"As adolescents move through middle school and high school, some adults expect them to automatically make mature decisions, as if these external events [puberty] magically grant adolescents adult-like thinking skills.  This is a recipe for future conflict; adults become disappointed and teenagers feel misunderstood..."  To read more on the article by Terence & Eileen Houlihan, please click here

Terence Houlihan speaking to high school teachers in Akron, OH, 2013.


"When teens feel like you "get" them, you've "got" them" -Terence Houlihan

-By Terence J. Houlihan

In my conversations with parents of teenagers over the years, I've heard a common (and real) concern: "I feel like I'm losing my daughter/son."  I could do a quick piece on cognitive restructuring and inform parents that they are not losing their child; the relationship is changing and they are no longer parenting a small child.  That is very true, and accepting that reality takes time, but there are some practices adults and parents can put into place immediately if they want to improve their relationships with teens or at least, understand more about them.

One of the greatest sources of frustration in any relationship is the belief that the person to whom we are talking doesn't understand our perspective.  We can explain our position this way or thay way...we may even have another person explain it for us.  Unfortunately, nothing seems to work.  Often times, this is exactly how teens perceive their parents and other adults when it comes to understanding them: they just don't "get" them.  And this may not simply be because the adult lacks empathy; sometimes it is because the teen fails to explain themselves, for fear that they will be judged.  But there may be another underlying reason.

Research shows that most of our communication takes place in the context of tone and body language: it is not so much what we say but how we say it.  Our facial expressions can speak volumes.  When it comes to trying to communicate with teens, things become even more complex. Neuroscientists like Dr. Yurgelun-Todd of the University of Utah found that teens use a different part of their brain when reading facial expressions.  While conducting research at Harvard in 2006, Yurgelun-Todd discovered that teens identified facial expressions quite differently than adults.  So, while adults may read a facial expression as fear, teens may see anger.  In the context of a conversation, while a parent or teacher is trying to communicate disappointment to an adolescent, that teenager may react quite defensively.  Add in the fact that teens experience emotions 2-3 times greater than adults...you can see where I'm going with this.

Whenever I work with parents, counselors and teachers, I stress the importance of trying to remove judgement from any conversation with adolescents. Although we may not judge them with our words, our faces may say something else; so it is crucial to be mindful of whether our eyebrow is up or we shake our head in disapproval. Even with all of this, they may be misreading us, so I invite adults to following up their comments with, "do you understand what I'm saying?" or it may be more beneficial to ask that 14 year-old if they could sum up what you just said to them.  

This is no easy task, especially when what you're hearing might be very upsetting, but if we want to hear more from our teens, learn more from them and understand more about them, we have to let them know we are interested.  And this learning is rarely on our terms: teens will open up when they are ready...maybe at 11:30 pm on a Monday night after an exhausting day.

When teens feel heard and are understood, free of judgement, they will feel like you get them...and then you've got them.  I now begin most of my presentations with this simple quote.



'Twas the Night Before They Returned to School

-by Terence J. Houlihan


"'Twas the night before school after Christmas, and all through the house

No one was sleeping, not me, neither the kids, nor my spouse                  

We told the kids to finish all their homework, get ready for school and be early to bed       

But during the break, they stayed up too late, so tonight they're awake & filled with dread."


If you have school-aged children, I'm sure you've realized that the night before returning to school after a long break can be filled with dread for them.  Actually, most parents dread that night as well.  It's filled with last-minute projects, assignments, disappointment, resentment, etc.  It creates anxiety.  Over the years, I've come to realize (through hundreds of conversations with parents and teens) that one of the most difficult aspects to this dreaded night is the sleeping, or lack thereof.  And this inability to sleep can also add to the anxiety.

If normal bedtime for kids is 10:30 pm on a school night, on this particular night, not only are they not ready to go bed (because it means that it's back to school) they're just not tired...and they probably won't be tired for a long time.

Part of the sleep issue on these nights is definitely connected to the anxiety associated with returning to school, but much of it has to do with an out-of-whack sleep schedule.  For a week and a half, if children are staying up until 1 or 2 am and not waking up until 10:30 or 11 am, they're certainly not going to be ready for sleep at 10:30 pm. Research shows that it can take anywhere from 3-5 days to reset your sleep clock, so consider having your kids go to bed and wake up earlier 3 days in advance.  You can adjust it one hour or so each night so that by the time you arrive at Sunday evening, they just might be tired enough to head off to bed at their regular school night sleep time.

This certainly is not a cure all for the dread associated with returning to school, but not having to toss and turn the night before can certainly make the transition a lot easier.  For more information about the importance of sleep please visit the National Sleep Foundation's website here.


School Connectedness

-by Terence J. Houlihan, MS Ed, CRS

In my role as a school counselor, one of the most common expressions I heard from adolescents and children was, “The teacher hates me.”  Initially, my instinct was to de-escalate the emotional response and attempt to have the student logically analyze how they came to that belief.

Sometimes, they would see that they misinterpreted something from the teacher, other times, they were probably just projecting their own dislike for the teacher, and others, they just couldn’t get past a “look” they saw on the teacher’s face.

In 2004, the CDC reported that “students who feel connected to their school are … more likely to have better academic achievement…”  One of the influencing factors on whether or not a student feels connected to their school lies in their relationships with the adults in the school building.  Students typically report that the way they are greeted when the first enter a classroom is indicative of a positive relationship with a teacher.  In fact, children and adolescents will claim that they perform better in a class if they think a teacher likes them.

If you’re raising an eyebrow to this, think about your own experiences in working for a supervisor: chances are the more you felt they liked you, the better you performed.

What is crucial for educators to understand is that children and adolescents do not use the same part of their brain (as adults do) to read facial expressions.  Without going into a long discussion on the nature of adolescent brain development, scientists were able to identify that while reading facial expressions, adults use the more mature, logical part of the brain referred to as the pre-frontal cortex, but adolescents and children use their unrefined, emotionally responsive limbic system.  Research shows that time after time, children and teenagers interpret a facial expression of anger on the faces of the adults who were intending to show disappointment or shock.  This could help to explain why situations in the classroom can quickly escalate without the teacher saying a word.

So, when focusing on classroom management or building school connectedness, the adults in a school need to be conscious of what they’re saying with their bodies and faces, or better yet, they could probably put words into their expressions.  Rather than looking “disappointed,” it is better to verbally tell the student just that. 

Then again, why not smile at them when they enter the building or the classroom?


Reflections on Skill Building


Early evening is my favorite time at the beach.  This summer, I spent quite a few evenings on the beach while vacationing on LBI.  While doing so, I was entertained by a group of teenage boys who showed up at 5 PM every day with their skimmer boards in hand.

There were four or five who came to perfect their “wave riding” skills.  Each in turn would position himself in a spot with his board anchored in the sand, lean on the board and intently focus on the breaking waves.  At any given moment, one would grab their board and sprint toward the ocean.  What became immediately evident was the differences in skill level that each boy displayed.  The more skilled boy could catch the wave, turn the board and ride it in to shore.  And he could do it consistently.  I identified him as the “expert” in the group.  The others could, maybe, catch the wave, but were sure to fall into the ocean while trying the turn or the riding the wave back to shore.

As I watched these boys repeat the process of running into the ocean with varying degrees of success and running back to their starting point to watch and wait for the next opportunity to do it again, I was fascinated.  I wondered how long they had been practicing.  Did the “expert” start at a younger age than the others?  How many skills did they have to master before even getting to this point: patience, focus, timing, balance, discernment, the ability to think critically?  Were they aware that they had developed these skills in their desire to "catch a wave"?

I thought of the students we work with as educators and the skills they are trying to master in their classes.   Do we allow our students enough opportunities to practice the skills we want them to acquire?  Do we think about the preliminary skills they will need before they can become experts?  Do we take into account that although they may all be of the same age, they may have started skill development earlier or later than their peers and therefore, will need different entry points? Do we spend enough time acknowledging the skills they possess?  Do we make it a point to create awareness of these skills in them and motivate them to use them as building blocks?


Negotiating with the teenager

by Terence J. Houlihan, MS Ed, CRS

“My son doesn’t talk to me.”  “Once our daughter turned 13 she became so disrespectful.”  “We barely see our kids anymore.”  “Why does my son only answer, ‘fine’, when I ask him how his day was?”

These are some of the statements and questions often heard from concerned parents.  They are a hallmark of the changing relationship between parents and adolescents. 

The doting child who once was your sidekick and existed to win your smiles and affection has seemingly turned into an unrecognizable, irritable teenager.  For parents, it is frustrating, hurtful, and sometimes, downright scary.

“I don’t know what to do with him anymore, “ a concerned father once told me.  “He sighs when I ask him more than one question about school or what he’s doing with his friends this weekend.  He insists that I don’t leave him alone.  What he doesn’t get is that I do try to give him space.”  I could tell that this parent was worried…not for his son’s well-being so much as he was worried about the changing nature of his relationship.

At a recent PTA presentation, one mother shared that her daughter accuses her of “staring at her” during dinner.   This was said, amidst other parents, in a light-hearted way, and it received a few chuckles of identification.  She didn’t know how to handle this new situation and she was most likely a little frightened.

Being a parent is difficult.  It requires commitment, time, energy, love, money, and a willingness to be disliked by your children (for awhile).  Being a parent of a teenager requires a little more: moms and dads might have to change their parenting styles.  What worked with an 8 year-old will longer work with a 14 year-old.  They have changed and are changing.  In most families, it is undeniable that the relationships between parents and teens have changed.  As such, parents need to change their parenting styles.

One of the pieces that parents can add to their parenting style is negotiation.  As a parent myself, I know it is difficult to negotiate with your children.  Negotiating with your child feels like you’re giving up your power as a parent.  Just because something feels a certain way doesn’t mean it is a certain way.   Adolescents are caught between the absolute control of childhood and the freedom and responsibility of adulthood.  They foresee a day when they get to make to their own decision around the corner and yet, they have no trouble allowing you to make their lunch or bed for them.  Teens (for the most part) want to be in control of their lives, so, why not give them some of that control?  In pieces, that is.

Negotiate.  Give them a little autonomy.  See how they do with it.  Push back that curfew if they’re willing to do another chore.   If they need something from you, what is it you need from them?  It is a great life-lesson as well. 

As a parent, you could find that the more you’re willing to negotiate with your teen (provided they follow through), the tension between the two of you might lessen.  It’s essential to always remember that when you put your foot down, though…it needs to stay down.  Relinquishing on pre-determined boundaries and consequences is not negotiating, it’s being a pushover.  Oh, you may stop arguments for a while, but you’ll do more long-term damage to your teens and your relationships with your teens. 

Try negotiating.  What have you got to lose?  You’re already losing the child you once tucked into bed at 8 pm, but you could gain a new relationship and respect of an awkward teen who’s on the cusp of becoming a young adult.