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An Interview with John Duffy, Psy.D., on The Available Parent

David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: Nov 14th 2011

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John Duffy, Psy.D. In this podcast, Dr. John Duffy talks about the challenges of parenting in today's world. He believes that the variable that makes parenting smooth and effective versus making it difficult and almost wholly ineffective and frustrating is kind of an emotional sense of availability, of presence with your child. He encourages parents to make themselves available, outside of crises, to their kids for at least, let's say, 10 or 15 minutes a day. He believes that creates a connection that builds a sense of resilience, so that when things go wrong, there's that connection to fall back on. Because what he's found is that kids today often dismiss what their parents have to say. No matter what parents do, if they don't have that foundation of a connection that I call availability, their interventions are going to be less effective, and so he always encourages parents to start with the availability piece, and then Dr. Duffy think crises are fewer.

David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by, covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.

On today's show, we'll be talking with Dr. John Duffy about the challenges of parenting in today's world. John Duffy is a clinical psychologist and certified life coach with a thriving private practice in the Chicago area. Dr. Duffy works with both teens and adults, and specializes in helping parents maximize satisfaction and minimize conflict in their relationships with their teenagers.

In addition to clinical work, Dr. Duffy also consults with individuals, groups, and corporations in a number of areas, including emotional intelligence, stress management, balancing work and family, conflict resolution, goal setting, and the power of thoughts in bringing about change. Dr. Duffy's clients include Sears, Allstate, General Electric, Household Financial, Exxon Mobile, Accenture, Bank of America, and Hewitt Associates. The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teen and Tweens is his first book.

Now, here's the interview.

Dr. John Duffy, welcome to Wise Counsel.

John Duffy: Thank you so much for having me, David.

David: Well, I've been reading your 2011 book, just came out, The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens. And before we get into your book specifically, let's talk about the backdrop of cultural change that's been going on. The world has changed radically in recent years. What's the impact of that on kids' lives?

John Duffy: Well, enormous, as you might guess. I would say - I've been working with kids now for about 15 years, that teen and tween-age group, and the thing that probably has changed the most in that period of time is the influx and the glut of information that is coming their way, that they have immediate access to, and that they feel they need to kind of heed and attend to and forever be a part of - and constantly be a part of - between Facebook and texting and YouTube and all this data.

David: They're probably getting mixed messages, too, from parents; because, I imagine, on the one hand, parents are more or less communicating, boy, you need to be up with this new technology because that's what it's going to take to survive in the coming world, and at the same time I wouldn't be surprised if they're critical that they're spending too much time texting, Facebooking, etc.

John Duffy: You could not be more right. We are dealing with a very, very confused generation.

David: I'm not surprised, and I have to say I'm not sure I envy them.

John Duffy: No. I can't say I do either, and especially here we're at the onset of another school year, and there's - just to kind of dovetail on the back of what you just said - there's a different level of anxiety among young kids today. And I think part of it has to do with the data and the confusion relating to it, because parents are right on both counts: that they probably spend too much time - not as a rule, but for the most part - working with different kinds of data, playing games, talking to friends needlessly on Facebook and things like that. And at the same time, it is their future; it is a big part of how things are going to be. And the way things look in terms of technology for somebody who is 15 today is wholly unpredictable, in particular to us, to our generation, so it's very hard for us to guide them or lead them in any meaningful way because we don't know what it's going to look like any more than they do.

David: Right. I just had kind of a new thought that popped into my mind, is that I'm remembering that when I was a kid - and that's a long time ago; I'm a grandparent now - but when I was in, say, junior high, high school, I'm remembering these marathon telephone conversations that I used to have. I'd totally forgotten about that. And so I can understand how Facebook has kind of moved into that space of where it used to be these long telephone conversations because that was the only way to communicate. It's kind of morphed.

John Duffy: You know it's interesting that you say that. I had a conversation with a parent yesterday, a mom, reminding her - because she's so upset that her daughter is on Facebook frequently. I asked her what her teenage years were like and how she communicated with her friends, and she told the same story you did, that, "Well, I would take the phone off the wall and I would call - I would pull that long cord into my bedroom, and I would talk to my friends for hours a night."

David: Yeah. And even there would be long silences, as I recall.

John Duffy: Oh, sure.

David: Even if you couldn't think of something to say, there was that sense of connection and keeping that connection open.

John Duffy: Absolutely.

David: That was all completely repressed for me until just now.

John Duffy: It's so interesting what comes up when you start talking about it, isn't it?

David: Yeah. And the other thing that I sometimes reflect on, is I grew up playing in vacant lots. I was outside. I had a bike. Even though I grew up in Los Angeles, I could ride my bike I'd say as a preteen, as a teen, miles and miles away. That's kind of gone, you know, because of safety issues and so on. Kids are lucky if they get out of the house.

John Duffy: Yes, you're so right. That is gone. I grew up a lot like what you described. My brother and I, we used to get on our bikes. We'd leave at 9:00 in the morning and somewhere in the neighborhood we could hear our mom yell for dinner, you know? We knew, okay, well, it's time to eat something. And that is not the life of the tween or teenage child today. You're right. And I think a lot of it has to do with safety concerns, absolutely. And so we have this fairly cloistered generation that is - you're so right - a little bored. They don't necessarily know what to do with themselves.

David: And what about the issue of over scheduling?

John Duffy: Mm-hmm. So that's how we react to it, isn't it? We decide we're going to get them involved in sports and dance and as many activities as we can, and travel teams. I'm working with a lot of people right now who seem particularly upset with these travel-like baseball teams or soccer teams, where they have to go drive three or four hours to get to a game on a Saturday, and it literally swallows up not just the time of the kids, but it'll be parents and the entire family.

And, yeah, the over-scheduling thing is disheartening, too, because the way you grew up, what you're describing, David, is a very productive way to grow up. You have to find ways to entertain yourself, and you prove yourself kind of competent and resilient and capable on a daily basis; whereas now kids today have this like very managed time, and there isn't a whole lot of time to just play or run or kind of - there isn't that freedom that we had, and so kids have to find other ways.

David: Yes. I'm seeing that with my grandkids.

John Duffy: Are you?

David: I mean they're kind of stuck in the house, except for when their parents take them somewhere. That's it. They're just kind of stuck in the house. What about - you know, staying on the topic here a bit longer on the kind of cultural influences, impediments, etc. - what about the early sexualization that seems to go on today?

John Duffy: Yeah. I think that's kind of - that couples itself, not nicely, but poorly, with the data that comes at them. When you and I were kids, we had to go out of our way to find sexually explicit material.

David: Yeah, right. Photography magazines.

John Duffy: Right. I have a brother who was eight years older, and he wasn't even a gateway to anything like this. And what kids have access to now on their phone is far more explicit, in all likelihood, than anything that you and I would have had access to up until we were adults. And it's more than your average 8-, 9-, 10-year-old can handle. And yet I work with children that young who have been privy to the most explicit sexual material.

And they're bewildered. I mean it's disturbing and it's upsetting to them, and those minds don't yet know what to do with this material, and yet it is part of their lives. And even if they're not looking for it, if they watch television - and a regular sitcom can be driven by sexual subtones so easily that you can't watch an hour of television now, unless it's a designated children's network, without having to be exposed to something sexually explicit.

David: And movies even more so, and even movies that are "family" movies or kid-oriented movies. There's always a sort of a smirking subtext, if you will.

John Duffy: You're so right. And the only upside I can find - I try to be a very optimistic guy -

David: I'm getting us off on the wrong foot here.

John Duffy: Right, right. It's very tough. I encourage parents to, at the very least, take advantage of the opportunity to fill their kids in on the realities, without telling them too much. I think our parents - my father was able to get away with never really having a sex-based talk with me, and he died a happy man never having had to go through that awkward phase. Today's parents, we don't have that option. We have to talk to our kids about this stuff because they're being fed all sorts of information and misinformation, and I think there's kind of a tacit encouragement to get sexually involved way too early unless parents get involved and kind of circumvent that issue.

David: Another piece of this problem, I think, is corporate marketing to kids, which has become far more intense. I also, in another incarnation, I'm a market research consultant, so I'm particularly attentive to marketing and marketing messages. And I wanted to interview the woman who's written a book called something like The Cinderella Complex or The Cinderella Syndrome, or something like that, where Disney is just marketing so heavily the idea of being a princess.

John Duffy: Yes.

David: I have granddaughters who just want to wear princess clothes all the time. And there are all kinds of embedded marketing messages. We've all heard the horror stories of how many commercials we're exposed to every day. And I don't remember the numbers, but they're always chilling.

John Duffy: They're staggering, yes. And you're so right. I have a good friend who is a psychologist as well, and his daughter, she has a bedroom that is enormous. It is pink and it is filled with princess-based material. And you're right; there is meaning to that that is disturbing. I don't know if that's always been the case. My sister had Barbie dolls, and I think that that was actually a fairly benign plaything for her.

But things mean - some of these toys mean something different now, and I think you're right that it's very, very media driven. There are these television shows, and I'm going to get the name wrong, I'm sure, but there's something called "Sweet 16" or "16th Birthday," and it's about girls who have literally million dollar parties for their 16th birthday, and they are treated like princesses, and they get cars, and famous rock stars come and sing at these parties.

And I think it gives kids a really skewed sense of reality, and of entitlement, and of kind of just value, and of working for something meaningful. It all gets really skewed toward this entitlement thing, and that part is really disheartening. I think you're right about that, and it'd be interesting to revisit those numbers and see how staggering they really are.

David: Yes. So I have some psychologist friends who are very tuned in to the whole thing about marketing to children, and I think there's some effort within APA, American Psychological Association, some kind of a subgroup there, to try to take an activist stance. And I really think that needs to be done, given what we know about development and child development and so on.

We have the whole phenomenon these days of the pre-teen. I don't think we used to talk about a pre-teen, and now we talk about pre-teen and a teen. What are the challenges of being a pre-teen, if you will?

John Duffy: Yeah. I think part of the reason we haven't used that word, the pre-teen or tween - which is I think relatively new to the vernacular - is it wasn't a meaningful phase in the past. When I was a kid, a 10- or 11-year-old, well, we played. We played like kids who were a little bit younger. Now, I think the challenges that our parents had with us as teenagers, parents now have with kids who are 10, 11, 12.

So those tween years, I think, now are really actually very significant, because you're correct that kids are exposed to sexuality a few years earlier than they were just a short generation ago. And kids are exposed to the idea, at the very least, of alcohol and drugs, and all of those challenges that typically don't take place until several years later. So the challenges of being a tween-aged child, and parenting one, are myriad. There are quite a few of them, and these kids grow up very, very fast now today.

David: Yeah. So parents must be as at sea as their kids are. The kinds of cultural shifts and changes which are happening so rapidly are impacting parents' lives as well.

John Duffy: Oh, yeah. I mean parents are very - in a way, parents today are pioneers because we can't call our moms and asked how they handled Twitter.

David: Right, interesting.

John Duffy: So we're the first ones who have to figure out, okay, well, how do you navigate Facebook? How do you navigate the Internet? How do we put lines around all of the stuff our children are exposed to? And it is arduous, and I encourage parents to talk to other parents. Talk to parents with older kids, with older teenagers, and ask them what worked and ask them what didn't. Because in a way, even though people have been parenting forever, this set of parents needs to kind of invent the wheel for themselves a little bit. And I think it kind of sets the stage for how kids are parented a generation from now.

David: Wow. Well, the title of your book is The Available Parent. What are you getting at by the word "available"? Why is "available" so important?

John Duffy: As I wrote the book, I kind of - as authors do - fished around for titles. And I remember one Friday stumbling across the word "available" in my mind, and thinking about the parents that I know, my own parents, myself as a parent, and parents I've worked with, and I realized that the variable that makes parenting smooth and effective versus making it difficult and almost wholly ineffective and frustrating is kind of an emotional sense of availability, of presence with your child.

So I encourage parents to make themselves available, outside of crises, to their kids for at least, let's say, 10 or 15 minutes a day. And I think what that does is it creates a connection that builds a sense of resilience, so that when things go wrong, you've got that connection to fall back on. Because what I find is that kids today often dismiss what their parents have to say, and their parents always - I haven't worked with ill intentioned parents, ever, and I've been doing this for 15 years. But kids often don't listen. And so, no matter what parents do, if they don't have that foundation of a connection that I call availability, their interventions are going to be less effective, and so I always encourage parents to start with the availability piece, and then I think crises are fewer.

David: Well, you touch on something that might be a little bit paradoxical, which is the parent's desire to connect with the kid and to be available, and the typical teenager's desire to push the parent away. I remember when my kids were in junior high and high school, they wanted to be dropped off a block or two away from the school so that nobody would see that they had parents.

John Duffy: Right. Absolutely. Yeah, I know just what you mean, and what you're describing is a very natural part of adolescence, and I encourage parents not to take that personally. And you're right; it is paradoxical because it would seem that, if we're talking about availability, well, then you want to be available and present in those moments too.

My concept is paradoxical in large part because when I talk about availability it doesn't mean this kind of helicopter parenting that we've been hearing about lately, where we spend all this time with our teenage children, kind of driving what they do and making sure they're involved in - micromanaging their homework and their lives. But more kind of stepping back, being available as kind of consultants to them if they need us, but letting them enjoy their triumphs when they have them, enjoy their A in math, for example, and let them fall on their face and kind of figure it out, too, and kind of teach themselves that they're capable and strong and smart and resilient to themselves.

Because I work with a lot of parents who have this tendency, in this very competitive world now, to do for their kids and kind of create a false bottom of accomplishment for them. And kids know that that, in some way, is a show of no faith in their abilities, and their confidence level drops oftentimes in the wake of that.

David: You know, I hadn't encountered that term, "helicopter parents," before reading your book. I don't quite get the metaphor. Where does the helicopter come in?

John Duffy: Well, it's funny. I hadn't heard it either until I had researched - done a little bit of research with parents for my book. Helicopter parenting is literally hovering.

David: Oh, hovering. Yeah, just hovering over the kid.

John Duffy: Hovering over the kid, kind of micromanaging their lives. Being over involved. I work with a mom, for example, whose daughter is involved in dance. The daughter is 15 years old. She is perfectly capable of going to her dance class two blocks away and dancing on her own. Mom attends every class. She organizes the closet of costumes. She is the stage manager. She'll sometimes consult on dance moves. Her presence there is not necessary.

David: Right.

John Duffy: She is fulfilling some need of her own as opposed to a need of her daughter's, who probably could stand to be a little more independent of her mother. So it's that kind of thing, that over-hovering that kind of is stifling, I think, to the growth of a child.

David: Yeah. Now, you talked about another I guess typology that's been in the news lately of the tiger mother, a very popular book by a Chinese mother. What are your thoughts about the tiger mother syndrome, which a lot of people are sort of taken by that book?

John Duffy: Yes, they are. I have such mixed feelings about it, David. I read Amy Chua's book. It's actually a very lovely read. She's very open and honest about the way she has parented her two daughters, who by any measure have excelled in many, many areas of life. They both performed, for example, at Carnegie Hall, so it's hard to argue with the success of these children.

By the same token, this mother has said that she kind of has the highest of expectations; I mean nothing less than perfection. If you're going to be in a class, getting an A isn't good enough; you need to be the very best student in that class. And you will have shamed me, your mother and your father, if you do anything more poorly than that. And there are times when she will outright insult her kids: you are not good enough; this is not good enough work.

And I have to tell you, I bristle at those pieces of her parenting. There are parts of it make a lot of sense. I love the idea of having high expectations of your kids. Where she crosses a line for me is when she insults them. I never think it's useful to give a child the message that they are kind of inherently not good enough. In my APA brain, I cannot justify that.

David: Right. Yeah. I'm right there with you. And I'm glad that you mentioned that you are a parent yourself, because I think that people in the audience, many people, would be automatically skeptical about here's another expert telling me how to live my life when they haven't been there; they haven't walked the walk and talked the talk. How many kids do you have and what ages are they now?

John Duffy: I'm glad you brought that up. I have one child. He's 15, so he'll be a sophomore in high school.

David: Oh, well, some of your ideas might get challenged along the way pretty soon.

John Duffy: Well, it's funny. I joke with my son, George, that now that I've published a book on parenting teens, he doesn't have the option of misbehaving, because that will become very public very quickly. But, in all honesty, he's a great kid. We have our occasional challenges, and I am not a perfect parent by any means whatsoever. I do try to live by my word and make myself available to him, and I think that makes our relationship work better. I think it works more smoothly than it would otherwise.

And I would argue, just as I'm telling my story here, that it works more smoothly than my relationship with my father did a generation ago at George's age. And I take my cue in part from that, hark back and thinking about, okay, what worked really well there and what didn't work so well there. And today, in this day and age, the whole "wait till your father gets home, you're in big trouble" kind of thing, well, that doesn't fly very well with this generation. They're [unclear] that somehow.

David: Yeah. I came up with that. I've heard that message in my past. Now, the subtitle of your book talks about radical optimism. What are you getting at there?

John Duffy: A lot of people, as their kids approach teen years - these days, recently - they dread adolescence. A lot of parents just dread it, can't wait to get through it. I had a mom write me last week, maybe two weeks ago, saying "I hate adolescence. I can't wait till it's gone." And I think we create this dread, and we hear these awful things that have happened; that your kids are going to be surly and belligerent, and they're going to experiment, and these are those years where all the scary things happen.

And so I think we begin to look at our teenagers, or teenagers in general, as the enemy or as the ultimate challenge to our parenting. And I have to tell you, David, in all honesty, I've worked with I think by my count somewhere around 250, 300 teenagers, and I've yet to work with one that I didn't find a great fondness for and didn't find a lot of strengths in. I've certainly worked with kids who have exhibited behavior that we wouldn't want to see in our kids - without a doubt. But these are still people. They're good people. And our job is to kind of shepherd them as best we can, and as best as they'll allow us to, to become the kind of contributing adults that we want them to be.

But I think we dread it too much, and so I decided in that subtitle to go all the way the other way and talk about being optimistic about our teenagers because I think they're thoughtful people. I think they're - I find them to be smarter than a lot of us think they are. They have more common sense than sometimes their behavior exhibits, and they're empathic. They're good, caring people. And they are, to coin an overdone cliché, they are the future. We are stuck with them. So pessimism doesn't serve us very well anyway.

David: Yeah. I've been very interested in the whole positive psychology movement, and I'm hearing threads of that as you speak, as you talk about - you know, there's the idea of "catch them being good," and it sounds like you have your eye out for their strengths, and that's a good thing for parents to do as well, is to "well, what are the kid's strengths, and how can I recognize those and help to foster those?"

John Duffy: Yes. Oftentimes, when I get a referral, it's strictly based on a weakness or a fault. And my early question is always, well, tell me first what's working, what's working well. And parents often have to search their minds, but there's often quite a bit that's working well. Usually most things are working very well. Most of the time things are fine. And so I want to capitalize on those strengths. And there are shades of Martin Seligman in my book, absolutely; that positive psychology is a big part of my thinking because I think it's useful, and I think it's useful to capitalize on strengths and what works.

David: You talk about the "good enough teenager," which of course has echoes of from I think object relations psychology, the "good enough mother."

John Duffy: Absolutely.

David: What's the idea of the "good enough teenager"?

John Duffy: A lot of teenagers - and this is very much like what the object relations theory your referring to - a lot of teenagers have the feeling, whether it's correct or not, that if they falter, if they end up exhibiting behavior that is disapproved of by a parent, if they get a grade that is not good enough, they feel as if their parents feel that they are not good enough as people. And so I often encourage parents, on the worst day - when your child comes home at 17 years old and you can tell they've been drinking - on the worst day to let them know you love them. Let them know that they are good enough. This behavior is not okay, something desperately needs to change, but I love you and you're good enough.

And that message is so different than saying what one mom said to me, "I will not hug you until your behavior changes, because I don't love you until you're good enough." And there's kind of - as you can probably tell - a fundamental difference in there. And that difference is one that kids are very aware of in a very fine-tuned manner. And they pick up on that message that they are not good enough. And if that's the message, kids tend to rise to that very, very low bar, and their behavior tends to stay in the maladaptive zone.

David: To what extent are you working with kids versus working with parents or families? Because, as I hear you speak, I'm getting the sense that often - you know, there's the identified patient who's the kid, but the real source of the problem might be the parent.

John Duffy: Yes. Oftentimes, almost always, the first person on my couch, if it were up to parents, would be the child. I always ask to meet the parents first. And that's not to say that we have villains here. I don't think we do. I've never met an ill intentioned parent in my life. But I like to talk to the parents and get a feel for their parenting style and what they feel needs to change. And I want them to recognize that they play a role in - even in their child's behavior, and that there is a dynamic that is not singular, but is actually familial.

And parents are - in fairness, parents are very good about this, and parents are willing to hold themselves accountable. It's part of the reason I was comfortable enough directing my book at parents because, in my experience, parents want to hear what they can do to foster a better relationship, feel more connected to their kids, and help them to be successful. So parents are I think, by and large, selfless enough to want that.

Children are the identified patient, and I work a lot one-on-one with kids because sometimes they need to be counseled and coached as to their own role, because they often lack insight. I mean I think this happens with all of us. So I typically do family therapy. I usually chop it up into bits and pieces where I will work sometimes with the child, sometimes with the parents, and sometimes with all of them together in order to kind of get a comprehensive picture of how this plays out in the family. Because you're right; we've got an identified patient, but our issue is almost certainly systemic.

David: Okay. Well, let's talk about your advice for some of the specific issues that kids and their parents confront. For example, many schools are dangerous places these days. They even have police at some schools, and metal detectors, and things like that. What about bullying? What's your advice to either the kids or the parents about bullying?

John Duffy: Yeah. It's worse now than ever, and I'll preface this by saying I used to consult about bullying in the wake of the Columbine massacre. And we kind of - a whole bunch of us psychologists kind of got involved in finding the boys who were the bullies, who were kind of driving kids to this kind of extreme. In recent years, we're no longer just looking for boys. Girls can bully every bit as harshly as boys can, and they typically bully with words, oftentimes via text messages or Facebook messages that are absolutely brutal in their verbiage. I mean a girl said to me recently that she can ruin somebody's life in about 30 seconds if she were so inclined.

David: Wow.

John Duffy: And she meant it. So there's a lot of pat advice about handling bullies: walk away, smile, say "Have a nice day." My experience tells me that I almost have to work child by child to talk to them about how to handle bullying and to recognize - and this is an important part of the bullying puzzle, and I think our beloved APA is addressing this as well. We like to look at the bullied as our victims, and these are the people who need our help. But we have to recognize that the bullies themselves have issues that they are dealing with as well.

I work with many, many kids, David, who are both the bullied and the bullies. And so part of it is to kind of build confidence in the kids who are involved - on both ends of the equation. And then, you know, I don't think we're ever going to eliminate the kind of locker room bullying that takes place, and I think that there's kind of a natural course to that, and I don't think that's necessarily the end of the world, and sometimes I think kids who can manage being bullied in that way can find their resilience.

But the very harsh bullying I think we have to manage, and it's getting worse. And my least favorite intervention is parents getting involved with other parents. Sometimes it's necessary, but I really like it when the kids manage it themselves, because oftentimes I've worked with many kids who become friendly at some point with the people who they are bullying or who bullied them, and I think that's kind of the ultimate ending. That's my favorite ending, when kind of communication is clarified and they can find a way to connect. Now, that's a little pie in the sky. That doesn't usually happen. But we want to empower the bullied to at least walk away. And we want to empower the bullies enough that they don't feel the need to do it.

David: Well, that's a big topic, and who knows? It might be the subject of a coming book from you because it certainly is a big topic, and I know schools are trying to deal with it systemically, with what success I'm not sure. What about boyfriend-girlfriend relationships? What age does that begin? What's appropriate? I know that some of your advice might strike people as a bit unexpected.

John Duffy: Yes. Well, the first thing is, I think the age sometimes depends on the culture, the maturity level of your child, and what you as a parent are comfortable with. But I think you need to be explicit about it and be clear about it. I'm not crazy about boyfriend-girlfriend relationships before the teen years, although I will tell you that oftentimes these relationships take place almost exclusively on Facebook or texting and they're little messages. Oftentimes when somebody becomes boyfriend and girlfriend when they're very young, they never see each other at all, maybe even less than they would have otherwise.

But when kids have a close relationship like that with someone of the opposite sex, parents often bristle, right? And I imagine that when my son has a girlfriend for the first time, and I imagine that's coming very soon, that I might bristle at that myself. But it's important for parents to recognize, for we adults to recognize, that kids study themselves in a lot of ways in these relationships. These relationships are important to them, and they lay the foundation in a lot of ways for how they're going to manage relationships going forward.

I also find that a lot of kids - I'll give you an example. I worked with a 17-year-old boy a couple years ago who was doing terribly in school. He was smoking marijuana nearly daily. Really not a very engaged guy. Well, there was a girl who was a cellist in the concert choir and an A student who took a liking to him, and he realized, "Oh, I'm not bringing much to the table here, am I?" And he decided, really literally, to be a better person.

And I could have worked with him, to be honest with you, David, for years, and I wouldn't have achieved what that relationship did in the course of just a few weeks, where he decided to engage in school because he wanted this girl as part of his life. He realized, "Well, I have to be a more interesting guy," so he worked harder in school, he joined a couple of extracurricular things, and he is actually thriving now. Now, that relationship died a long time ago, but it taught him something very important, that if he -

David: That's a great story.

John Duffy: Yeah. So I encourage parents not to dismiss or fight those relationships. I also encourage parents to hang in and get to know that significant other because you can learn a lot from that person by befriending that person.

David: Mm-hmm. Now, what if your teen is gay, or you suspect your teen or preteen is gay?

John Duffy: Yes. I think that's a very rich opportunity for parents to connect with their kids, for one thing - is to open that door to that discussion, because in my experience with teenagers who have some anxiety that they might be gay, or who are very certain that they are, they're very worried about how people will take it, coming out to their families in any way - in particular to parents - and fearful that their parents will be angry, judgmental, will disown them. And the greatest gift is for parents to be open and - dare I overuse the word "available" - available and communicative with that child, because it's a very difficult thing for a child.

In some of the high schools - I'm in Chicago - in some of the high schools close to me, there are very few kids, boys or girls, who are out. And so it takes a great act of courage to come out to your family or to anybody else, and it's an uphill battle to be accepted socially. And these kids need their parents to be on their side. They need all the support they can get, because I think it's a very difficult thing to go through. But if you have allies who are living under the same roof as you, whose opinion you respect and whose ear you have, I think it makes it much, much easier for them.

David: We were talking earlier about the pressure, the sexualization pressure. What about sexting? Is that anything that you've had to deal with?

John Duffy: Oh, yes. More so in the last two years than - I would say almost exclusively in the last two years. But it has become absolutely epidemic. The biggest problem I run into with sexting, to be honest, is denial on the part of parents. There are many, many, many kids who are involved in this in some way or another. Sometimes it's unwanted, but many kids are playing with it, and it's becoming increasingly normalized.

It's actually a very disturbing trend because sexting can involve a number of things. It can involve provocative photographs. It can involve harassment, abject verbal harassment. And more often than not it involves sexually explicit language that is actually - some kids have been bold enough to show me the sexual exchanges that they have with other kids. And I have to tell you, I'm a 47-year-old guy, and I've been working with kids a long time. It takes a lot to shock me. But I was shocked. It is alarming stuff.

And I think we adults can play a role in this if our kids are listening to us. I don't think kids realize how the things they put out there are not particularly private and not necessarily temporary. It's not like passing a note in a class. It has legs, and it can be - I've worked with some kids who've been very, very hurt by having a photograph passed around or put up in public on Facebook. And it's something they bring on themselves, but they don't see the potential consequences of these actions. They really don't.

And so I find myself doing something that I preach against regularly; I find myself lecturing kids "Please don't do this. It's really going to hurt you in the end. This is not going to be a good thing in your life." I also think about what kids are expressing when they're sexting, so I talk to them about that, and what the need for this is all about. Oftentimes, what kids tell me is it's not something they're necessarily comfortable with.

It's one place where peer pressure seems to take hold a little bit. They're a little bored. A lot of their peers do it, and they feel like, "Okay, well, maybe I should kind of join in on this," and so I encourage kids to kind of decide how they want to be. And I had a mom say to her son when she found he was texting; she said, "Well, I think you'd feel most comfortable if you didn't send anything out there that you wouldn't be comfortable with me reading." She said, "I'm not going to invade your privacy any more than I feel like I have to for your safety, but if that were your benchmark, I think you'd probably think twice."

David: Well, okay. Now, you said that you found yourself saying some things that you didn't feel were totally in accord with how you normally like to operate, and that sort of leads me to an interesting section that you have in the book, that is titled "What Never Works." So maybe you could some of the parental strategies that never work.

John Duffy: Right. When I speak to parents - and I've been doing that since the book came out pretty regularly - I encourage parents, if nothing else, to look through the section on the book of what never works and, at the very least, eliminate some of this stuff from your repertoire. I used "never" a little bit tongue in cheek, but I actually - as I think about some of these things - I do think that, by and large, they don't work.

One of them is lecturing. I think a generation ago, lecturing worked okay - at times. Today's teenagers do not respond to that one-way communication. I think they feel it to be disrespectful, closed communication, and I find that a kind of an open, available, broad-based communication works much better.

You and I were talking a while ago about helicopter parents - that whole hovering, micromanaging, doing for your kids, coddling your kids, doing too much for your kids, making every meal for them instead of teaching them how to make a meal. This does not work very effectively in building your child up and building up that confidence and that self-esteem.

Underestimating. I think we might have touched on that earlier in the hour. Underestimating doesn't work. I worked with a boy not long ago whose father, in kind of a casual, flip way, suggested after looking at his report card that he might not be college material. This boy's grades plummeted in the wake of that comment, so underestimating is another thing that I feel never, ever works.

I had a boy in my office today whose parents have offered him a car if he'll get a C average in school. One of my subheadings in that part of the book is "Why Bribery Never Works." And my hunch is, if this boy gets a C average, it won't be because he's offered a car. I've worked with kids who've been offered an awful lot and have failed because, in the end, that's really a show of no confidence; that you're not going to be internally motivated to accomplish on your own, and so we need to create an elaborate method for you to achieve.

And kids recognize that. If not overtly, they recognize that subconsciously on some level, and that doesn't work. So the theme of the things that never work are if they show very little confidence in your child's internal abilities, I don't think that works very well. If the communication with your child is closed in some way, I don't think that works very well.

David: Well, I wish we had more time, because your book is just full of wonderful advice and stories, and so listeners will just have to go out and buy a copy.

John Duffy: I like that idea, David.

David: If they want to get it all. Dr. John Duffy, I want to thank you for being my guest on Wise Counsel.

John Duffy: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

David: I really enjoyed this conversation with Dr. John Duffy, and I hope you did too. He speaks so fluently and well that I can understand how he's managed to consult to all those large corporations that I mentioned in my intro. He comes across as both very knowledgeable and also very trustworthy, which I'm sure serves him very well in his work. I think the families who have the opportunity to work with him are quite fortunate.

I'm happy to recommend his book, The Available Parent, to any of you out there who are parents. It would also make a good gift, as long as you make it clear that you're not hinting that the recipient is a bad parent. I plan to give my copy to my daughter, and I'll work extra hard to make sure she understands I'm not giving it to her because I think she's a bad parent, because in fact I don't think that. Now, you can find more information on Dr. Duffy's website, which you'll find at And drjohnduffy is spelled d-r-j-o-h-n-d-u-f-f-y.

You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit, where you can add a comment or question to this show's web page, view other shows in the series, or simply page through the site, which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content. Access the show's page and show archive information via the podcast box on the home page.

If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like ShrinkRapRadio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.

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About John Duffy, Psy.D.

John Duffy, Psy.D.

John Duffy is a clinical psychologist and certified life coach with a thriving private practice in the Chicago area. Dr. Duffy works with both teens and adults and specializes in helping parents maximize satisfaction and minimize conflict in their relationships with their teenagers. In addition to clinical work, Duffy also consults with individuals, groups and corporations in a number of areas, including Emotional Intelligence, stress management, balancing work and family, conflict resolution, goal-setting and the power of thoughts in bringing about change. Dr. Duffy's clients include Sears, Allstate, General Electric, Household Financial, Exxon Mobil, Accenture, Bank of America and Hewitt Associates. THE AVAILABLE PARENT: Radical Optimism for Raising Teen and Tweens is his first book.


Reader Comments
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How applicable is this for other American cultures? - Ari Hahn - Nov 15th 2011

I enjoyed this podcast very much but I found it quite limited in its applicability across Amercan subcultures. I am both a clinical social worker and instructor in a two year college in manhattan. The student body there is mostly inner city minorities and there are significant differences between them and the relatively wealthy families that are alluded to in the interview. For instance, there was no mention of the early puberty seen in the urban African American community. It is not unusual for eight year old girl to experience menarche. Or it is questionable how many Americans actually have the concept of million dollar sweet sixteen parties. I\\\'ve asked hundreds of students about sweet sixteen parties and none of my students have had them at any cost. The reality show of \\

Very Informative - Janet Singer - Nov 15th 2011

Wow! So many different parenting and teen issues these days. Makes me glad my kids are past those years. Dr. John Duffy makes a lot of sense and I learned a lot reading this informative interview.


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