Q&A with Annie Fox, Parenting Expert, Teen Advisor, and Author

Annie Fox is a trusted parenting coach and family resource providing practical tools to parents of tween and teens to help them maintain a strong family foundation. She’s also a long-time Marinite. I caught up with Annie to discuss her secrets of successful parenting.

I was surprised to learn your degree is in human development and family studies with a Masters in Education. How did you end up as a trusted resource especially for t(w)eens and what, exactly, would you call yourself?

I am a parenting coach, a family change-agent, a writer, a character educator, and online adviser to t(w)eens for almost 18 years. Not necessarily in that order. Most often I just call myself Annie. ;o)

The t(w)een years are such a challenging time in life. What drew you to focus on this group?

In the fall of 1996, I carpooled my daughter (17) and son (11) and their friends, which gave me the opportunity to do what I love; talk to kids. I engaged them in conversations about tests, crushes, who was dating who and I would give them advice. The kids appreciated these honest and intimate conversations with a trusted adult. We talked about stuff that mattered to them! I knew I had a gift for giving advice and dreamed up the idea for a website where t(w)eens could ask question of a "teen adviser." In June 1997, I launched theinsite.org, and the emails poured in. Since then, I answer email daily from all over… US, Canada, UK, Zaire, Portugal, Singapore … it’s mind boggling the reach of this thing and without any advertising. 

Do teens around the world have common problems to American teens?

There are distinct phases all kids seem to go through. For example, many of them are very focused on peer approval and social status. Typically their questions focus on wondering how to get someone to like them, or how to resolve a conflict with a friend. Struggles for more independence from parents are common, too. The emotional, physical and psychological challenges of growing up, on a developmental level, are universal.

Have you seen any new issues arise since you started in this field? 

The new one is obviously social media and the amount of time kids spend on it. It’s an extension of peer relationships. Adults distinguish social media from the “real world” but with kids it's seamless. When there is trouble in the lunchroom or on the bus or playing field, there is trouble on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram. Much of their social life is playing out on an unsupervised “playground.” Kids are full of emotions over which they have very little self-control. They also are challenged in the area of “thinking ahead.”  They can’t predict the outcome of their choices. This can get them into big trouble with peers and adults. Technology is like a loaded gun and when kids are angry, hurt or jealous their fingers are on the trigger. 

What are the biggest issues t(w)eens email you? 

In any language or culture, kids ask me, “Why is my friend not acting like a friend?” There are lots of different variations to that. I’ll read you one I just received yesterday. 

"I have two best friends. They are twins. We’ve been close since we were babies. We’re in the same class and all go to the same dance school. Lately things have changed. They got a new best friend and I am the one always left out. I tell myself that I need to move on but it’s hard because we have so many memories together. They said they are quitting dance and that is heartbreaking to me because we have danced together our whole lives. I never thought in a gazillion years they would ever quit."

She goes on talking about being jealous of this new friend and how she talked to the twins about feeling replaced. She continues, “Honestly, I am scared I am going to lose them. They listen to me and later they don’t take notice of me. I don’t know if you realize what I mean but it’s so hard to see your best friends with somebody else.  It’s hard to start a conversation and they’ve gone from people I know, to people I knew. I really want to be their best friend again."

The interesting thing about being an adolescent, you are transitioning from childhood to a young adulthood and everything is changing rapidly. Now you’re suddenly on shaky grounds with yourself and with your peers, which is what this girl is talking about. Teens often long for the past as they race toward their future. These kids are so insightful as they write about what they are feeling and what’s happening around them. They are observant and willing to be vulnerable (because they are anonymous). I feel privileged that she’s chosen to trust me in this way.

How would you respond to this email?

"I do understand what you are feeling. It is hard to feel like your best friends don’t care about you as much as you care about them. You are also probably worried that you will never find another best friend who will make you feel as special and wanted as these two girls. I get that. But you cannot control the hearts and minds of other people. These friends have their own life to live just as you do. If they want to spend more time with their new best friend they will. If they are done with dance, they will quit. There is nothing you can do to control what they feel or think or say or do, but that doesn’t mean you are powerless in this situation. Right now you are feeling sorry or yourself. I understand the self-pity, but it’s not helping to keep telling yourself, ‘I’m always the one who keeps getting left out.’ Just the opposite, telling yourself that is making you feel worse and holding you back from what you need to do. Do you know what that is? Hint: It has to do with reaching out to someone else in friendship. Think about what I said and write back. We’ll talk some more."

Most of the time, when they write to me, they know they need to move on. Now she has to think about who she's going to sit with at lunch or pair up with during free time. Girls often think, "I did something wrong." It’s harder for them now then when they were younger. This whole episode will play out in the echo chamber of social media, and then it’s no longer just between her and her friends. People take sides, rumors start and it gives it more of a shelf life than before social media. And it hurts longer and a lot more.

I've been observing t(w)eens play and they are always on their own electronic devices and parallel playing like toddlers. They no longer make eye contact or even look up.

I know what you mean. I worry about them losing social skills. They're certainly losing the ability to empathize and that comes from looking at someone in the eye and reading the other person’s face when you speak. They need to balance screen time with being with people without a screen in between. But the technology is addictive. If you try to take a drink out of the hands of an alcoholic you will not be greeted with smiles. The more unsupervised and unlimited exposure kids have to screens in general and social media in particular, the less likely they will be able self-regulate. At this age, their brain development does not easily support self-regulation or being able to predict the outcome of their choices. 

How do you balance social media and foster an empathetic young adult?

The balance comes from parents and teachers continuing to prioritize ethical behavior so children know that how we treat people (online and off) what is important. Building character doesn’t happen in one conversation. Children need parents to set limits on technology. Kids don’t usually take the time to stop and reflect when they are on social media. They are, instead, pressured to react… instantly. Without time to think, they are more likely to make thoughtless choices online. It seems that kids are losing essential social skills. Research shows that without people skills, you are not going to get very far in life. Everyone wants a zillion LIKES, to prove their popularity. LIKES aren’t evidence of anything that really matters. They are just a numbers game. They certainly don’t measure social skills.

In an interview I did with Simone Maren of Girls Leadership Institute, she said, “A middle school girl who’s trying to not only achieve perfection in her real life but also craft a version of herself online that is likable to get lots of likes. It can be draining to constantly curate two version of yourself.”

The other co-founder of GLI, Rachel Simmons, has a great book about this: The Curse of the Good Girl. It talks about the dichotomy between who I really am and the online version of myself. That concept of authenticity is an important one when we talk about integrity between our private and public self. An effective measuring stick for a psychologically healthy person is one who is comfortable in his or her own skin.

I also interviewed Jennifer Senior, author of "All Joy And No Fun: The Paradox Of Modern Parenthood" said the problem is not with the kids, it’s with parents and modern day parenting. How is parenting affecting t(w)eens?  

When a kid writes to me about what they should do I wonder; is there no parent they feel comfortable to go to or model? This kid lacks practice thinking about what to do next or answering these questions for himself or herself. Parents should be encouraging children to be problem solvers. When parents or kids contact me and ask what to do; I ask them questions to get them to think about what’s going on and what options are currently open to them. I want to give them practice thinking in this way, so next time these feelings comes up in a relationship, they will be better equipped to find their own effective solutions.

Can you talk about the Middle School Confidential series of books and apps and the areas they discuss?

There are three books/apps in the series for 5th through 8th graders. Book 1 is Be Confident in Who You Are, Book 2 is Real Friends vs the Other Kind, and Book 3 is What’s Up With My Family? They're graphic novels with smart-talk life skills peppered throughout. I am answering the common questions I receive via email in these books. In addition to the graphic novel storyline, there are quizzes, empowerment tips, and insightful quotes from real kids sharing their experiences on a range of middle school issues. Teachers use the books and apps as a resource to support SEL (Social Emotional Learning). Without schools paying attention to our human/emotional side, it’s hard for kids to succeed academically. 

One acronym that intrigues me is FOMO - Fear of Missing Out.

I’ve never heard of that one! Fear of Missing Out. I like it. It describes the experience tweens and kids so perfectly. Imagine you are a 12 year old and you’re with family when you’d rather be with your friends. What does that feel like? How can we, as parents, relate to our child’s feelings? You probably felt that way when you were that age… even before social media! I certainly did. We parents should talk about these feelings and have empathy and compassion with the kid who feels “My real life happens with my friends.” Even though we empathize, family time is essential. Kids of all ages need the safe-haven of ‘family.’ They also need a break from the noise of social media and the social garbage they swim in there. We all need more balance in the digital age… family time provides that. So we need guidelines that prioritize family time so that it happens, regularly. And make sure you get buy-in with your kids on what you will do during family time. Make it positive and fun and your kids are likely to continue wanting to spend (some) time with you. 

What’s next?

I am currently working on teen novel about a 7th grade girl who commits suicide after an intense period of peer harassment. It’s a heavy subject, but an important one for young readers to face and explore. After 18 years in this line of work, talking to kids at schools and coaching parents, I'm in a unique position to create a fictional teen universe that feels very real. I think reading this book could be a game-changer for 11-14 year olds.

Annie Fox, M.Ed., is a parenting coach, award-winning author and app developer, host of a video podcast, and trusted online adviser for t(w)eens. Her life’s work is helping parents to help their children effectively manage their emotions and their relationships so they can feel good about who they are. Her books include The Girls Q&A Book on Friendship: 50 Ways to Fix a Friendship Without the DRAMA. (for 8-12 year old girls).  And Teaching Kids to Be Good People, a guide for navigating 21st century parenting challenges. Connect with her at AnnieFox.com, her blog, blog.AnnieFox.comon Twitter at @Annie_Fox and Facebook.