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How can I help my teenager get organized?

QUESTION: I am frustrated with the organizational level of my teen-age daughter. She is continually late to her soccer practice, so I am forced to drop everything and drive her at the last minute. She is always getting homework done at the eleventh hour, asking me to help her with her papers, or sending me scrambling to find her uniform before a big game. Isn't she old enough to know better? It is driving me crazy! Any suggestions?

ANSWER: For whatever reasons, your daughter has not developed the organizational habits that she needs to handle the complexity and responsibility of her present life activities. Either she must simplify her life so that she can handle the commitments she has, or she must learn new skills for prioritizing and getting things in order to function more independently in her daily life.

Consider whether you are over-functioning for your daughter. In other words, is helping her out of these last minute dilemmas a part of the problem? Rescuing her from the consequences of her actions (or inactions) promotes irresponsibility.

It appears that your daughter does not experience the natural consequences of what will happen if she does not put her uniform in a place she can find later, or her homework is turned in late, or she misses half of her soccer practice. Instead, you scramble to save her from the outcome of her disorganization. Some children need to experience limits before they adapt. Perhaps this is true for your daughter.

While organization may come easily to you, your daughter may be of a very different temperament. She may need to have you sit down and teach her how to organize her homework, even help her make up a timeline for finishing assignments on schedule. Do not fail to give her the support she needs, even is she protests. Insist kindly, but firmly, on specific purchases, such as a calendar or daytimer scheduling book, and a school binder with subject dividers for separating class assignments. But do not stop there!

Follow up by asking for regular "organization" meetings to help her internalize and learn these skills. Do not expect her to be able to take this organization on without guidance from you. After all, she hasn't had to learn them, if you have been willing to do things for her at the last minute. And so she may truly be behind in this area of her development. Do not berate her. Instead, accept your own responsibility in the situation and teach her the organizational skills she is lacking. Make the effort to help her trouble shoot, in advance, but steer clear of any last minute "rescues".

Be thorough in your help and patient. Do not criticize, but give suggestions for using a calendar and making a schedule she can follow, based on her course outlines given by her teachers. Ask her what she thinks is a good place to put her soccer uniform after using it, so it will be available to her when she needs it. Include her soccer practices and games in her daytimer schedule. And brainstorm with her the time she will need to leave the house or school in order to get to practice on her own. Have her write it in her schedule!

Anticipate that she will have some failures as she learns the consequences and refrain from over-reacting. Be prepared to act neutrally and not intervene in consequences when she fails to stick to her schedule, (unless it involves danger, of course!) When she fails to act on her plans, remain calm, rather than agitated. Simply reflect to her that you know she will be able to get to practice on time if she left as anticipated. If she complains, simply state that the consequence of losing track of time is that she will miss practice. Suggest she wear her watch in the future.

The key to your daughter's success is helping her learn to anticipate her own needs in very concrete terms. Your daughter is a teenager. She is not an adult, nor a child. View her as a beginning adult who must still learn from you in order to make the transition to the world. It can be as difficult for parents to make the transition to adolescence as it is their child. This period calls for a change in your approach. She still needs your guidance. But it is time to teach her to fish, rather than cook her fish for dinner. Take the lead in guiding her, and she will no doubt follow!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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