When our children are younger, they need constant guidance. It starts at birth. We learn to nurture, guide, and teach. And though our kids learn at a rapid pace and start to fascinate us with their perception, creativity, and unique personalities, we spend at least ten years focused on teaching and talking.
As parents of teens, our job changes. As a single parent to a teenage girl, one of the lessons I had to learn as my daughter grew older was to stop talking and start listening more. It was not easy (Read Psychology Today’s article, “Listening To Your Adolescent” for an insightful perspective on this topic.).
It started a few years ago, when we were in the car together, and my daughter complained to me about a friend of hers. I immediately jumped in and started pointing out where she was wrong in her approach to the problem. I offered some solutions and provided some coaching on how she could initiate the conversation and handle her challenges in a constructive way. I let her know that I was adamantly opposed to her breaking off a friendship with someone who was like a sister to her for several years over what I considered to be a trivial matter. I thought to myself, how could she not want to see this friend of hers again? The two of them have been joined at the hip for years. Why was she acting so childish? I had better step in a save her from an immature decision.
After I had finished talking, I relaxed in my driver’s seat and thought I had done my job as a parent.
Unfortunately, my daughter sat back and felt frustrated, angry, and confused. Why wasn’t I listening? Why was her dad taking the side of her friend?
By the time my daughter was a few months into seventh grade, similar communication challenges had developed between us. She was often angry at me. When her academic performance dipped, I took away what I had previously identified as privileges: cell phone use, makeup, laptop time, etc. But instead of her following instructions and changing her attitude, the old problems persisted. Some got worse.
It was not until we met with a therapist who specialized in teenagers that the true scope of my parenting mistakes, and my daughter’s frustrations, came to light.
I had heard from friends and colleagues who have seen therapists for a variety of reasons, and it seemed like everyone has had mixed results. Nevertheless, I decided it was worth a try.
What I liked about our therapist was her approach and goals. She told me from the start that she wanted to solve the current problems my daughter and I were experiencing. To do that, she needed to understand what we were thinking and how we were behaving in different circumstances. This is known as cognitive behavioral therapy. Any thinking that was inaccurate or unhelpful needed to go. Of course, I did not think that I was making mistakes. I went into therapy thinking it was my daughter that needed to change herapproach.
I’ll never forget my first real lesson; my wake-up call. It was harsh and eye-opening.
I was alone in a session with the therapist and explained a particularly nasty morning exchange with my daughter. She had failed to complete a homework assignment before school and therefore, she had to lose one of her privileges.
Very quickly the therapist’s face went from pensive to concerned. She asked me, “Please do not tell me you took away her makeup?”
That’s exactly what I had done.
I knew my daughter valued wearing makeup in school. My rationale was pretty basic. You need to earn privileges. If they are of value to you, then you will do what you need to do to keep them. If you do not get things done, you will lose those privileges.
Boy, was I wrong! And the therapist let me have it!
She told me about all the pressures my daughter was experiencing at her school. Everyone my daughter knew was focused on how everyone else was dressing and how other girls looked. To paraphrase, the therapist told me that not allowing my daughter to wear makeup was like sending her out into the world with a scarlet letter on her face that said, “I am ugly. Judge me accordingly.” What I had done, according to the therapist, was cruel and bordered on evil.
Cruel? Evil? I have to admit, I thought that was a bit extreme.
I even told this story to other parents – especially mothers. They all thought the therapist I was seeing was crazy. No one really had a problem with what I had done.
But the reality is – I did have a problem. No matter how much validation I received from my decision to take makeup away for a day, I knew the results were not positive. I weighed everyone’s input, and in the end I decided I needed to trust what the therapist was saying.
She told me what I needed to do: apologize. I could not qualify my apology either. No saying, “I am sorry, but if you had only…” It had to be simple, direct and tackle my offense head-on: “I am sorry for taking away your makeup. What I did was wrong, cruel and evil. I did not listen to you or what you are experiencing at school. It will NEVER happen again.”
After I stopped talking, I was uncertain what to expect. This was new territory for me. Would I get a door slammed into my face? More yelling?
My daughter took a deep breath and said, “Thank you! It’s about time you understood what I am going through.” We hugged and a great feeling of peace swept over both of us.
In the subsequent weeks it was my time to get coached. I listened and learned.
Here are some highlights:
- For starters, teenagers can be fast thinkers and problem solvers. We all think they lack life experiences, maturity, knowledge and skills. And in many cases, they do. But some love to solve their own problems. When a teen or pre-teen approaches us to tell us about a challenge they are experiencing, we think they want our wisdom. In fact, they often want someone they trust to listen to them as they work the problem out for themselves. The hardest part for us as parents is to keep quiet and listen. I will never forget the first time I really sat back and kept my mouth shut. I listened as my daughter worked out how she was going to talk to a person at school who had been bothering her. She went through a wide range of options, settled on a course of action and thanked me for listening. I remember thinking, “Wow. That was easy!”
- When you are approached by your teenager, turn off all distractions or things that are competing for your attention. That means turn off the TV (sorry guys, muting the sound does not count), put the phone down, stop blending your smoothie, or walk away from the computer screen. We expect attention and respect when we talk with people. Guess what? Teenagers want the same thing. Focusing your attention on them shows you value and respect them, and what they have to say.
- Keep track of your body language when they talk. I know it can be difficult, because we sometimes do not know what shocking words are going to escape the lips of our precious children. But crossing your arms, rolling your eyes, dropping your jaw or gasping is not going to help. Watch out for mocking or trivializing what teenagers are saying. Sit down with them or stand comfortably near them, and look at them in a relaxed and attentive way.
- Manage your responses. Sometimes it helps to restate what you hear them saying to make sure you and your teen are on the same page. Other times, you need to ask directly, “How can I help you? Do you want advice? Or do you need me to listen more?”
- Do not overreact. One of my daughter’s friends decided to add a small blue streak in her hair. How did her mother respond? She confiscated her phone and went through all her text messages. She then banned her from seeing certain people, and restricted her activities for weeks. I have learned that this is just one example of many in which parents may project their childhood on their own kids—jumping to conclusions that because they drank, did drugs or ran with sketchy people, that their own children must be doing the same thing. As a parent who is now a very active listener, I have become very aware of parents yelling at their kids and overreacting about the smallest things. Guess what? Doing that only shuts down your teenager’s willingness to communicate with you. I experienced it and I see other parents making the same mistake. This does not mean you do not hold your kids accountable when they make mistakes. But give yourself time to think before you react.
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