Book Review: Smart but Scattered teens

Smart but Scattered Teens is a great book for parents who looking for a reprieve from the daily homework battles or to help nurture a human to be ready for the world. I recommend it highly but here is a summary of what I learned.

One of the big ideas of the book is that teenagers need adult help to learn executive functioning skills. The lack of these skills are why your teenager forgets to do their chores, or makes impulsive decisions, or acts in risky ways, or seems hopelessly disorganized, etc.

The authors break down executive functioning skills as follows:

  • response inhibition
    • Thinking before doing
      • Checking your emotions, refraining from dangerous sexual behaviour
  • working memory
    • Holding information while doing complex tasks
      • Recalling the steps to a math problem
      • structuring the important parts of your day in your head when you wake up
  • emotional control
    • Managing emotions to complete tasks and work towards goals
      • Asking questions in class although you feel uncomfortable
      • performing well on a test besides having some anxiety
  • sustained attention
    • Focusing on a task despite external factors or internal ones that would stop you (like boredom)
      • Doing any repetitive task like homework
  • task initiation
    • Starting tasks without excessive procrastination
      • going to the library a week before the deadline to begin research
  • planning/prioritizing
    • Deciding on the milestones that have to be achieved and in some kind of logical order to achieve the goal
        • Deciding on the steps in getting a job
  • organization
    • Having a system to manage information or materials
      • Using a planner or agenda
      • Having a home routine in place that gets enacted daily
  • time management
    • Allocating and estimating time for minor and major tasks
      • Establishing a schedule to meet deadlines
  • goal-directed persistence
    • Having a goal and performing tasks, without deviation to meet this goal.
      • Volunteering at the hospital to gain medical experience
  • flexibility
    • Being able to alter scheduled plans in the face of new obstacles or information.
      • Failing a test and going through it with the teacher to learn from mistakes
  • metacognition
    • Being able to reflect on your own behaviour by monitoring your own emotions and actions through a critical lens
      • Realizing that you have a misconception about an event based on your bias and asking others to clarify what happened to avoid this bias. (perhaps it was an argument with a friend and other friends were there)

The book has a worksheet that you can use to identify strong and weak proficiency in the skills above but an attentive parent could probably pick out the major ones to focus on. Just think of your last teenager battle!

Once you have decided on one or two skills to work on the next step is to come up with a plan of how you will teach your child this skill. One of the misconceptions that some adults have is that teenagers already know these skills and that they are just lazy or unmotivated. The authors argue that teenagers DON’T know these skills and you have to be the one to model and explicitly teach them to your child.

Deciding on how much help and teaching you need to provide can be challenging. So the authors offer this statement to use as a guideline:

Provide just enough support for your child to be successful.

In other words, if it looks like the lack of a particular skill is going to get them kicked out of the game permanently or is going to put them or others at risk, then you need to intervene. Maybe even directly. If not, then let them struggle with you on the sideline as a coach and mentor, sharing tips as needed.

Now, some teenagers might not want to be taught. They may actually think they know how to do the skill you have identified as the one to work on. But here proof is in action, not in words. Illustrate specific examples when the teenager failed to use the skill in question, with dates and times! For example, bring up the fact they have two weeks of laundry in their bedroom for the third time since school started. Now, be prepared to create an action plan to teach the skill. Although each skill is different and therefore each plan will need to address those differences, the plans for each skill all have the same basic structure. First, sit down with your teenager and talk about what you have witnessed. Talk from the heart and try not to accuse because this will instantly set an adversarial tone for the meeting. Explain that you need to create a plan to help them with this. Stress that you are trying to help them achieve their goals! Draw in their goals wherever possible. Setup rewards and if necessary, punishments if they fail to meet their targets. Remember, as a parent, you have a lot of power and this is the time to exercise this power but in a magnanimous way. Monitor the plan and meet occasionally to discuss how it is working. Be sure to listen to your teen while you have all discussions with them. You don’t have to incorporate their ideas but just the act of hearing them can often go a long way to engender a respectful dialogue. Use empathic language and paraphrase what they are saying to indicate that you understand where they are coming from.

Before talking to the teen keep the following in mind:

  1. Be prepared to negotiate and compromise
  2. Convey that your intentions are to help the teen
  3. Focus on how the desired changes will boost your teens independence
  4. Be clear in your own mind why it’s important to address the problem.

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