Interview with Dr. John Duffy, author of THE AVAILABLE PARENT: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens

PBR: How would you define availability?
Duffy: Availability is parenting free of the toxic effects of fear, judgment and ego. Available parents listen as often as they talk with their children. They do not buy into the myth that parenting teens has to be an awful, arduous process, but rather, they know that they can remain connected to their teen, and enjoy and marvel at the changes the teen years bring. They do not judge their teen, but support them in good decision-making, allowing them the space to make errors and to gain wisdom from them.

I am well aware that this sounds like an ideal, and perhaps it is. But I know from experience with a lot of families that it is far easier, and more enjoyable, than fear-based parenting. Further, I do not expect any parent to be perfectly available, nor is it necessary. But I can assure you that any move you make toward availability will make for a more peaceful, enjoyable existence with your child.

PBR: Where did the idea for available parenting come from?
Duffy: Actually, the idea came from many of the teens and tweens I have worked with over the years. Parents often bring their children to see me in my practice because they consider them unavailable: non-communicative, closed, secretive and angry. Talking to the teens themselves, I’ve learned that it is often we as parents who, unwittingly, tend to strike first with our own availability. As or children approach the teen years, we become fearful for them and of them. We become concerned that they will not be strong enough to make good decisions, that their grades will slip, that they will begin to take drugs and alcohol. We begin to believe the myth, and it IS a myth, that parenting an adolescent is awful, and we lock up emotionally.

And through this process, we tend to quickly lose the trust of our children. So, they return the un-availability. The lack of communication, assumption and misinterpretation that results makes it seem to parents that their children are the problem. To make matters worse, we as parents often feel suddenly incompetent to resolve the problem, to re-connect with our children. A cycle of poor communication develops that, left untouched, can continue for a lifetime. A tragic, wholly unnecessary result.

PBR: Why do you think parents of teens today need to be more available?
Duffy: Today’s teens face challenges that we could only have dreamed of when we were their age. They have a barrage of media available to them at a rapid-fire pace, not the least of which are Facebook and texting. And we all know how wrong all of this exposure can go, quickly and sometimes without intent. Relationships are different, bullying is different, everything is different for them.

So they need their parents to help guide them through the morass. They do not need us to make every decision for them, as the helicopter parent is wont to do, nor do they need us to berate them for being less than perfect in their decision-making, as the Tiger Mom is likely to do. Rather, they need an open, loving, non-judgmental consultant to talk through their issues, make their own informed decisions, feel competent and resilient themselves.

PBR: Why is parenting teenagers today any different than it was a generation ago?
Duffy: The lives of our teens are so very different than our teen lives. They have information and data coming at them at a warp speed we can barely begin to understand. Just the quantity of data can be overwhelming. Many teens exchange hundreds of texts and IM’s a day, along with phone calls, FB status, YouTube videos, video games and, of course, the occasional face-to-face human interaction!

Further, your child likely knows this world of data overload far better than you do yourself. This provides you as a parent with a grand opportunity to talk with your child about all of this information and how they use it, and to learn from them – teens love to be experts. And they will need your support to navigate this world.

Social norms have changed a lot as well. Children are sexually active at earlier ages now, and taboos against many drugs and alcohol have all but vanished. Bullying and sexuality have gone digital as well, increasing the potency of both immeasurably. As parents, we need to keep our anxieties in check in order to remain fully available and supportive.

PBR: What makes availability any different than any other parenting technique?
Duffy: Recently, people have been talking about Tiger Moms, the very controversial technique that allows for demeaning your children verbally and demanding nothing but perfection from them. It is, to say the very, very least, an authoritarian approach to parenting, based far more in fear than connection. In her book, Amy Chua says her approach was effective, pointing in large part to the ‘success’ of her daughters. What she doesn’t discuss, and I find myself wondering about, is the degree of anxiety her daughters suffered while growing up, and the fear and pressure they lived with regularly. It reminds me of the Ivy League-bound young man I worked with a few years back, brilliant beyond measure, accomplished musician, and so on. He was also morbidly depressed, terribly anxious, and sometimes suicidal. Makes one wonder about the definition of success.

In any event, I cannot think of a parenting approach more polar opposite of Availability. In Available Parenting, the relationship between parent and child is amiable, friendly, open and playful. Expectations are high as a result of faith in the child, not to preserve the honor or ego of the parent. The Tiger Parent feels no need for Availability, and I think both they and their children pay a huge price for that.

Also, I’ve got to think that children parented under this style are less resilient when they hit the teen years and something goes less than perfect. They have not had the opportunity to prove themselves competent because of demands of perfection. Also, unlike children parented with Availability, they do not feel comfortable approaching their parents for help or consultation, as this is a sign of weakness for them. Children parented with Availability have the benefit of parents-as-consultants, available for them when they need help.

Unlike hovering ‘helicopter parents’, though, Available Parents are not a constant presence in the lives of their teens and tweens. They realize that healthy children of this age need to experiment and learn from their mistakes. They are available, but they do not hover in an over-involved manner, in large part because they realize that this is a show of no-faith in their child. Available parents also recognize that they need to allow their children a wide enough berth to make decisions good and bad, and to learn from both. Helicopter parenting, a fear-based approach in my mind, rob children of this critical opportunity for growth and self-worth.

PBR: What if you’ve got a teenager with a real attitude or behavior problem? Don’t they need a more iron-fisted approach?
Duffy: You might think so, but no. Available parents recognize the power of the Emotional Bank Account (EBA) in their relationships with their children. By listening to their children, respecting their point of view, and protecting time for them, Available parents build up a sizable balance in the EBA. This balance has some obvious benefits. First, parents and children enjoy spending time with one another. Parents also get to know their children better, so they are less fearful as they approach the changes of adolescence.

Most importantly, though, is that a balance in the EBA provides parents leverage with their children. During tough times, children are more likely to listen to parents who attend to the EBA. These children are far more likely to heed the words of their parents, and their parents’ voices will be in their heads as they make tough choices late at night.

PBR: Where else does availability apply?
Duffy: As I wrote this book, it occurred to me that Availability applies to every relationship we have, spouse-to-spouse, boss-to-employee, sibling-to-sibling, friend-to-friend. I even believe it applies on a more global basis, person-to-person, nation-to-nation. The more available we are to the people in our lives that we most care about, the more effective, caring, and meaningful those relationships will be. I’ve really made it my mission to help foster availability in all relationships.

PBR: If you could offer one piece of advice to the parent of a teenager, what would it be?
Duffy: A friend of mine, knowing only the title of my book, says he parents differently just by asking himself, in any given moment, whether he is truly ‘available’ to his children. Using only the word as his compass, he finds he listens without distraction, looking his daughter in the eye when she addresses him and, for the moment at least, keeps his eyes off the screens.
So I would suggest that, if nothing else, ask yourself whether you feel you’re truly available to the moment. If not, make a quick adjustment. Your child will take notice.

PBR: What are some of the things that never work in parenting teens?
Duffy: Lecturing never works. Children find it demeaning, they tune it out, and believe it or not, they know where you stand on just about everything. So, first off, I’m fairly certain that you can save yourself the lecture.

Micromanaging never works either. It is a show of no-confidence in your teen, a display of your competence, but not a test of their own. Coddling fits in the same category, as does bribery of any kind. If you never apply any of the available parenting techniques that work, I strongly encourage parents to read through the section of the book on techniques that never work, and spare themselves the time and energy on intervention that either fall flat or, worse, cause damage in their relationships.

PBR: How does your advice apply to parents of younger children?
Duffy: I think parents should apply every concept of this book as early as possible in their children’s’ lives. The more availability is the precedent, the more it becomes habitual, enjoyable and easy. With younger children, Availability may look a bit different than it does with teens and tweens. Parents protect plenty of time for play, and they listen to their children’s’ stories, thoughts and fears without judgment.