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Understanding Junior Atheletes

Please answer this short questionnaire before reading this article.

Yes No

[ ] [ ] I frequently interrupt my children when they speak to me.

[ ] [ ] I have a hard time listening to my teenager's arguments.

[ ] [ ] I usually do not deliver what I promise to my children.

[ ] [ ] I "fight" with my spouse in front of my children.

[ ] [ ] My children often complain that my behavior embarrasses them.

[ ] [ ] I think that my children's bad behavior is due to influences outside the family.

[ ] [ ] I believe that children deserve punishment when behaving badly.

[ ] [ ] When correcting my children's behaviors, I usually begin my statements with "Don't.

[ ] [ ] I think that if I praise my children for what they do well, they could become too proud of themselves.

[ ] [ ] Right before matches, I usually tell my children what to do to play well.

[ ] [ ] I think that as long as my children live in my house they should wear clothes that I approve.

[ ] [ ] I think that it is all right to coerce my children to do what is good for them.

[ ] [ ] After matches I tell my children with great detail how they performed.

[ ] [ ] I get extremely nervous when my children are competing.

If you answered yes to a least five of these questions, this may be an indication that your children's athletic journey and yours as a parent are not as enjoyable as it could be. Consequently, your children are not reaching their potential and you and they are feeling frustrated and discouraged.

A Difficult Task. Being the parent of a junior athlete is a difficult task and the following are some of the reasons why:

First, junior athletes go through a period of time full of contradictions and challenges. They want freedom but still do not know how to be totally responsible. They want independence but still need our support and encouragement. They want to be grown-ups but still behave like children. They want to go by themselves to far-away places, but they fear the unknown.

Second, they undergo a period of time full of changes. They are changing rapidly both physically and psychologically; nothing is permanent. They are in a transition period, in a process of becoming a unique individual, and this creates in them a sense of insecurity. This is perhaps the greatest source of anxiety and stress for both them and their parents.

Third, junior athletes usually believe that the most important time in their career is between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. This is the time to begin to consolidate their game--to refine their skills and their style. At the same time, social life also becomes very important. Many junior athletes are also talented in other sports or in playing musical instruments, and they usually continue doing all these activities in addition to their school work. To make things even more complex, this is the period of time when they also start driving their own or their parents' car. Parents are aware of all the many demands faced by their teenage children and become very concerned with their use of time. On the other hand, teenagers are sometimes not very time conscious, particularly when they are talking to a good friend over the phone. Here, we have a source of great conflict between parents and their teenage children, and a lot of misunderstandings.

Fourth, the conflicts and misunderstandings between parents and teenage children are compounded by the disagreements parents experience with each other. Parents usually disagree about ways to discipline and motivate their children--a never ending debate, even among experts.

Obviously, I do not have the answers to all the complexities of being a parent of a junior athlete. The following are some recommendations that may help you in developing your own solutions.

Blaming. Avoid blaming. Blaming is a very common defense mechanism used by parents, as well as children, when difficulties arise. As a result, blaming in itself becomes the source of tremendous emotional confrontations between family members. The end result is guilt, resentment, and passive-aggressive behaviors such as the use of the silent treatment. This impedes the family from functioning constructively, producing instead an environment of hostility and frustration.

Understanding. A better response to difficult situations is understanding. Understanding means listening actively in order to fully appreciate our children's perceptions, feelings, and the rationale for behavior. When we listen actively, we ask clarifying questions, probe, and show a genuine desire to listen in a non-judgmental way. When teenagers perceive that they are constantly criticized, they feel inadequate and incompetent. This diminishes their self-esteem. Fo rexample, a teenager answers the phone in his/her dad's office, takes down the message, and exhibits good telephone skills, but does not task if the call was to be returned at 3:00 P.M. California Time or New York time. As a result, he/she is labeled incompetent. Judgmental parents tend to be global labelers, generalizers of behavior. They label their children as lazy, sloppy, clumsy, dumb, mean, and so on.

Fear. Children of judgmental parents inherit their "thinking style." They acquire a critical inner voice that produces fear. It may be a fear to try anything new, a fear of change, a fear of success or failure, or even a fear to perform daily activities. These children tend to excuse any success they have by saying, "I was just lucky," "my opponent made a mistake," or "anybody could have done that." This kind of self-depreciation is not an accident; it does not materialize out of nowhere. It is a product of past conditioning. The major cause of poor self-esteem is negative programming, a product of negative criticism.

Listening with understanding means being open-minded, aware of the fact that we do not know all the answers to every problem, and that perhaps we can learn from our children. Let your children know that they are worthy, that we are committed, that they can trust us, and that we care. As parents of teenagers, our primary task is to help them construct a sense of personal identity.

Inner Fire. Let your children's inner fire grow. Let your children follow their own dreams, and if they do not have one, be very patient. Encourage and support them for setting their own goals and for making their own decisions; otherwise, sooner or later it will backfire. Positive reinforcements are appropriate, but use them carefully. If we use them too often, disproportionately in relationship to their accomplishments or at the wrong time, the results can be very discouraging. When we use positive reinforcements too often, we take away our children's inner motivation. When we over-reward them for their accomplishments, they learn to expect a lot for little effort. In addition, we diminish the inherent reward that they may find in the sport or activity in which they participate.

The best time to positively reinforce your children is right after they accomplish something very challenging. As a general rule, it is better to reinforce the appropriate behavior or performance, regardless of their results.

Family Rituals. Be aware of your positive family rituals and maintain them. Most families follow rituals that directly influence the emotional state of their members. It is important that all family members be aware of these rituals and make an effort to follow the positive ones--those which bring the family together, allow family members to share personal experiences, and facilitate understanding among them. The key is that you recognize their importance and use them for the benefit of your family. Some families may discover that they need to create new, positive family rituals.

Communication. Use different communication forms to address your family members. There are many different forms of communication: verbal, non-verbal, written, and artistic. Every time we communicate verbally we are also sending non-verbal messages. Research shows that when there is a discrepancy between the verbal and the non-verbal messages we usually believe the non-verbal ones. Some examples of non-verbal messages are: a frown, a sigh of disappointment, a look of sadness or exasperation, foot tapping, arms folded across the chest, a furrowed brow, pursed lips, head shaking, hands on the hips, pointing with the index finger, or an irritated tone of voice. Consequently, be sure that when you communicate with your children you truly believe in what you say, otherwise your non-verbal gestures will betray you. This will jeopardize the trust that your children have in you.

The verbal form of communication is the most commonly used. However, it is not necessarily the most effective. Many children respond better to the written form--notes, letters, and poems. If your children are tired of listening to you, perhaps a written form of communication will be more effective. This form has three important advantages: 1) you can think carefully about what you want to say, eliminating redundancy; 2) it can allow you to communicate thoughts and feelings that may be difficult for you to express orally; 3) and most importantly, you can carefully review its content to be sure that the message is based on love and understanding.

The artistic form of communication allows one to express feelings and emotions symbolically, without rational explanations. For example, pictures, photos, and pieces of music can express an entire message in a powerful and complete way. Tell your children how much you care using artistic means.

Parents who are effective communicators use appropriate communication forms and messages. The right form of communication is one that catches the children's attention. The best messages are those that make them feel that their parents understand them, are committed to helping them achieve their goals, can be trusted, and care about them.

Confidence. Send messages of encouragement and trust. Even messages sent by well-meaning parents can put their teenagers' confidence in jeopardy: "you are too young for that,", "you'll never be able to do that", "if you do that you'll get hurt" "you're not big enough," "you're not strong enough," "you're not smart enough," "you don't have the talent," etc." Another form of diminishment is when parents use their power to force their children to wear clothes and eat foods that they do not like. This abuse of power often causes rebellion.

Make your teenager feel important; stop whatever you are doing and listen to them. Let them know that you want to communicate with them and that you enjoy their presence. Children who have parents who are always too busy and thus tend to neglect and ignore them are in an environment that is just as abusive as those homes where the children are screamed at and beaten. Some parents are neglectful without being aware of it. They may be preoccupied with earning enough to maintain a beautiful home for their children or they may be preoccupied with social responsibilities. Neglect and rejection may also occur when the parents are home but busy with other things. Young people getting no support, encouragement, attention, or positive reinforcement from parents, teachers, or siblings will most likely turn to someone who will provide these reinforcements. That person who is able to provide the needed reinforcement will become a powerful model regardless of his/her moral standards.

Bad Companions. Parents are sometimes worried about their children falling under the influence of bad companions. However bad companions are a serious danger only if the good companions are not available.

Arguments. Let your teenagers argue. During the teenage years your children develop the ability to reason and think with a high level of abstractness. These are the tools for argumentation and they want to use them. They are proud of their new mental ability and they want to practice it. Consequently, teenagers love to argue for no apparent reason. Use reverse psychology; go ahead and argue with them, keeping in mind that this is just a mental exercise. However, argue with them about principles, not about emotional positions. Homework should be done because it is part of the obligations and responsibilities to which a student commits himself or herself. Teenagers may want to argue these principles, and that is fine. What you want to do is leave motivation and personality out of the discussion. By eliminating emotionally charged subjects, we give teenagers the practice they need without upsetting ourselves. In this way, we teach them to differentiate the process of argument from the uses to which it can be put.

Embarrassment. Avoid embarrassing teenagers in public. Because teenagers are caught up with the transformations they are undergoing--in their bodies, in their facial structure, in their feelings and emotions, and in their thinking powers-- they become self-centered. They assume that everyone around them is concerned about the same thing they are concerned with, namely, themselves. They have an imaginary audience. Teenagers feel that they are always on stage and that everyone around them is as aware of and as concerned about their appearance and behavior as they themselves are. Hence they are very self-conscious and often go to extreme lengths to avoid what they are convinced will be mortifying experiences. This explains why teenagers spend hours in the bathroom bathing and combing their hair. When they stand in front of the mirror, teenagers imagine the audience's reaction to their appearance. They are also much more sensitive about public exposure. That is why it is so important for adults who deal with young teenagers to avoid public criticism and ridicule. If we have to correct a teenager about something, it is imperative that we wait until we can speak to him or her alone.

Hypocrisy. Understand your teenager's apparent hypocrisy. Although young people are usually vocal in expressing their ideals, they often fail to carry out the actions that would seem to follow logically from their professed ideals. As a result, young people often seem like hypocrites to adults, who can see considerable discrepancy between the ideals teenagers express and the efforts they are willing to expend to realize those ideals. As parents we need to understand that teenagers have difficulties in recognizing the difference between expressing an ideal and working toward it. Teenagers believe that by expressing a value they are working toward its realization. Our task as parents is to help them to engage in meaningful work or sports in which they can begin to differentiate between the expression of an ideal and the hard work necessary to bring it to fruition.

Wants and needs. Distinguish between what your teenager wants and needs. The first and most basic thing we can do as parents to help young people attain an integrated sense of self and identity is to say "no." A teenage girl who wants to stay out as late as her girlfriends has a want, not a need. Teenagers will fight limits and rules and may say things to the effect that the parent is a bad person, old-fashioned, unfeeling, et cetera, et cetera. But at a deeper level teenagers know that the parent has risked this recrimination out of caring, and they appreciate it. In addition to saying no, we can help our children grow by being persistent. If there is something we do not like, we should say so simply and directly, over and over again.

Concentrate Your Attention. Children become very frustrated by parents who try to advise them on every single aspect of their lives. Eventually, they end up not listening at all--they are overloaded. It is then better to focus our attention on only the most fundamental issues. These fundamental issues vary for each parent, so the following procedure is recommended: 1) make a list of ten aspects that you feel strongly about regarding your role as a parent; 2) rank them in order of importance from one to ten (one being the least important and ten the most important); and 3) concentrate your efforts as a parent on the roles numbered seven to ten, and disregard the other seven. If you focus your attention on these three fundamental roles you will become a more effective parent.

Parenting is perhaps one of the most difficult responsibilities we ever face. It would be ideal if children would come to this world with an operating manual, so we can learn to push the right buttons. I hope this article will help you to make your job a little less difficult.