Pre-teen impulsiveness and self-management skill-building
June 17, 2015 11:41 PM   Subscribe

That sounds like an academic paper title, and I've read a lot in the last couple of days. My twelve-year-old son is having issues with the above, and has come to me to ask for help to manage impulsive choices.

Some background: we took him to a psychologist when he was 8-9 and she diagnosed him as gifted. We moved two years ago to a country where he's in a very old-fashioned and formal school system and had to learn a new language and recently dealt with exam pressure (the whole "pass these tests to go into university track secondary school" thing). He didn't pass and didn't get into the school he was hoping for, even in the "B level" stream, so he's had a lot of disappointment lately.

He has his dad's love for programming and tech in general. Back in January I caught him for the first time with a smuggled tablet in his room at 4am, watching youtube videos. I confiscated the tablet and we had the usual parental talk about the need for sleep, managing his technology time, etc. Then in March, the exact same thing happened. When I walked into his room, he said, "I know, I know, I shouldn't be doing it," as I took the tablet away again for a longer period. He also missed out on a week of his evening computer time, where he and his sister usually play Minecraft for a half-hour. So far it's been very punishment-based.

Three weeks ago I realised he's been hiding a tablet inside a book and doing stuff online (watching videos, mostly) silently while I've thought he was reading. Very creative. So tablet banned again, and more of the, "I know what I'm doing is wrong," stuff which I figured was him trying to act remorseful. I told him I didn't think he was really regretting his choices since he kept making the same one over again. He agreed.

Finally this week his sister reported (with great glee) that he had snuck the DS into his room and was playing games instead of doing homework. When he returned it, he said, "I can't stop myself, I don't know how." Then when we talked more later, he said that he wants me and his dad to help him manage himself so he doesn't keep making these choices. Aside from locking up every electronic device in the house, or monitoring every move he makes, how can we help? I want him to feel like he's in control of his actions, so he can succeed relatively independently, but also to see what he's doing -- because to be honest I don't trust him right now to be doing the right thing, to not be sneaking away with one device or another.

It doesn't help that we are a tech-heavy family. We have tablets and phones and Kindles and laptops and handheld players.

One option for a reward is that he wants to start making his own podcasts. He's a very smart and funny kid and this is something he would enjoy and probably be good at. I am also thinking that having an alternative to technology on hand would be helpful? Like gum for smokers.

I'm just feeling very lost and I hate being in this endless loop of reactionary punishment. When our kids make a mistake on this scale, we always talk to them about what the fair response is, but we as a family are at a loss on this one.
posted by tracicle to Human Relations (19 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I'd encourage the programming. Watching YouTube videos and playing on a DS is very passive. Encourage him to create and use his brain, either through podcasts or through programming.
posted by gorcha at 12:38 AM on June 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

First off kudos to your son for asking for help. Being 12 is hard and it's good that he's open to your assistance.

One thing that jumped out at me as a teacher of kids this age: How are his peer relationships? Does he get much fulfillment from local friends? Does he do any activities locally, like participate in a team sport? They seem absent in your description. Or are those relationships evolving online - in time zones he doesn't physically inhabit, hence the 4 am thing? Or perhaps with school friends from the school he didn't get into, desperately trying to keep those friendships going? It's worth asking or talking about, at least.

Also, what about the language barrier? He may be sort of coping with schoolwork, but can he read the paper, order food at a cafe, visit and appreciate a museum, buy a bus ticket? Think about what he'd be doing at home, in his first language, at his age: can he do those things there? The internet, if he's surfing in his first language, may be where he feels safest and most independent if his real-world neighbourhood reminds him of his failed new-language tests that kept him away from the schools he wanted to go to or makes him feel isolated and alone.

Finally, it sounds like he gets at least some fulfilment from doing things online and from doing well in school - could he do an online class, like a MOOC, that was taught in his first/best language? At 12-13 many people are beginning to really hone in on what they enjoy and many MOOCs are not very...judgmental, I guess I'd say - complete it at your own pace, do the homework or don't, that sort of thing. It may also help him learn about things like long-term scheduling and planning, something lots of teens need help to master.

Good luck! It sounds like you and he are communicating well, which is the key to helping him get what he needs.
posted by mdonley at 2:17 AM on June 18, 2015 [8 favorites]

I feel like you really glossed over the part about him starting in a new school system, learning a new language and not getting into the school that he wanted to get into.

Surely him not getting into that school has more ramifications than just a bit of disappointment. Doesn't it mean that he won't have the option to go to university? For a gifted child who seems to want to go on to study at a university, that's probably much more than just disappointing. Of course he's acting out.

Would sending him to an international school where he can do at least some classes in English be an option? I feel like it's very possible that he doesn't want to do his homework because he's overwhelmed by the new school system and the new language, and he feels out of his depth. If he always did well in school before, it probably feels particular hard to not be doing so well now.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 4:05 AM on June 18, 2015 [16 favorites]

Best answer: Others have useful comments about his environment. But I'd like to say that this sounds like very normal preteen behavior, and it's actually very self aware of him to want to change it. My brother pulled the same crap all through high school.

Can you create a tiered reward structure somehow? Does he need equipment or software for podcasting? Calibrate monetary amounts appropriately, but you could get a large jar and try something like:
Each day he meets ::goal::, you put $1 in the jar. Each day he slips up, but tells you of his own accord, he gets $0.50 or $0.75. Each time you catch him sneaking around or lying, you take out $2. Give him input on daily goals and penalty for lying.

This way you're rewarding him for honesty and taking responsibility when he slips up, with even bigger rewards for success. Lying gets punished.

Also maybe have him do his homework in a common area of the house?
posted by telepanda at 4:34 AM on June 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

Your son may need a therapist to help him with this. It sounds like a situation where he might be anxious and "self medicating" by vegging out with the tech. A therapist could help suss out if that is the case and help him find better ways to deal with life. If there are not local English-speaking therapists, there are some who will work remotely over Skype.
posted by zennie at 4:38 AM on June 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Similar issues here. Technology is a tough one to balance given the proximity and need yet not be excessive. Summer, if you are in one and off school, is especially difficult. I try to think about why the kids aren't supposed to be online all the time and the value of what they are doing while online and set rules from there:

Sleep would be a big reason to not be online - NO electronics from bed time to morning. Does he need help with getting to sleep? Is he in bed for too long - too early of a bed time or sleeping in too much? Does he need more activity so is more tired at bed time?

Some entertainment time online time is fine. I've picked a number of hours that work for us this summer and the kids can earn a little bit more by spontaneously doing chores that they typically are not responsible for especially when their day is more full of school and activities through the year.

Is there just too much free time? My kids are in camps and other activities that they want to do, not every week but quite a bit.

In return for allowing some online time every week, the kids have to demonstrate BALANCE in their interests and activities that are separate from gaming, watching videos, reading gaming blogs (entertainment). Not all online time is the same so I like to differentiate between entertainment (reading People magazine) and information (Wired magazine, industry magazines) and enrichment (reading nonfiction) - or however these line up for you. To help them, I provide a list that they can choose from or they could come up with their own ideas. They need to pick at least 5 items to focus on for the week. The ideas are related to their interests and may change from week to week. If part the way through the week, they find that one thing is really interesting then it is fine to only focus on that one thing (Khan Academy Scripting! Duolingo! ArtAssignment!). These are enriching activities and may include something required like math practice or another area they need to work on. This list provides an alternative to online entertainment and shows BALANCE. If they can't show balance, then they may not have as much entertainment time to work with going forward.

I have more ideas but less time to type more right now ... this is such an important area for all of us and I don't think the information is out there on how to handle it; I look forward to seeing other answers. Good for you to take on this challenge. Entertainment online is like sugar and drugs for the brain - of course that is what they want to do and they are young to have the self-discipline: whether to stop eating too many cookies or to watch too many videos.
posted by RoadScholar at 4:49 AM on June 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

Surely him not getting into that school has more ramifications than just a bit of disappointment.

Definitely seconding this. A gifted child placed in a lower-level school on the basis of a test designed for native speakers who'd been preparing since a very early age sounds absolutely miserable. If there isn't any alternative school he could attend, he's going to need plenty of extra-curricular activities to make up the difference. The podcast idea sounds like a great beginning, though I'm really not sure it should be framed as a reward that can be taken away since it seems like not having positive choices available would only compound his problems.
posted by teremala at 5:13 AM on June 18, 2015 [16 favorites]

He almost certainly really does feel regret for his choices. It's hard to make good choices as an adult, much less as a 12 year old boy who suddenly had to learn a new language, a new kind of school system, and found out that he's lost what feels like the only chance he has to go to university or to be around other smart kids. His inability to make better choices doesn't mean he's happy making bad ones.
posted by jeather at 5:25 AM on June 18, 2015 [8 favorites]

Best answer: The thing that immediately leapt out to me is that there are plenty of grown-ass adults who have difficulty not watching YouTube videos when they should be sleeping, doing work, or otherwise engaged more broadly in life. That your 12-year-old is doing so it so totally normal and that he wants help dealing with it seems like he's ahead of the 8 ball here.

This is a good opportunity to discuss natural consequences, to talk little about brain development and why teenagers and even young adults are not as good as older adults at these sorts of choices, and the psychology of immediate vs. delayed rewards and why it's so hard for even grown-ass adults to close the YouTube tab even though they know it will make them tired the next day/behind on their work/in trouble with their boss.

Then discuss some of the ways that adults work toward addressing these sorts of "poor choice" problems for themselves: reward systems, monitoring software (it isn't just for parental control! a lot of adults use browser extensions etc. for self-control!), lists of alternative activities, etc. As your homework for this discussion, you may actually want to browse the archives for ideas from so many grown-ass adults about "how do I stick to my bedtime?" and "how to I stop from wasting time on the intertubes?" for more ideas, because believe me, these problems have been amply discussed.
posted by drlith at 5:30 AM on June 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: We've had problems with my older daughter doing basically the same stuff starting at 11 or so. She lost her phone for essentially a whole summer because she couldn't make it through a couple of days without doing some other new egregious thing. Stealing her sister's Kindle to use after hours, for example. We finally took a step back and decided to just... let her make bad choices, and then live with the lousy consequences thereof. Staying up until the wee hours on YouTube has a built-in series of punishments, you know?

Ahead of her bat mitzvah, the rabbi told her that being an adult (religiously speaking) means that she's of an age where she knows perfectly well if something is right or wrong, and it's all a matter of what she chooses to do with that knowledge. This was a lightbulb for me: we shouldn't be making her decisions anymore; that's her job. Now it's a matter of her figuring out how to consistently do the right thing for her own self. That's not something anyone else can do for you.

So maybe what you need to do is simply back away as an authority figure, so it's not about you vs. him and enforcing rules, but about him vs. his own better judgment. He's relying on you to be his control mechanism, so take that away. Let him make bad choices, let him live with the consequences. I feel like the only way kids can learn to be self-directing and responsible in adulthood is if they're given the power of self-determination much earlier. And the bad mistakes he's likely to make at 12 (staying up too late, not wearing a coat, bad haircut) are a lot less bad than the ones he'll make if he has to figure this same thing out at 21 (not paying rent, getting way too drunk, no condom).

Now, I'm not saying step away from parenting completely. Definitely offer a little gentle guidance on how making better choices could make his life more pleasant to live in. ("Mmm. You're gonna be tired tomorrow, I see./Did you check the weather?/How do you feel about that math test coming up, you ready?") But perhaps the ultimate weight of responsibility needs to start settling on his shoulders alone, even if that means he makes lousy choices for a while.

I should say: It worked for us. Our house is a lot less stressful to live in now, nobody feels caught in a terrible, adversarial jailer vs. prisoners dynamic, and the kid... increasingly makes pretty good choices. Yeah, she still spends too much time reading fanfic, yeah, she wears things inappropriate to the weather, but she's also consistently on high honor roll, polite and pleasant to be around, and she doesn't seem to be surly and sleep-deprived anywhere near as often since we've stopped vigorously enforcing bedtime and taking stuff away when she "got caught." She's figuring out this self-regulation thing. So maybe it'll work for you, too.

Now my new favorite parenting trick is "I feel so bad for you now that you're a teenager and you don't know how to like things anymore. Poor bunny." She hates that!
posted by Andrhia at 6:03 AM on June 18, 2015 [18 favorites]

You mention that you're a tech-heavy family. Do the rest of you also have time away from your screens etc? If he's getting told to put the tablet away by a parent peering over the top of their Kindle/tablet/whatever, it's going to be hard for him to stick to it without feeling denied.

Could you introduce a designated no-tech period of time for the whole family? An hour every evening or something? It doesn't help with the late-night stuff, but might help him feel like he's not being punished and demonstrate that you genuinely believe screen-free time to be a good thing for everyone. And would also give him time to get his head into some other stuff that he might then want to continue once the hour is over.
posted by penguin pie at 6:31 AM on June 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

How much “legal” time does he get with the tablet/ DS? Is it more limited than it needs to be? I agree that kids shouldn’t spend every waking moment in front of a screen, but he’s getting to an age where it’s less problematic for him to have a lot of computer time. I’d consider dropping the current rules entirely. Insist that he spend some amount of time doing other activities (physical stuff, spending time with the family, etc.) so he engages his brain in other ways, but I’m having a hard time seeing the harm that comes from spending a lot of time with a tablet at his age. Fewer restrictions will probably mean less compulsive use. Meanwhile, provide suggestions for how he can control his use when he wants to… remove all devices from his room at bedtime, distract himself with another activity when he feels the urge, etc.
posted by metasarah at 6:32 AM on June 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One strategy a lot of schools use with impulsive boys is called "check-in" where the child goes and checks in with a teacher or other adult once or twice a day. There are no consequences attached, it is a simple moment of guided self-evaluation. (Generally a form or chart is used, so kids know what questions to anticipate.) So with little kids it's like, "Have you been doing a good job standing in line today? Have you been pushing on the playground?" and with older kids it's like, "Did you get all of your assignments done? Have you been paying attention in class?" (Now, the adult knows the answers to the questions but is helping the children make an honest self-assessment -- "It's all done." "Did you remember the English assignment?" "Oh, yeah, I forgot that. That's not done.") Then the child marks whether they feel they're doing great, okay, or poorly only that thing for the day (happy, neutral, and sad faces also work). If it's going well, you congratulate and reinforce (remind them of good behavior strategies); if it's going poorly, you draw them out on what strategies or actions might be better.

The point of this strategy is that the transition from being adult-monitored and adult-directed to being internally self-monitored and self-directed is actually really difficult and it takes many years to learn, and you have to learn different strategies for different self-monitoring tasks: I'm 37 and I'm awesome at not hitting my friends when they steal my trains, but I'm still struggling to make sure to put my book down at a reasonable hour so I get enough sleep, especially when I'm stressed. So by adding a check-in, you help a child practice and rehearse self-monitoring by actually going through it out loud (which helps him slowly internalize that dialogue and make it reflexive) and you give him a concrete event to look forward to and back at where he knows he's going to be accountable (both to you and himself). After a couple weeks when he goes to grab the technology after bedtime, he'll think, "I'm going to have to mark this at check-in tomorrow ... maybe I should put it down."

So the tricky thing is that as a parent you do still have to be responsible for discipline and health, so it's a little trickier to detach check-ins from consequences. But you could do bed-time check-ins, and combine it with him actually "turning in" his technology at the end of the day. You don't have to lock it up, but having him physically turning it over to you may help, creating an actual moment of symbolic transition.

Personally, every week that he has good check-ins and manages technology appropriately, I would let him have Friday night and Saturday daytime to goof off in whatever fashion he wants, even if it includes staying up all night watching youtube videos. Yeah, it's not super-healthy, but it's also part of being an adolescent, staying up all night reading or watching movies or chatting with friends and then being a WRECK the next day. (I'd enforce Saturday bedtime as normal so he has a day to get back on schedule before a school night.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:41 AM on June 18, 2015 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the help so far. To expand on a couple of recurring questions:

* He is fully fluent in the local language, has solid friendships here, and even has a couple of English-speaking friends in our apartment complex. He keeps in touch with friends and family back home via email and Skype, but this doesn't seem to be important for him since he developed good friends here. Although he's not mother-tongue fluent, he manages well in all settings. He plays a sport but it's not a team sport, and spends most of his free time biking or hiking or messing around in the forest with friends. I did gloss over this and the school thing because I think it's behaviour that would have happened anyway given his parents, his personality, and his age.

* We've tried the MOOC thing previously but he loses interest in them quickly. He is very rigid in routines and I think the looseness of free learning and the variety of other online things to do cause him to drop them in favour of games or other activities.

* Although he didn't pass the exams and didn't get his first choice of schools, he has more pathways to university, if that's where he chooses to go. At this stage, we (he and I) are confident that if he chooses to go to university, he'll get there. His main source of disappointment, aside from failing the test, was that he won't be at the same school as most of his friends. He will still have some friends at the new school.

* One concern for me was depression or anxiety (I have issues with these), but I don't think this is it. I've been watching and listening and we talk a lot, and it really seems to just be a love of tech combined with this impulsiveness.

* His "legal" time is half an hour each evening, with the guideline that it should be creative (both kids can interpret that how they want, but we get to veto; hence a recent long period of Minecraft world-building), plus one hour of free video game/computer time. He has his own Kindle which he can use whenever, and sometimes I'll let him use the tablet to read a comic book or do research if he stays in the living room.

* I recently started letting him go to sleep on his own time, as long as he is in his room with no tech, doing something calming like reading or listening to quiet music. He still seems to fall asleep at around 9pm, which he was doing beforehand. He wakes up at 7am like clockwork. Not sure about what happens in the middle, though, on a "normal" night.

* His dad doesn't go on his laptop/X-Box/tablet generally until the kids are already in bed or on the computer themselves; I'm definitely on my laptop more frequently. I'm working on being a better example by having it closed when the kids are home between end of school and evening computer time/bedtime.

I think the answer above about looking at this from an adult perspective is a good point -- I've been looking for information for impulsivity in kids, but this is definitely a problem that adults have! I like the idea of checking in, also.

Thanks so much! Please keep the conversation going, because it would be great to have a toolbox available (as the psychologist told us at the time) with multiple "tools" for him and us.
posted by tracicle at 6:45 AM on June 18, 2015

Perhaps it would be helpful to talk about and practice some mindfulness-ish strategies for what to do in the moment when he's feeling the urge to make a choice that he knows isn't a good one. First, awareness: what's his body feeling like? Is he feeling jumpy, trying to calm that down with distraction? What happens if he takes deep breaths -- does that change how he's feeling? Etc. And then strategies for making different choices -- something else he can do right in the moment that feels good, or focusing on how he'll feel the next morning, or whatnot. He can absolutely be involved in thinking about this, talking about this, making strategies.

These will be skills that will serve him well for the rest of his life!
posted by wyzewoman at 7:05 AM on June 18, 2015

Yeah, I think it would be helpful to any tween/teen to learn how to actually do a self-assessment, how to ask himself "why am I doing this right now? Is it because I'm tired/anxious/hungry/bored, or am I actually reading/learning/watching something of value?" Grown-ups struggle with these things too, and everyone has to find the management method that works for them - some people use a timer, some have a list of things that have to be done first, some people schedule their internet time. Other people use a sort of "credit" system - things like exercise and chores will "buy" them extra time for internet-type goofing off or games.

Most adults, by the age of 22 or so, are going to be sitting in front of a computer all day and then another computer all night, so that's 10 years (except closer to 2-4 years when he's a high school student and it's not much different than being a working adult) to get the hang of time management and consequence analysis skills. It may be time to start loosening up the reins so he's got enough of that time that it actually requires serious management so he can learn how to do those things sooner rather than later.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:45 AM on June 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't know, I have a gifted kid who has some deep impulse control challenges, I also have a quite limited screen time policy in my family, but still, I think this stuff you're describing, from my point of view, just seems like no big deal. Kids are gonna watch screens, and they're going to sneak to do it. It's not like he's doing drugs or cutting himself or developing an eating disorder or not talking to you. He just seems 100% normal, and plus, still really engaged with you, which is awesome.

Maybe consider giving him some more screen time, as long as he's still getting that forest playing/school work/book reading/family time too. Most kids his age get way more screen time than that. I'm not saying it's a great thing, but it's the reality we live in. As parents you recognize that and take in more screen time yourselves.

Something I've been trying lately with my kid is letting her dothe mildly problematic behavior if it is followed (or proceeded by) the desired behavior. So he could have a 1:1 ratio of screens to book reading or something as an option.
posted by latkes at 8:23 AM on June 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You see this sort of thing a lot in gifted kids. It is common for kids who need a grade skip to get told they cannot have the grade skip until their behavior improves. The reality is that behavior doesn't improve until they get the grade skip.

A lot of gifted kids have difficulty getting their intellectual needs adequately met. Like a child who is starving and sneaking food they have been denied, they often will keep returning to computers or video games or whatever works for them, in spite of being punished.

Personally, I would be inclined to give him more computer time, not less. After we got Internet on all four computers in the house and stopped having to ration Internet time, my oldest son's behavior dramatically improved and, a few weeks later, he stopped behaving like an addict. He was finally getting what he needed.

If you aren't willing to do that, then you will need to look for an alternative that is adequately information rich and equally as good a fit for how his mind processes information so he stops craving the forbidden tablet. He has a hungry mind. It needs to be fed.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 10:04 AM on June 18, 2015 [9 favorites]

I gotta agree with Michele here.

I'd suggest that, as long as he's getting all his homework done and that he gets to bed on time, he can have as much screen time as he wants. Hungry minds gotta feed.

I would also suggest it's encouraging that he realizes it's a problem to be up at 4am, but maybe if 4am isn't the only time he can sneak a peek at a screen it'll be easier?

Either way, the one way to solve this is to tell him he has to be self-regulating, he's old enough, and in the end nobody can take this intrinsic responsibility off his shoulders - it has to be him.
posted by tel3path at 10:56 AM on June 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

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