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Kari O'Driscoll and "Happy, Healthy Teens"
An interview with writer Kari O'Driscoll about the power of relationships, when to close your laptop, and why teens cannot, in fact, stop freaking out about stuff.
Kari O’Driscoll is founder of The SELF Project and author of the recent book “Happy, Healthy Teens: Why Focusing on Relationship Works.” She is a single mom whose kids are 19 and 22 years old. I spoke with Kari in February about the power of relationships, when to close your laptop, and why teens cannot, in fact, stop freaking out about stuff. You can listen to my conversation with Kari here.
Tell me about yourself and your work:
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I’m a writer and founder of an organization called the SELF Project, which is focused on helping teens create healthy relationships and understand what that looks like. So I work with parents and educators, and also teens, to develop those social-emotional skills around relationships and healthy boundaries and having difficult conversations and building self-awareness.
I’m the author of an SEL curriculum for middle and high school students, a memoir that came out in 2020, and my most recent book is “Happy Healthy Teens: Why Focusing on Relationship Works.”
In your book, you write about the importance of meeting our teens with compassion and understanding, especially when they’re pushing boundaries or struggling. Can you name some of the things that might make this hard for caregivers or educators to do? In other words, why don’t we already do this?
I think we really struggle with thinking that teens need structure and discipline and time management skills. They need this, they need that — there’s all these things they need to check off. They need service hours, they need extracurricular activities, X amount of courses, but one of the things that we’re not taking into account is the really unique attributes of the adolescent brain.
Because of the way the adolescent brain is developing, our approach to a lot of these kinds of things is actually more detrimental than it is beneficial. So that’s why I wrote this book and founded the SELF Project, so that we could be really intentional and thoughtful about how we work with adolescents and help them understand what’s happening within them.
A lot of us tend to assume that teenagers are little adults in a lot of ways. So some of the demands that we place on them — why can’t you just figure out this time management thing and get all of our stuff taken care of? Why can’t you stop freaking out about this one thing? — their brains are actually not ready to do yet. What we know is that all human beings learn better within the context of relationship, and yet we are not creating those contexts for our young people, but we’re expecting them to learn so many different things within a really short period of time. Logistical things — calculus, physics, Mandarin Chinese — but we also want them to learn how to be in relationship with peers, how to stay in relationship with family members, how to manage your time, how to do your own laundry. We’re asking them to know all of those things or know all of them in really rapid succession, but we’re not creating the conditions in which that's going to happen, because we’re not doing it in relationship — we’re just putting these demands out there.
And we’re not taking into account the way brains process information. We weren’t designed to get up in the morning and, every 55 or 80 minutes, change from one subject to the next all day long and then 12 hours later start doing three and half hours of homework from that class and actually be able to contextualize any of that, because you piled six other subjects on top of that. We have a lot of unrealistic expectations.
What might school look like if all this was taken into account?
To focus less on information, and more on context. So maybe instead of lecturing at you, maybe your homework is to read this thing where you get this information, and then we’re going to spend time in class talking about this. You’re talking about it with your peers — how do I make meaning of this? — and then instead of having 5 or 8 minutes to just physically get from point A to point B, you get to sit and have some daydreaming time built in. I know that doesn’t seem super efficient from a systems perspective, but if I’ve just had a really riveting conversation in my social studies class, I might actually remember this other thing that happened in my English literature class that actually has a lot ot do with that thing were talking bout, and we start to make these connections. Which is exactly what the adolescent brain is designed to do. The more opportunities and time we give them to collaborate and daydream and doodle and have conversations that aren’t really structured, the more creative they can be and they’re going to come up with these amazing ideas.
I envision lots of places where maybe you’re in a classroom with teachers from three different disciplines at the same time and they’re all collaborating. They’re going to talk about social studies, history and literature, and maybe we spend half a day on it and maybe you get to draw about it or write a poem about it, or you can have these conversations where you’re thinking ‘what if.’
The more opportunities and time we give them to collaborate and daydream and doodle and have conversations that aren’t really structured, the more creative they can be and they’re going to come up with these amazing ideas.
Are there any myths you would like to bust about teens, or stereotypes you wish we could move away from when we talk about teens?
One of the ones that I really hate is that people are “so emotional.” They’re so dramatic, there’s so much drama, right? First of all, there’s a physiological reason for that — the amygdala, which is the fight-flight-freeze, is physically swollen to three times its normal size during adolescence. So everything is filtered through the lizard brain that is emotion during those adolescent years, and there’s a reason for that. Because that was when human beings started to leave. And that heightened fight-flight-freeze response was there to make us pay attention.
So adolescents are really primed to take risks. They are designed to take risks, and that’s how they learn. That heightened emotionality is really an important tool to be like, ‘Is this risk really stupid?’ It’s to keep them alive.
So instead of gaslighting our kids or rolling our eyes at them and saying, “Oh my god, would you just get over it already?”, we can help them begin to engage the logical thinking part of their brain so they can figure out which risks are worth it. We, as the adults with the fully formed prefrontal cortex, can help them connect those dots and shepherd them through those emotional times and figure out, how can I start to put myself out there in the world? It’s our job to help them metabolize and contextualize that, and start to engage the other part of their brain.
The other one that frustrates me is when people will say teenagers are lazy. If we look at the amount of energy that is required to navigate all of the things they’re navigating, just logistically, and you pile on top of that the hormonal changes and the physiological brain changes and the physical changes, during adolescence — they actually require way more rest than any of them are getting at all. And also, they require down time to daydream, to goof off. So when people say, ‘My teenager’s lazy, they just want to sleep all weekend’, it’s like, Look at what they’re doing during the week. Look at what we’re asking them to do.
I wonder if sometimes that’s hurt feelings, because we’re not getting what we want out of the relationship with our kid.
Exactly. We have certain expectations that we were brought up with — that voice in our head that’s telling us, When I was your age, my parents expected X Y and Z. So I ask parents to unpack their own stuff — how were you raised, and how much of the way you’re reacting to your kid is about the expectations that were placed on you? And are those realistic? Given the time we’re living in, maybe the socioeconomic status, given who your kid is as an individual human being?
And also, the other thing I ask parents a lot when they start unpacking those things, I will say, OK, how did that affect your relationship with your parents? ‘Well, I didn’t want to be around them.’ OK, and that’s exactly what you’re doing to your kid. So once we start to unpack that stuff and figure it out, if I’m saying that they’re lazy because my feelings are hurt, that’s not going to help our relationship. What if I can say, I know you’re resting, is there a time when we can go get a coffee together or would you be interested in walking the dog with me?
When you’re working, where are your kids?
I’m lucky enough that I have always worked for myself, so I was able to work from home. To be honest, when laptops were invented, that was my favorite thing in the whole world. I could be in the kitchen working while they were making an after-school snack, or they’d be doing their homework while I was working at the kitchen table. So there were a lot of times where I was just in the mix with them, or I would work while they were at school. Sometimes I would bring my laptop to lacrosse practice and sit at the bleachers and work while they were at practice.
My work was visible to them, but also I was really careful, if somebody needed my attention, I would close the laptop and make eye contact with them, when I could. Give me three minutes, let me finish this email, but I made it a practice to always make eye contact with my kids if I was speaking with them.
Compared to the household you grew up in, what’s one thing you’ve chosen to do differently as a parent?
Everything! Really, honestly, for the most part. My parents were baby boomers, and they were very strict. They were very much the ‘children should be seen and not heard.’ My dad was a Marine, so he was like, if you’re not bleeding and your hair’s not on fire, you’re fine. And I think probably the two biggest things were, both of my parents — they divorced when I was 8 years old — both parented primarily from a place of fear. So there was a lot of authoritarianism, ‘we’re going to scare you straight’ kind of stuff. So I made a promise to myself that I was not going to parent my kids out of fear. And I’m not going to say that never happened — there’s times when you react from that place — but I really tried not to do that.
And the other thing my parents didn’t do was see us as discrete human beings. Our behavior reflected on them somehow but our needs and desires and emotions were not important unless they aligned with my parents’. So that’s the other thing I did, was to really listen to my kids and try to understand who they were and what their perspectives were. And believe them when they told me things. My youngest has sensory processing disorder and when she would come to me with these struggles, instead of telling her to suck it up, I made it a point to sit down with her and say, Help me understand. So I believed her.
What’s something you swore you would never do as a parent that you have absolutely done?
I swore I would never have kids who used a pacifier; both of my kids were binkie babies and it saved my life. Both of my children slept in my bed for years, and I loved it.
You just don’t know who your kids are until they start forming their own identity. Teenagers are built to try things on. That’s why their brains are developing the way they’re developing, so they can bump up against the world in a million different ways. I had like the whole goth phase, I also had the big hair band heavy metal phase, which by the way would not have lasted nearly as long as it did if not for my parents hating it and thinking it was Satanic. For teens, that’s their job. And they’re going to make mistakes. But the whole point of adolescence, the most important thing they can do, is develop their identity within this safe container of “I live at home with my parents who love me.” Normalizing this whole idea of “You don’t even know who you are yet, and that’s OK.”
I used to say to my kids all the time, nothing is forever. But as adults, a lot of times, we pretend that the decisions they make right now are going to affect the rest of their life. If you decide you don’t want to play basketball anymore, “You can’t do that, because basketball was going to be your ticket to college.” When my oldest was applying to colleges, she was so nervous, like What if I choose the wrong school? And I was like Guess what, You get to change schools. Nothing is forever. But we somehow set up this false notion for adolescence because it’s do or die time.
What’s the fear there — what do you think parents or educators fear might happen if kids don’t get it right?
We all drank the Kool-aid. There’s the system out there and if you’re gonna be “successful,” you have to do all the things that the system wants you to do. My kids went to Montessori school up through third grade, and they took Spanish literally their whole lives. So my daughter was starting her sophomore year and there was no higher Spanish class. But she was told, you have to take a foreign language. And she was like, I’ve been taking Spanish since I was 5 years old and I’m fluent, so why would I do that? And they’re like, Well, when you apply to college, you have to have four years of a foreign language on your high school transcripts. We went around and around with them. It was the most ridiculous thing. But for the high school, that’s the system.
We’re really good at building systems that center themselves instead of the people they’re supposed to be serving. If you are not a parent of a privileged child, if you are a family of color or a single parent or your kid will be the first generation to go to college, you feel like you’re already at a disadvantage, so you have to run even faster on that treadmill to keep up with everybody else. It is hard, it’s terrifying to think, I might fail my kid if I choose not to play this game.
How did you decide where your kids would go to school?
I was a Montessori kid and I just really loved it. I loved the multi-age classroom, I loved the freedom of being able to have some sort of agency in my own education. The Montessori school where they went only went up through third grade and then they had to transfer to the public school, but the transition was really really hard. Sitting in the same desk all day, not being able to move your body — my kids were bored and restless and frustrated and really chafed at that. So then they ended up going to an independent school in Seattle for fifth through eighth grade and it was much more experiential, really social justice oriented, the class sizes were small, and about 60% of the kids were on scholarship, so it was a really diverse community, right in the historically black part of Seattle. And that was really great for them.
That’s where I actually started developing my SEL curriculum. I was doing a lot of chaperoning and carpool driving and looking at how they were struggling to relate to each other because it was such a diverse group of kids, and during this time when they’re all really socially driven. How can we have difficult conversations with each other? How can we help each other? So that was really fabulous for both of my daughters to have that experience.
Tell me a little bit more about your book and your work:
The book is not huge, but I think it’s really important. If adults that are working with or living with teenagers can even start to ask themselves some of the questions in this book, and begin to shift our focus from discipline and teachable moments to actually building a relationship with young people, I think it can make such an enormous difference for the way that they move out into the world — especially now.
There are so many teenagers and young adults that are struggling right now, because their relationships were really curbed by the pandemic lockdown, and that’s what they are wired to do. The way we create identity is not only by trying things on, but by having our peers mirror back to us. We practice what a healthy relationship looks like with our peers and people we look up to, so the reason I wrote this book is that I really hope parents and coaches and teachers and mentors can start to help shepherd our teenagers through this period of time to help them understand what healthy relationships look like and how beneficial it is to have those when you’re trying to learn who you are.
There’s a lot of shame around parenting teens. If your kid acts out, it feels like, that’s on you.
I do consulting with educators and I run parent support groups with parents of teens — nine-week long parent groups where we talk about all sorts of different things. It’s all on Zoom. The goals are not only to get information, but to bounce ideas off other parents and start to build community, because there’s a lot of shame around parenting teens. If your kid acts out, it feels like, that’s on you. So parents of teens don’t really reach out to each other as much as they could and realize there’s a lot of us that are going through this.
You can find Kari on Twitter at @karilod or on Facebook at @Kariodriscollauthor, and don’t forget, you can listen to this episode as a podcast, too! If you enjoyed this week’s newsletter, consider forwarding it to a friend or sharing it on social media. Your support and feedback mean the world to me.
Think of the Children is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.