ADHD, learning disorders, Asperger's syndrome, behavioral problems - which have a common denominator of poor working memory.

As a society, we simply cannot claim to be serious about helping kids achieve up to their potential until we commit ourselves to viable strategies for building and supporting working memory. (I write about this topic at length in my forthcoming book, No Mind Left Behind.)

Ask Dr. Cox...

Our son is very bright. He is only in kindergarten but he's already reading and his mother and I are thrilled. Here's our concern. He never plays with other kids and when he does there is almost always a conflict. He tells us kids don't like him and he doesn't want them to come over to his house. He could only think of two children (both girls) he wanted to invite to his last birthday! Is he ready for first grade? We're just very concerned that even though he can keep up academically, he's sinking socially. What should we do?

This is a common dilemma with respect to young boys. My recommendation is that when in doubt, kids with significant social deficits should be held back. This is especially true when we can do this early in a child's schooling, when there is minimal chance it will stigmatize him. School is fun not only because one can do the work, but also because one feels like he fits in, including being socially competent. As long as you can work with his teacher to provide academic work that will interest him, I see almost no disadvantages to holding a child in your son's situation back, but numerous pitfalls if he is moved along at a pace faster than he can manage. In kindergarten, as in life, social learning is as important as academics to success.

Also, to help your son, try setting up supervised one- to-one play dates with another child, preferably someone who is in his class. Try to select a child who is compatible with your son in terms of tempo and interests. Provide an opportunity for him to check-in with you at short intervals throughout the play, but continue to redirect him back toward his peer. Sit next to them if necessary, gradually increasing the space between yourself and the two kids.

My daughter has been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and, in addition to her medication, we've been instructed to do behavioral charting. But what about our other two kids? It doesn't seem fair that our middle child be the only one that has to be so closely monitored. Should we try to hide the chart from the other kids?

No, don't hide the chart. Instead, create charts for all three kids. I've yet to meet a child who doesn't benefit from the improved awareness derived by writing goals down, and tracking success under the supervision of a parent. You should design the charts with individual goals, so that your middle child's chart doesn't stand out as the one without "happy stickers." This will help normalize your middle child's emotional difficulties within the family, and create an atmosphere of fairness.

*Incidentally - Behavioral charting works best when done in conjunction with lots of supportive coaching and especially, structured family meetings. These types of meetings are so important to family harmony that I will be devoting a future newsletter to discussing how to coordinate them.

Do you have a question for Dr. Cox? Email it to: Ask Dr. Cox
Please begin your comments with “Question for Dr. Cox.” Your query could be answered in a future issue.

Adam Cox, PhD, ABPP

Along the Way: I want to send a warm hello to the faculty and staff at two schools which I have recently visited to present training programs: The Hudson School in Hoboken, NJ and The Army and Navy Academy in Carlsbad, CA. Although these schools have different philosophies in some respects, they are both highly successful in making a positive difference in the lives of youth. The school spirit on both campuses was palpable, and both schools are fortunate to have academic leaders committed to giving teachers access to relevant, applicable research about how the brain learns. It was a great privilege to be their guest!

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