I was once called in to assist with a group of teenage girls who were so rude and out of control that no-one would work with them. I sat in and observed a number of situations and saw the deterioration of every organized event. It was war between the girls and everyone else. Parents stood by wringing their hands, wanting to just have their daughters fall into line, march quietly, and make them proud. There was nothing quiet about any of these girls.
I kicked the adults out and sat with the girls who raised some incredibly valid points about their situation. I found myself liking those young women and understanding what they were saying. The adults were shocked to see the list of concerns their daughters had provided me regarding THEIR behaviour. The whole thing stemmed from the ADULTS being so preoccupied with what they wanted to teach the girls, they were not listening. The girls clearly communicated they knew their behaviour was disrespectful and that it had two purposes – 1- to communicate that they had no respect for people who did not respect them and 2 – they did not know of any other way to get their parents attention. Interesting huh? Smart cookies.
Everyone likes to talk about the teenage years. Passage through it, alive and with few scars, is a testament to our parenting abilities. Our kids that make it through do so with our hopes that their survival represents a great chance for a long and prosperous life. Many people do not make it intact. Kids are left with the constant reminder that they are “bad,” and parents are left with a profound feeling of shame .. either for the child or themselves.
The thing about teenagers is that they are at one of the most strategical points in their life towards finding out who they are. It is their job to accumulate experiences and to try things …. It is their prep school for the stuff of life that speaks to the glue that makes up life….relationships, feelings, desires, needs ….. It is their job to make mistakes. You can’t always protect them. If you can accept that and take a big breath …. here are the things you can and should do.
1. Make time to listen to your kids. You can’t wait until you discover your baby is suddenly a teenager growing in the living room, complete with acne and an attitude. It starts when they are children. LISTEN to what they are telling you. STOP what you are doing and pay attention. If a child gets in the practice of coming to you with the mundane and the ridiculous you are more likely going to be the one they come to with the important stuff .. AND it is likely to be tucked somewhere in amongst the mundane and the ridiculous in bits and pieces. Developing this skill will be your most useful tool in raising your child.
Listening means exactly that, HEAR what they are saying. Let them finish. Don’t give them answers. Help them explore the answers, prompt them, empower them. If they arrive at the answer they will own it. If you give it to them they will not develop the confidence they need.
2. Lose your shock. You are going to hear about things that you know nothing about, that go way beyond your own teenage journey, that push the envelope and that are distasteful. Pretending those things are not happening, refusing to talk about them does not make them go away for your child and it means he will go to someone else for answers and explanations. You may not like who that person is. If appropriate you can express how you feel – as an active choice .. NOT an immediate reaction.
3. Let your child know who you are. Be real. You have emotions, show them, share them. It gives them permission to do the same. One family I worked with involved children living out lives of complete hell all because they had a mother who refused to acknowledge that divorcing their dad was a horrible event in their lives. She had this permanent smile frozen on her face and this idea that because God loved her .. nothing else mattered. At one point I said to her … look, you and your kids, you are standing in a room of shit and you are all up to your armpits in the stuff. Your kids are desperately trying to get you to acknowledge that the situation sucks, that it is shit, and it stinks. You won’t even give them that. You won’t validate their experience of the situation because you can’t validate your own. Instead you are saying nothing about the shit and too busy asking them to look up at the sky and care that “the sun is shining,” and “tomorrow is another day,” and “God loves you.” I applauded her positive attitude but the practical reality of her situation also required some immediate first aid for the children.
Be angry. Be Happy. Be sad. Your doing so gives your children permission to experience their own feelings and shows them how to deal with them. It also takes the fear out of coming to you with a huge mistake or problem they are facing. Most kids immediately dismiss that option because they fear seeing their parents emotional.
Share your life with your kids, let them know about some of the mistakes you made, how you handled them and how they impacted you later on. Showing them your warts actually will take some of the barriers down kid erect when they believe you could not possibly understand what they are going through.
4. Celebrate their lives. Create joy and fun. Look at what they love, listen to their music, see their movies and talk about what you like, what you don’t .. They are sharing your likes and dislikes in your home already …. taking time to listen to theirs communicates that you are accepting that they are not you. It creates a voice of confidence in their corner that they will need and appreciate.
5. Understand your kids are going to make mistakes, they are going to push the envelope. Accept that, accept that these can be your most valuable teaching tool. What is important is what you do, once they have done those things. Think about the consequences, the life lessons that are there. Sometimes simply being with the child through the natural consequences to guide the exploration of the feelings can be crucial. A child shoplifts, they are caught, they must pay the fine, go to court, whatever. You don’t rush in and protect them for that process trying to eliminate it .. you insist on it. Teaching your child, or facilitating, how to avoid consequences is a recipe for disaster.
6. Teach them that mistakes are about a situation and decisions made. Everyone makes them, it does not mean they are a bad person, or stupid.
7. Be consistent and clear regarding rules and consequences. Have a discussion with your teenager, separate from any incident. Let them help decide on punishments. Write them down, make a contract that you both sign. Now, when it comes time to enforcing those rules, think of the traffic cop.
“Do you know why I stopped you?” If they do, let them tell you, make sure they have the full story in there. If not, you simply state, “You were speeding. I clocked you at 70 kmh in a 50kmh zone.” At this point the police officer is writing out the ticket. He is not debating it. He is not hearing any arguments. Even if the motorist is making them, it is irrelevant. Ticket is handed, payment expected, we all know the score. BE a traffic cop when it comes to meting out the punishment.
Be consistent with punishment and be reasonable. Don’t say they are grounded for a month it it means you also must ground yourself to enforce it. Punishment should be immediate and relative and the purpose of punishment is to teach consequences, to make the child STOP, and to think about what they have done. Discussion MUST follow. This is where the lessons are learned. Punishment that incorporates some sort of restitution of service for another is a good way to channel negative into positive.
8. Have perspective. Apart from someone dying, most everything else is fixable. It may not be pleasant, but move on and remember everything you do or say is shaping your child.
9. Allow your child their emotions. They are allowed to be disappointed about missing the concert now. They can cry about missing the prom. They can’t do it out where you are trying to watch tv and they can’t be destructive about it. Let them have the time they need and occasionally check on whether they want to talk. I can’t tell you how many meaningful discussions are had over the timely delivery of a glass of milk and some chocolate cookies to the bedroom of an upset teen.
10. Touch your children, love them, be expressive. We are at an unfortunate place in our genetic evolvement where kids grow incredibly fast and mature quickly. Little 13 year old girls used to still be able to climb into their daddies laps – now those same girls may be to tall, too big, and too developed to do so. Add the fact we have become paranoid over any physical interactions between adults and children when their physical maturity often does not match their emotional needs, and children who crave and need physical contact are left to seek that from their peers. Sons are face to face with moms breasts by the time they are 9 so we carefully and determinedly push our children back, fold them and place them in the closet. Rubbing a shoulder, a kiss to the forehead, ruffling of hair … and hugs .. lots and lots of hugs.
11. Teach them a basic respect for speaking to you, to older people, etc. Manners .. a universal language that is more valuable than you can realize.
12. Help them develop the skills that will empower them – critical thinking, discernment, compassion, creativity, good work ethic, communication …. help them make decisions. Support their decisions, let them make wrong decisions and use it as a tool. These skills will carry them much further than Math and English.
13. Let them be who they are, complete, unique, different from you. Do not try to map out or engineer their life to the extent they must surrender every trace of who they are. Allow that they may be nothing like you.
On our journey to adulthood we attempt to complete a process of separation from our parents. There are natural timings in all of this, where we push harder than others. Create an emotional space for your children that is safe. It should be a place where they can be who they are, make mistakes, grow and learn from them. It should be a place they can always return to. Do not take it personally when your teen decides you are no longer suitable to be seen with them in public .. instead, develop a sense of humour and remember what it was like for you. Raising teens are a challenge and it can be heart wrenching and terrifying at times but you might just be amazed at what their brilliant minds, their insights and view of the world can teach us. Children push because it is safe to do so. Give them firm walls that let them know you are there .. present in both body and spirit. That is really what loving your children is about.