There comes a point when communicating with our kids starts to become more awkward. Our sweet little babies used to be so easy to talk to! They hung on every word we would say and seemed to really find what we talked about interesting and helpful. When they had a problem arise, we could direct them and help them solve these problems with success. Unfortunately, as our kids grow up, they become less interested in our thoughts to help them. They are starting to have their own opinions and becoming more interested in how their peers think and feel. As a result, we may notice them feeling upset at times but not wanting to discuss things with us. There isn't much that we as parents worry more about than our kids, so when this starts happening, it can be scary and unnerving. It just doesn't feel right that we can't help them.
The truth is that if you put 50 parents of teenagers in the same room and had a dialogue about this, just about everyone would be able to relate. This is a pretty universal change and it's something that is supposed to take place with our teenagers. Typical development dictates that they are supposed to separate from you… regardless of the fact that it doesn't feel good! Their "job" is to start doing things more on their own because they are attempting to gain independence. Sure, they're going make mistakes and do really immature things, but they are inherently driven to do it anyway. And just as we all did when we were younger, they're going to learn and develop the way they're supposed to. Knowing this doesn't stop us from sometimes inadvertently rubbing the communication with our kids the wrong way. See, when we're nervous and unsure, we often feel like we have to say more....instruct more. We worry for them and it can cause us to overstep our bounds at times. My hope is that we can turn these awkward and often unproductive experiences into opportunities...opportunities for guidance, support and trust.
First off, don't be afraid of your kid. As I shared in last month's blog, that cranky and surly attitude isn't the only gear they're driving in! Be patient and find the right time to let them know you're their for them. If they need you, they'll give you the chance to be of help.
Now...when your kid comes around and accepts the invitation....zip your lip! Depending on how expressive your teen is, knowing when they've accepted this invitation isn't always clear. They may not make it obvious so keep an eye and ear out for when they're ready. When that happens, stop what you're doing, have a seat near them, make eye contact, be patient, and just listen.
While your listening, try to look at what they're saying through their eyes, not your own. Imagine what it's like to be them by going back to the way you might have thought of the scenario when you were their age. This will help you display more empathy and be more trustworthy. This doesn't mean you have to say a lot.....validating with facial expressions and body language can do more than you could ever imagine. Teens are becoming more adept and sensitive to these things, because they're experiencing them every day with their friends. If you are looking at through their eyes, navigating these non verbal communications can be a lot easier.
Don't be afraid to ask them questions to let them know that you want to understand what they're thinking and feeling. And if they tell you that you don't understand them because of the questions you're asking, take a break from the questions and go back to listening. You may feel like your sitting through a terribly disorganized soap opera, but just deal with it! Their emotions may be all over the place and they may not be real clear with their story, but it will become clear, as long as you're patient. Remember, you are their model at that moment for organization and calmness...they need that from you far more than your words of wisdom.
Lastly, offer advice when you are asked for it. You will have plenty of opportunities to still direct and instruct with things like homework, chores, etc. Their thoughts and feelings are just that....THEIRS, so allow them to own them. If you are given the chance to share your opinions, make it worth their while. Let them know that you understand the challenges and don't minimize the problem by making it seem easy to deal with. Give them a sense that they have choices when considering their options for addressing the problem they're experiencing. These choices will be considered, regardless of the direction they end up going in.
In the end, many good things happen when we go at the communication this way. We model good problem solving, active listening, caring, and empathy. We show our kids that they can trust our reactions and be a source of support and guidance for them. And, we show them that we are starting to trust them so that they can trust themselves.
“Life is so unfair”
“nobody understands me”
“I can’t do it”
“everyone hates me”
“it’s too hard”
“I have no friends”
All of these reek of self loathing. When teenagers aren’t making these sentiments clear with their words, we often see it in their actions. Slumped shoulders and posture, slow and aimless walking, and of course that sourpuss expression on their face….all indicators that our teenagers aren’t feeling so great about themselves. Our once wide-eyed and cheerful little cherubs have shifted to moody and grumpy kids… seemingly overnight. This is pretty hard to watch happen to our kids, however, understanding and knowing how to handle their negative feelings and perceptions is a must when we are looking to help them become confident young people.
Most of us remember what life was like as a teenager. That is, unless we successfully blocked much of it out from our conscious memories. Not many of us would go back and relive our middle school years and we typically don’t think of those days as the best times of our life. No… the truth is that those years were really freakin’ hard! Weird and uncomfortable body changes, awkward social situations, and growing school demands make up a large percentage of daily life for teenagers. Much of what they have to do isn’t much fun. When they do have time for fun, the things they want to do are frequently not in their best interest. As a result, they are hearing “no” more than ever before, which leads them to be more annoyed and irritable. Now, put the “sugar on top” of this heaping mess…self reflection and self-doubt. They have entered the stage of life where they are beginning to question themselves as individuals. “Who am I”, “what is my worth”, “can I do well at the things people want me to do well with”, “what will I become”, etc…. all very big questions with no immediate answer
OK….now that your thoroughly depressed, lets bring on the bright side. Because all of us have been here before, we actually have it in us to be a tremendous resource for our kids (that is unless they need help with their algebra homework;)). You see, we all know that while things may not be simple and easy right now for them, life can and will eventually get better.
So here are the do’s and the don’ts:
Do: Be patient. They are still kids. Yeah, maybe they don’t look like that sweet baby from just a few weeks ago, but really they are! They’re in there…just a bit more confused and fighting harder then ever to make things work for them. They will make very stupid mistakes but be patient. This is how they are going to learn….it’s the only way for them to get to the “other side”. More importantly, if they see you being patient with them, they may end up being more patient with themselves.
Don’t: Go ballistic over things. Their mistakes are frustrating….I totally get it. Their thoughts and actions may make your head spin sometimes. I totally understand. The problem is that the anger you give to them provides them nothing. They will only learn to avoid you in order to avoid your reactions. What’s more is that even though your teen may be treating you like you don’t know anything, they really believe you know a lot, even if they aren’t realizing it at that moment. You are their model for emotional control and you are being watched and learned from all the time.
Do: Be Empathetic. Listen when they talk to you and try not to “teach” them anything while they are venting or complaining. They need to communicate to become more sure of themselves and if you’re lucky enough to be on the receiving end, you should know that you’re being trusted and valued at those moments. They need to know that you’re there for them….free from judgement. They are sorting out their confusion and when you validate through empathy you are showing them that their words are meaningful and valuable. Active listening is your best tool to teach them they are worth a great deal.
Don’t: allow arguments to go on for too long. Find a way to calmly end the debate once you notice that it’s becoming unproductive. When ending it, explain the purpose of the break….it is a pause so that we can try again when calmer heads prevail. This actually indicates that we have confidence in them that we believe they are capable of having this kind of dialogue. Again, you’re modeling good judgement by ending something calmly and they will likely adopt this practice from you over time.
Do: be consistent and follow through. Your kids don’t trust themselves and they need you to be in charge. That means you are making decisions based on equal parts emotion and thought….not one or the other. Being reasonable sometimes means you have to be the bad guy (or girl), and that really is ok. They’ll learn from your example and develop their own ability to set limits for themselves. Too often parents try to be friends with their kids. This is born out of the parental fear that we will lose our kids if they don’t like us. I promise you it is entirely possible to irritate your kids and still have them like you. In the end, they will respect and trust you….both critical components to feeling love.
Don’t: feel like you need to get the last word in. Just because we may get the last word in, it doesn’t mean we have won anything. In fact, by not getting the last word in, you are showing your teen that you are comfortable walking away from something without having to beat someone else. They will see you as confident and not desperate to win an argument.
Do: let things “go” once the issue has ended. Far too often we try to rehash debates and conversations. Do we really think they are hearing everything you are saying? They are too busy being in their own head space trying to figure out what they themselves are thinking. Lectures and discussions doesn’t translate to self worth.
Don’t: Compare your teenager to other teenagers. No two teenagers are alike, nor should they be. Your kid is already doing enough comparing….the last thing they need is to be judged alongside their peers. Their behavior, thoughts and feelings are their own and they should be treated as such. Even if you’re thinking it, don’t say it!
Do: Trust the process. Adolescent development is a long road and there may be periods that are worse than others. Ride the roller coaster and enjoy the small success’. One of the biggest hindrances is expecting more than what is possible. Baby steps forward are far better then big steps backward.
Don’t: Be afraid of your teenager. Teenagers will often behave in a way that suggests they want to be left alone…and of course they sometimes do want their space. A central component to adolescent development is the drive to become independent and self sufficient. That said, when you are presented with a surly, and resistant son or daughter, a good part of that may be because they are feeling confused and unhappy. Due to their sensitivity, they can easily mistake your anxiety about approaching them as disliking of who they are becoming. Prove them wrong. and show them your love. The end result may just be a young person who feels they are worthy of that love.
And finally, Do…ask yourself if you acted in a way that you would want your teenager to act. If you can answer yes to this because you modeled empathy, love, understanding, and confidence, you should trust that these themes will be searing into your kid over time.
This parenting work is hard and it may tax every last shred of patience at times. But really, nobody ever said this was going to be easy. After all, we don’t want our kids to feel that life is easy, do we? Being a winner is about working hard for success and feeling proud of those accomplishments. As you’ll see in the article below, the sacrifices that we want our kids to make are often the ones that make us the most proud of them.
Most of us think of "winning" as something that is determined by the outcome of a game. As a kid I played a lot of sports. Put a ball of any kind in front of me and I was happy. When i got to high school, it became evident that my 4'11 inch frame wasn't going to work on most athletic fields. Then a friend of mine talked me into trying out for the wrestling team. Seeing as how I was the only one light enough to wrestle in the smallest weight class, I became a wrestler. This all seemed pretty cool until I realized that I actually had to learn the sport! The forum for learning was wrestling practice and let me tell you these practices were nuts. Long hours six days a week, 85 degree workout rooms, lots of running, and a whole lot of pain. I can't recall the number of injuries I tallied during those years, but I know there were a plenty. What I do recall, however, are all the positive feelings I had during those days. Joy, pride, confidence, a sense of earned relief....these are the feelings that were experienced countless times during those four years.
Time moves quickly and those days are long gone. I have been practicing as a child and adolescent psychotherapist for almost 20 years now. I have met thousands of kids who are inevitably struggling with something in the their lives. One client that comes to mind is a 14 year old boy was brought in by his dad just after his mother passed away a few years back. As a result of this LOSS, he began withdrawing from things that he always used to enjoy....school, friends, family, you name it. The job we had was very clear. This boy needed to grieve for his mother and not LOSE himself in the process. He needed to shed the feelings of guilt, disappointment, and sadness that were overwhelming him. The hard work that this boy did was painful, time consuming, exhausting, and ultimately, life changing. And for the father-there unfortunately was no room for what he wished he could provide...a solution and immediate improvement. He would have done what any of us wish we could do in a similar situation...make all the pain go away. Instead, he learned over time to give what was most needed....patience, unconditional love, empathy, and the growing confidence he had in his child that the child couldn't find in himself.
How do we as parents contribute to make Winner's out of our kids? As I look back on my wrestling career, I acknowledge that I lost many more matches than I won over those four years in high school. More significant, my client never got back the mother that he lost. However, the black and white outcome of "wins or losses" is not what ultimately determines whether we, or our kids are true winners. It is the process and the road that is traveled that ultimately plays the most powerful role in the true determination for everyone-young or old. Every experience is inevitably an opportunity that has the potential to add to a young person's healthy emotional reservoir. As a result, all parent's share in the opportunity by offering support, guidance, structure, and unconditional love. By doing this over and over and over, we will ultimately see a young person develop Self Confidence, Resilience, and Productivity. Self Confidence, Resilience, and Productivity... the three most important aspects that make us all Winners in Life.
It's safe to say that these qualities aren't measured or seen in any win/loss column. It is our job to model and pave the path towards these core strengths. And as we look ahead to many more months of this fantastic new forum, I will share my views on how to foster these aspects in our children.
Daniel Weiner, MA LPC, LLC
41 North Main Street, Suite 303
West Hartford, CT 06107
PH: (860) 677-0028
Fax: (860) 461-1514