Ann Kramer, a licensed professional counselor in Cary, started her college career studying social work, but soon changed her mind.
“Halfway through I was raising my hand saying, ‘Everything you teach me is how to fix people after they break,’” she says. “‘Why don’t you teach me how to help people not get broken in the first place?’”
Her professors all had the same answer: We don’t do that.
But that’s what Kramer had set her heart on doing, so she switched majors to study psychology and, later, received dual master’s degrees in counseling and early childhood development.
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For the past 20 years, she’s been working with teens and their parents to help them learn the framework of what she calls “The Life Puzzle.”
“The Life Puzzle model I created over time working with clients,” she says. “What I found is we don’t really have a framework for what it means to put together a really whole life.”
Kramer contacted me after one of my recent columns. I wrote about being fairly stymied about how to raise a good person. Teaching things such as integrity, responsibility, charity and work ethic seems a lot trickier than changing diapers.
Turns out, I wasn’t too far off the mark. There’s actually a complicated developmental process in child psychology that’s broken into five categories – physical, spiritual, thinking, sexual and emotional. It consists largely of building over time what Kramer calls “edges,” or boundaries in these areas, which often don’t fully develop until the 20s.
“The reality is we’ve really only been studying child development for maybe the last 50 years, and we’re just beginning to fully understand the developmental stages of young children, middle school and high school,” says Kramer. “And, actually, our childhood has extended now to 25 years because brain development has kept going as we’ve evolved.”
Kramer is offering a Life Puzzle workshop for parents and teens April 25 in Cary based on a project she completed for the University of South Florida in tandem with a state social services agency.
“Originally, they hired me to do it as a teen program, but then realized that we needed the parent component,” she says. “This was actually a six-week program for kids coming through the courts system.
“But what we found is the parents started out upset but left feeling like it was just the best thing that could’ve happened for them and their kids.”
I wanted a few nuggets from the workshop, so I wondered about the biggest mistake we’re making as parents of teens.
Ironically, we’re not letting them make mistakes, or that we’re making them feel terrible about the fact that they’re making mistakes because we take it personally, thinking it reflects poorly on our parenting skills.
“Most parents really don’t understand the developmental stages kids are going through, especially in the teen years,” Kramer says. “It’s a very crucial time for building emotional boundaries and thinking boundaries where we make our choices.
“Too many times parents get mad at the kids for making a mistake, and then the child internalizes, ‘There must be something wrong with me. Why don’t I do everything perfect?’”
Kramer advises parents to be proactive instead of reactive, calmly assessing each situation and mistake, asking good questions like “Why do you think this happened?,” “What will you do next time?” and “What will be the consequence next time?”
“Some of the things that these kids are doing, they’re not doing them to be awful,” Kramer said. “They’re doing them because they’re in a learning curve of building that boundary. They don’t know how to do it well.”
The workshop teaches both parents and teens how to talk to each other calmly, even when they’re upset. And, oddly enough, Kramer says she often sees more changes in the parents than the teens as parents realize they’re still working on their own life puzzles.
“What you realize at the end of this workshop is you and your life puzzle are still under construction,” she says, using my 11-year-old as an example in perspective.
“You’ve got 16 core areas and five edges that create the self, and you’ve had 40-plus years to put it together. He’s had 11 years to put it together. So who’s going to have more pieces?”
Uh, me? I mean, definitely me.
“I’ve worked with parents where the kids actually have more pieces,” she said.
The workshop teaches kids and parents alike – taught in separate rooms by the way – that the process of building a life puzzle takes time and can’t be rushed. Of course, that requires patience.
“One of the biggest things parents don’t realize is how long it takes to really form a self,” says Kramer. “And so the real joy that I love is when I’m going through the five boundaries of formation and showing parents when they should expect their teen to start this and finish this.”
But what about convincing your teen to go? That’s the hardest part, says Kramer. And, sometimes, only the parent shows up, which still yields good results.
“Tell your kid it’s about how to get self esteem,” Kramer says. “Deep down inside, they don’t like themselves yet. This is a workshop about how we form a self and really get cool in owning our own lives. But it’s torture, yes, getting kids to come.”
For information on the April 25 workshop, in conjunction with Lesli Doares MS LMFT, go to www.lifepuzzle.com and www.trianglewholewellandgood.com. The workshop is limited to 10 parent-teen pairs and costs $50 per pair.