- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

Working with teenagers, I am very aware of their capacity for rapid learning and how strongly emotions affect them.

I also know a lot of educators and parents feel frustrated by this age group. Teens seem to be able to sleep forever, eat half the refrigerator at a sitting, balk at the simplest request and turn any molehill into a mountain. Yet the same individual will do Herculean tasks if inspired, learn multiple skills in short periods and converse with passion on topics of personal importance.

A crucial task for parents is helping teens navigate these turbulent years when neural development and physical growth are happening daily, and when emotions often are intense.

Keep in mind that between the ages of 10 and 21, enormous physical changes are taking place in the young person’s body and mind, and much of the growth has to happen during sleep. Your teen probably needs nine hours of sleep a night, at least. The longer sleeping time allows their body to do its job, so they are then able to focus on the other tasks of the day.

Nutrition is a serious issue for the growing body. The child isn’t being greedy — he or she actually needs more protein, carbohydrates and fats to supply the materials for growth. Making sure there are plenty of good and healthful foods available lets them get the nutrients they need without the excess fat, salt and sugar of processed snacks.

If you’re worried about paying for the extra groceries, engage your kids in ways to keep food costs low. Because they are extra hungry, they have an incentive to learn to cook. Work with them to impart basic culinary skills, and invest in some inspiring cookbooks. Teach them to keep costs low by using inexpensive (and healthier) raw materials: dried beans, ground turkey and tomatoes make a great chili, and eggs, cheese and vegetables can become a delicious quiche or omelet.

Teens also benefit from hearty doses of hard work — and to be honest, we adults need it as well. Rather than building muscles artificially, kids can develop good skeletal and muscular strength through regular physical exertion that has a recognizable purpose. Mowing the lawn, chopping wood, carpentry, housecleaning, carrying heavy boxes and packages, moving furniture, or painting walls are good ways to build strength naturally. Exertion seems to chase away troubles and give young people a strong sense of their own abilities and accomplishments.

To help teens deal with the inner emotional life, there are a few tools parents may want to access. Books like “The Power of Positive Thinking” by Norman Vincent Peale or “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie help both parents and children to recognize ways to overcome emotional traps.

Teach your child to scrutinize and choose music with positive images and messages. The teen brain is enormously moved by music, so songs with depressive or violent or belligerent messages actually may influence the child’s thinking to align with those attitudes. Listen to their music, and help them analyze the underlying words and look at meaning. This is a vital bit of “housecleaning” that will help the child decide what emotional atmosphere he or she wishes to attract and keep within.

Finally, parents, it is vital to honor, respect and thank our children throughout the day. We must ruthlessly weed out any tendency for repetitive criticism or negative characterization of our child. Words have power. A parent wields so much emotional power over a child’s development, whether that parent recognizes it or not.

If we want our children to be great, we have to find their budding greatness and acknowledge it. Notice their efforts, and praise their deeds. Your affirming words help them see their own value, and help them to do the same for others. Positive words don’t cost money, but they are an investment just the same.

Last and most important: Have fun. All of us want a life that is happy, and we can teach our teens that happiness is a way of life. By enjoying and celebrating each other, by finding humor in the moment, by being grateful no matter what, we can make every day a treasure.

Teens learn from the model they see lived, and we can help them most effectively when we choose to live as we want them to live. Let’s use these precious few years as a time to build a deep and lasting relationship with them, and give them the very best of our time, our wisdom and our love.

Kate Tsubata is a freelance writer and home-schooler who lives in Maryland.

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