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Helping a Teenager Get Organized

QUESTION: We are raising our teenage granddaughter, who lost her parents when she was six years old. She has always been easy to raise, and we have a very close, loving relationship. But lately I am having difficulty getting her to be organized. 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, 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 grandchild 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 so that she can function more independently in her daily life.

Consider whether you are overcompensating for your granddaughter. In other words, is the fact that you help her out of these last-minute dilemmas a part of the problem? Rescuing her from the consequences of her actions (or inactions) may promote her irresponsibility. It appears that she 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 if she turns in her homework late, or if she misses half of her soccer practice. Instead, you find yourself scrambling to save her from the outcome of her disorganization. Some children need to experience limits, and disappointments, before they adapt. Perhaps this is true for your granddaughter.

While organization may come easily to you, your grandchild may be of a very different temperament. She may need to have you sit down and teach her how to organize her homework, or how to make up a timeline for finishing assignments on schedule. Do not fail to give her the support she needs, even if 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.

Follow up by establishing regular "organization" meetings to help her learn and internalize these skills. Do not expect her to be able to take on these responsibilities without guidance from you. After all, if you have been willing to do things for her at the last minute, she hasn't had to learn how to manage for herself. And so she may truly be behind in this area of her development. Do not berate her. Instead, teach her the organizational skills she is lacking. Make the effort to help her identify potential problems in advance, but steer clear of any last-minute "rescues."

Be thorough and patient in your help. Do not criticize, but give suggestions for using a calendar and making a schedule she can follow, based on the course outlines provided by her teachers. Ask her what she thinks is a good place to put her soccer uniform, so it will be available to her when she needs it. Include her soccer practices and games in her written 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 daytimer!

Anticipate that she will have some failures as she learns the consequences, and refrain from overreacting. Be prepared to act neutrally and not intervene when she fails to stick to her schedule (unless the consequences involve danger, of course!). When she fails to carry out her plans, remain calm. Simply reflect to her that you know she will be able to get to practice on time if she follows her schedule. 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 grandchild's success is helping her learn to anticipate her own needs in very concrete terms.

Be aware that it may be difficult for you, too, to make the adjustments necessary in raising an adolescent. This period calls for a change in your approach. Your granddaughter is a teenager. She is neither 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 grownup world. She still needs your guidance. But it is time to teach her to fish, rather than cook her fish for her dinner. Take the lead in guiding her, and she will likely follow.

Remember also that it can sometimes be difficult for a grandparent to play the role of disciplinarian in a grandchild's life. It is possible that by rescuing her, you are attempting to "make up" for the absence of her own parents. The task of adolescence will be for her to understand the pieces of her past, including her loss, as she establishes a solid sense of who she is in the world. You can help her by being emotionally available to her through her teen years, without stopping short of teaching her the discipline she needs to succeed as an adult.

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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