An Interview with Vanessa Van Petten

By Susan Frasca

Vanessa Van Petten is a “youthologist,” founder of the website RadicalParenting.com and also an author. In her new book, Do I Get My Allowance Before or After I’m Grounded? she tells true stories that give insight into the minds and attitudes of both parents and teens on issues ranging from friendships and bullying to school, sex and alcohol and drugs. Her advice is realistic; some of it challenging. But, she gets her insight from being able to break through the barriers that exist between teens and parents. Many parents will be shocked to find out that for the most part, their teens not only need them, but truly want them involved in their lives.

 

Susan Frasca: As a teenager, you must have experienced at least some of the issues you talk about in your book. Did your parents react in ways consistent with your advice in the book, or was it the fact that they reacted in ways completely opposite that prompted you to write this book?

Vanessa Van Petten: My parents had very similar struggles to what I portray in the book. I think sometimes they responded in a way that allowed us to move forward (and I have those tips in there) and sometimes they did not. With the sticky issues that my parents and I could never figure out, that’s where I did most of my research to figure out what would have worked.

SF: It seems to me that a lot of parents today don’t think they are having any problems communicating with their teens because they aren’t arguing. Can you talk about that, and how the advice in your book might be useful to parents who think everything’s fine, but whose teens really aren’t talking or confiding in them at all?

VVP: Arguing can be a good thing. In the book I share a study that talks about how in households with less arguing, there is found to be more lying. Teens who want to sneak around do not bother to talk to their parents. I think it is great if parents and kids don’t argue–don’t start on purpose, but parents have to be very attentive to their kids and make sure that kids are not avoiding arguments by lying.

SF: How does letting a teen “be extreme until they’re empty” help to open up the lines of communication between parent and teen?

VVP: Many times teenagers do what I call “verbal vomiting” where they are very upset or hyped up about something and they get home and want to talk and talk and talk until they are empty. Often times though, parents get a little overwhelmed with this energy and ‘stop the flow’ by saying, “OK, I get it, calm down now.” or “It’s not that big of a deal.” The best thing for parents to do is actually let kids get extreme, feel their emotions and then calmly work them back down until they are empty. If you stop kids mid-flow, they won’t come to you again for help and will feel that they do not have the freedom to feel their emotions in whatever form they come in.

SF: You write that one way to help their teen handle peer pressure is for parents to suggest that their child put the blame on them (the parents). This is an interesting suggestion. How does it help the teen to “save face?” Also, (playing Devil’s Advocate, here) does this teach kids that they don’t have to stand up for their own principles or take responsibility for their own actions?

VVP: In the book I mention that before even considering putting the blame on parents, teens should say no first. Of course, saying no and standing up for themselves is a priority, which is what I say is option one. If kids are in a situation where “no” is less of an option, they can also fall back on parents. For example if a child is at a party and they are being offered pot and they try to say no, but the kids keep pushing, they can then say, “My parents drug test me so I can’t.” Even if this is not true it gives them another option for no.

SF: Your chapter on handling high school offers a lot of great tips for parents to help their teens through these challenging academic years. Some of these tips involve implementing restrictions and boundaries on technology that teens think they can’t live without. How can parents employ these useful tips without kids battling, resenting and resisting?

VVP: It is so hard to implement rules and boundaries with technology, especially with older teens who have had freedom on their devices. I think it needs to be a clean reset. Parents say, “This is my home and I pay for the phone/computer, so I am making some new rules and here are the consequences.” No questions asked, no negotiating. I truly believe that teens should have a voice, but on keeping them safe, parents are the authority.

SF: Obviously, the idea is for parents to communicate better with their teens, but sometimes, teens are going to cross the line and participate in appropriate or risky behaviors. When all else fails, what punishments are most effective? Is it realistic to allow the teen to determine his or her own punishment?

VVP: It depends on the teenager. Some teens are stricter with themselves than their parents will ever be. Other times teens do not give very effective self-punishments. I think a punishment should always have to do with the crime–a kid goes over a texting limit, the next month they get no texts. A teen sneaks out after curfew, a teen cannot go out the next weekend.

SF: I LOVE the exercise you give to teen interns about writing a letter of advice to their ten-year-old selves. How did you come up with that? Did you ever write one to yourself? Care to share some of what you said or would say?

VVP: I did write one to myself! http://www.radicalparenting.com/2010/05/27/dear-vanessa-letter-to-my-younger-self/ It is an amazing experience and I think a great way for teens to step-up and remind themselves of how far they have come. It also helps them be great mentors to younger siblings or friends at school.

SF: I’m not sure it’s even possible to answer this, but what is the one best thing a parent can do to foster better communication with their teen? What is the one worst thing a parent can do that will cause their teen to clam up and tune out?

VVP: The best for a teen-parent relationship: Being open-minded. The worst for a teen-parent relationship: Being passive aggressive.

 

See the review of her book here.

 

While raising her two children, Susan Frasca worked as a writer and editorial assistant for an award-winning parenting magazine, and quickly discovered that researching and writing about parenting issues is far easier than actually doing the parenting!  Married once and still to the best man she’s ever known, and with those children now grown adults, she writes on a variety of topics and has scores of bylines in multiple publications, as well as many other articles, blogs and books for which she can’t take credit – the downside of ghostwriting!

 

 

 

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