Fathers Forum: Self-Image in a Selfie Culture

By John Lloyd

Children are growing up in a world dramatically different than their parents experienced. As fathers, how do we understand and help guide them through this new terrain?

That was the focus of the 10th annual NYC-Parents in Action’s Fathers Forum, held on May 7th at Manhattan’s Dalton School. Attendees were fortunate enough to hear from a cross-section of experts on adolescent development.

NYC-PIA’s own Charles Harkless introduced the panel:

  • Douglas Brunt (moderator), a returning panelist and the author of multiple New York Times bestsellers, including Trophy Son, which deals with high-pressure youth athletics
  • Dr. Christopher La Lima, Ph.D., a professor in the department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU, specializing in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and mood and anxiety disorders
  • Teddy Frischling, the long-time director of athletics and coach of multiple teams at the Dalton school, as well as a graduate of the school and a parent of current students
  • Rande Bryzelak, the founder of Nutrifitness, a certified Health Fitness Specialist and Registered Dietitian with an M.S. in Applied Exercise Physiology and Nutrition, and a champion skater as a child
  • Dr. Palmo Pasquariello, an assistant attending pediatrician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and an affiliate Instructor in Clinical Pediatrics at Cornell University

Douglas kicked things off by asking the panel to think about the “whole kid,” including how friends, siblings, school, and parents can impact a child’s self-image. He noted that “what can seem like a small moment to a parent can be huge to a kid.” The panel then proceeded to cover a range of topics and fielded questions from the fathers in attendance.

Food, Exercise, and Health

Rande said that parents should think of food and exercise the way they think of swearing: model good behaviors in front of your children. If a parent rejects certain foods out of hand, kids notice. George H.W. Bush taught an entire generation that broccoli was bad. Rande suggested that parents involve their kids when shopping and preparing food. He also noted that exercise is great for dealing with anxiety, and you can model that for your young child. When they’re feeling stress, suggest, “Let’s go for a walk.”

Avoiding overly-rigid attitudes can be as important as avoiding unhealthy habits. It’s great to have lots of healthy choices, but it’s a problem when you’re not permitting your child to eat anything that their friends are allowed. And a child who witnesses parents obsessing over workouts or diet may end up with a skewed body image and relationship to food. Be aware of changes in your teens’ behavior that may indicate increased anxiety about diet and exercise. Are they refusing things you know they love?

Shifting the focus to sports, Douglas asked Teddy about the right level of focus on sports for adolescents. How much is too much too soon?

Teddy said there’s no one right answer, especially at the middle school level, where school teams may prioritize wide participation while some kids also play on highly-competitive travel teams. These mixed messages may confuse and discourage some children.

There is a trend to focus on just one sport, but Teddy believes kids should play every sport they can. Don’t worry if your 8-year-old isn’t in a league. The vast majority of kids should aim to enjoy sport and get something out of it; not to play in college or professionally. Overly-specialized athletes are prone to injuries and burnout and make significant sacrifices in other areas.

Rande said, “Kids go through childhood once. Even if they’re amazing at soccer, if they don’t love it then why are they doing it?” In general, kids enjoy doing what they’re good at, so a child with a particular talent will likely gravitate to that sport on his or her own, with a healthier attitude. Douglas pointed out that Steph Curry didn’t specialize in only basketball until college.

An audience member asked about how to handle a child who wants to quit a team mid-season. Even if they’re not thriving, should you insist they finish the season so they don’t develop a quitting mentality?

Teddy’s advice was to find out why the child wants to quit. If it’s just frustration over a lack of playing time, that’s a less valid reason. In general, encouraging children to finish what they started is a good thing. But Christopher recommended asking if your child is only doing something he or she hates because of pressure from peers or from you? Your child may be making a brave, healthy choice by stepping away.

Palmo recounted a situation where a father had played college football and his son didn’t like the sport. The dad asked, “How does that make me look?” Palmo’s response was, “Who cares?”

Supporting Your Child

Palmo stressed that your children want to know that they’re loved. They may let you down, but don’t let them doubt you love them. Be interested in what they’re interested in, even if you despise their music. Kids don’t need perfect fathers; they need engaged fathers. Proximity is not the same thing as being present in their lives. As Douglas said, “My kids can get ‘good me,’ ‘bad me,’ or ‘no me’ – ‘no me’ is the worst.”

Christopher noted that kids may feel that negative attention is better than no attention, especially when they are younger; if they can’t get your attention another way, they will misbehave.

Sons, Palmo said, want to know that they measure up in their father’s eyes – if you don’t let them know, they will fill in the blanks. Dads should model vulnerability for boys. Don’t ever imply that they need to ‘man up.’ But do respond firmly when you hear or see something unacceptable.

If you have male and female children, stress to your sons that they should treat girls the way they would want people to treat their sisters. “Real men don’t use girls.” Palmo hates the phrase “sowing your wild oats” to excuse young male behavior. Is the girl the dirt in that metaphor?

For daughters, he stressed that fathers have a huge impact on how they later choose their partners. They’re watching how you treat their mother. Don’t assume you have nothing in common. Teach them how to throw a baseball, and if someone says your daughter throws like a girl, call that a compliment.

When children have issues with self-esteem, normalize it: at some point we all feel that way. Create a space where they feel comfortable being vulnerable around you. Give them positive feedback for their insight in recognizing a problem and their courage in seeking out help by talking to you. On the flip side, if you know your reaction will set your child off, ask yourself why you’re doing it. Is it because you truly believe it’s the appropriate response or are you stuck in a pattern that isn’t healthy?

Christopher used the acronym ABC, meaning antecedent, behavior, and consequence. Antecedent control, or accounting for potential issues in advance, can prevent bad behaviors and avoid the need for consequences. As an example, a child with ADHD who studies for a test in front of a noisy open window will be distracted and study ineffectively, leading to poorer performance. The sub-par study environment is an example of poor antecedent control.

Communication

The panel stressed the importance of consistency between parents. Don’t undermine your partner or have different approaches that open up the possibility for division. Parents should discuss more complex topics and acknowledge differences in opinion in advance. If you have to come to a compromise, make that decision before engaging your child. Children are smart and will play you against each other, good cop/bad cop style.

When you set limits, make them clear and transparent, be consistent in enforcing them, and take time to point out when your child does the right thing.  These are all ways in which you can keep the core of your relationship strong even as you set guardrails for your children and keep them safe.

A dad asked about how to handle kids headed off to boarding school. Christopher suggested establishing communication guidelines ahead of time, before they are swept up in their new routines. This also applies for college students: agree in advance on the frequency, channel, and topics of communication. Praise them when they follow through. You have levers, reward them for positive behaviors. Palmo agreed, and distinguished between bribery and positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement happens after they do the job.

Rande said, “Try not to be upset by things that probably upset you.” Then your children will feel comfortable coming to you.

Sex, Gender, and Sexuality

Douglas asked the panel about the appropriate age to start talking about sex. Christopher said there are developmentally appropriate approaches for even very young children: make it clear that discussing their bodies is okay, and find out what information they’re being exposed to without going into too much detail yourself. Palmo pointed out that if they don’t get info from you, they will get it somewhere, and it will not necessarily be correct.

Don’t assume your children know basic things, Christopher said, including that they can say no. Give them language on how to set limits and state when they feel uncomfortable. If your child is involved in something inappropriate, don’t assume they just did it because they wanted to.

A father asked how to support a middle-school child who is questioning their sexuality. Is it reasonable for them to label themselves before they’ve even had their first kiss?

Palmo stressed that the conversation should start with you telling them you will accept them no matter who they are and what choices they make. Children may not want these choices thrust upon them. But conversations about healthy relationships, regardless of gender, can start very young, “as early as they can talk.”

Douglas’s child’s school had a formal discussion about what it means to be transgender. He had no issue with the topic, but it wasn’t done in concert with parents, so they weren’t able to help, especially if kids were confused. Christopher said schools should ideally make this part of an “ongoing conversation from the get go,” with full transparency for parents, and incorporating more information as children mature.

Christopher recommended the book The Gender Creative Child by Dr. Diane Ehrensaft.

Another dad was surprised that his son’s school made condoms available recently to 8th graders. It got him thinking about current availability of pornography as opposed to his generation when “finding a Playboy magazine in the trash” was a big deal.

Palmo said this was a great point – there’s a lot of inappropriate material available to young children, and he himself is initiating conversations earlier than he used to. You have to be proactive: they can get info from you or from unscrupulous websites. Use browser filters to the extent that you can, and be familiar with the names of the more prevalent sites. People without scruples want to get your kids addicted to pornography early.

He also communicated some unnerving statistics from the CDC: 50% of high school kids who have sex don’t use a condom, and there were 210,000 teen births in the US last year.

Social Media and Screen Time

The question everyone wanted to ask was, “how much social media is too much?” Christopher said that there is no one right answer. Start by getting an understanding of how your child uses social media. Avoid sounding judgmental so that your child feels comfortable being honest with you. He acknowledged that this is tricky: when you set a limit, teens will push that limit. So set your rules without judgement and with an even hand, and explain your reasons. And consider that “when we take away something from a teenager, we have to give replacement strategies.”

Beyond the time spent on social media, he said, try to understand what your child takes away from it. Kids who are more anxious may need to be steered away from compulsively comparing themselves to others. Rande agreed, saying that much social media was driven by a sense of competition: seeing pictures of someone who’s 6’2” and 220 lbs. or posts from someone who went on a fantastic vacation. Remind your children that they’re often seeing idealized, curated versions of other people’s lives.  

Douglas asked about whether kids who have a diagnosis of ADHD or anxiety disorder are more prone to addiction to screen time.

Christopher said that anything can be addictive if it triggers a hit of dopamine. The ADHD brain is trying to regulate dopamine, which may mean that child is more susceptible to the temptation of screens, and they might have issues transitioning from screens to other activities. But ADHD is a neurodevelopment disorder, something you have your whole life. Screens don’t affect that.

Anxiety is a mix of genetics and learned patterns, so anxious kids can develop dysfunctional cycles of behavior. Excessive screen time is an issue for everyone, but teens in particular are still developing. Even a young adult’s prefrontal cortex – his or her ability to come up with a plan, think about consequences, and follow through – is not fully developed until age 27 or 28.

For most disorders – depression, anxiety – there’s a continuum, it doesn’t become a disorder until it reaches a level where it is causing distress. Trust your judgment on when screen use is becoming dysfunctional for your child. Practice antecedent control – meaning avoid situations that are conducive to unhealthy behaviors. Set clear limits in advance: when do you allow screen access and under what circumstances?

Drugs, Tobacco, and Alcohol

Parents have to stay educated about drugs, Christopher stressed, which evolve very quickly. The most effective way to know what your teen is doing is to have a good communicative relationship; but no teen will tell you everything, so keep informed about trends.

Be assertive and hold your ground. Teens will have a stronger reaction when we first set a limit, a “response burst”; but it will die down.

Encourage them to “cope ahead”: think about the situation they’re getting into in advance and what antecedent strategies can they set up. How will they respond if someone offers them something? How will they remain calm and in control and make the choices they want to make? Remind them that nobody will remember years from now that they didn’t do drugs at some party.

Palmo cautioned that the recent push for marijuana legalization has glossed over its addictive qualities and how it impairs learning, coordination, and memory. Your own experience with weed when you were younger may not apply: average THC potency has risen from 3% to 9% in the past 20 years, and some samples have measured as high as 25%, which is quite dangerous

He also noted that thousands of deaths and emergency room visits per year are caused by underaged drinking. A 2017 survey revealed that 1 in 15 underage drivers admitted to driving after drinking, which probably means that the true number is much higher. If your child drinks and drives, that car is now a weapon.

And he cautioned about vaping. The long-term effects are not yet known and the ingredients, which can include toxic metals, are not well-regulated. Even flavoring agents that would be safe to swallow may not be safe to inhale – the studies are incomplete. This has been established, though: children who vape but don’t currently smoke are at increased risk of starting to smoke later.

Wrap-Up

Douglas asked about the one thing the panelists hoped audience members would take away from this year’s Fathers Forum.

  • For Palmo it was proactive, positive communication. Keep the door of communication open. “They grow up in the blink of eye. Enjoy everything, both good and bad times, but always let them know you’re there for them.”
  • Rande stressed leading by example: modeling a healthy relationship to food and exercise. This includes not over-reacting if you yourself gain a few pounds and not getting hung up on behaviors that fall short of perfectly healthy.
  • Teddy talked about social media and his own evolving views on it: we can’t ignore it or say no to it. We have to learn how to address it, be more educated about it, and help our kids deal with it.
  • Christopher recommended that we each invest in our core relationships with our children, building our “parent credit score,” since we’re going to make a withdrawal at some point. When you set limits, make them clear and transparent, and balance negative feedback by pointing out when your children do the right thing.