Communicating with our teenagers can be a challenge. At times, it can seem impossible to get them to open up and talk to us. When we’re lucky and they finally do, they can say some things that are really hard for us to hear.
When our child says something that upsets us, it’s easy to feel like we’ve blown it by reacting in ways that we’re not proud of and God forbid, we can only hope the neighbors didn’t hear!
You know how it goes, your teen says something, you react and tell them they’re being ridiculous or that they did something stupid, or they shoot a dagger into your heart by making a mean comment or telling you that you’re the strictest mom and that none of their friend’s moms are as unfair and “crazy” as you.
We know how the story goes, it ends badly. You walk away feeling horrible that you blew it AGAIN. Some of us have been known to go to our bedrooms and have an ugly cry or eat a bowl of ice cream. But the worst part is, you want your teen to know that they can open up and talk to you and now you feel they never will.
So what’s a parent to do?
Sometimes it’s hard to know where you went wrong in the conversation. Becoming aware of the ways in which we react that aren’t helpful, and learning how to better respond, will help you become more supportive of your teenager when they’re feeling troubled or upset and in need of guidance.
Here are 5 ways parents blow it with their teenagers and how to become a safe place for your teen to open up and talk to you.
When parents focus on the “bad” behavior versus what might be going on underneath the surface.
It’s easy to focus on our teen’s behavior and what’s negative, irritating, or unacceptable. When what they really need is for us to seek to understand what might be really going on.
This is often referred to as “seeing” your child. “Seeing” is when you seek to understand what they’re feeling, thinking, and experiencing and how that is impacting them.
What to do:
Begin to listen to the hidden messages that your teen might be saying. There is so much more going on inside of them that they are trying to process and figure out. We miss opportunities to really connect with them when we only pay attention to their behavior or the words they say, rather than being curious about how they are feeling.
Let’s say your teen is acting disrespectful or upset about something, rather than focus on their behavior be curious – what might be going on underneath the surface? Why might they be acting this way? What might they need? What might they be trying to get you to understand?
You might say something like, “I hear you’re angry. What do you want me to know right now?”
Or perhaps your daughter isn’t motivated to do her homework. Rather than getting angry that she isn’t doing what she needs to do, seek to understand why. Perhaps she needs extra help or has a learning difference that needs to be evaluated.
If we simply focus on the irritating or upsetting behavior we will miss these opportunities to really “see,” understand and support our kids.
And, listening, seeking to understand, and letting our kids know that they have been heard helps them to know and understand themselves in deeper ways.
When parents dismiss and minimize their kid’s feelings.
When we dismiss or minimize our kid’s feelings we say things like:
“It’s not that bad.”
“You’re making too big a deal of it.”
“Come on, be happy, it’s a beautiful day, snap out of it!”
Maybe there is even a bit of truth in what we’re saying. BUT to an adolescent, some things can seem like the end of the world.
Recently, one of my kids was really upset. In an attempt to bring some perspective I tried to rationalize with them, saying “It’s not as bad as you think.” It only made things worse.
In their world, it was that bad. And, come to think about it, I was also upset about it. I was telling them it wasn’t that bad in order to calm myself down too.
In my experience, as parents, we react out of our own discomfort when our kid expresses sadness, discouragement, anger, frustration, or some other emotion that is uncomfortable for us.
And it makes sense – What loving parent doesn’t want their child to feel better?
It’s normal for parents to want to push away uncomfortable and upsetting feelings that their child has (and that we have too). However, it’s not helpful when we dismiss, minimize, or attempt to make it better. There are more supportive and effective ways to respond.
What to do:
Listen and use empathy.
Listening with empathy provides your child with the greatest comfort. Empathy is what makes our kids feel heard. They feel understood and like they make sense. It’s your acceptance of your child’s unhappy feelings that will give them the tools to better cope with the situation.
Empathy sounds like -“That is hard.” Or, “I can see how upsetting this is for you. I’m here for you.” This will go a long way in providing your tween or teen with what they really need (not advice but to feel heard and understood) and building a strong relationship.
The idea is to try to reflect back and put into words what you think your child might be feeling instead of reacting out of your feelings. You can always check it out by asking them, “Have I got that right?” They will usually correct you and say more.
When parents are judgmental and label their kids.
Maybe you remember a time when someone judged and labeled you, “She’s a “C” student.” “He’s difficult.” “She’s klutzy.” And, it has stuck with you like gum on the bottom of your shoe, as much as you try to take it off, it’s hard to get rid of.
We often judge and label our kids without even knowing it. We jump to assumptions about what they are doing, why they are doing what they’re doing, and what is going on in their head without even checking it out. And, our kids feel it.
“She’s the athletic (or shy or artistic) one.”
“He’s just like me, a pleaser,” or
“She’s stubborn, just like her dad.”
“He’s lazy or ODD.”
Parents want to make sense of their kid’s behavior. However, when you label and judge your child you limit them. They begin to pick up on our labels and it takes root, oftentimes becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy in forming their own limiting beliefs.
The truth…our kids see themselves through the mirror that we reflect back to them.
“My parents said I wasn’t capable. They always said I was difficult. I guess that’s just who I am.”
When parents judge their kids it puts a wedge in the relationship and impacts their self-confidence.
Labels or even diagnoses box kids, in, and prevents parents from really seeing their children in the totality of who they are – a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, areas where they need support, tools, and skills to mature and develop.
What to do:
Avoid labeling your teen and limiting them. Hold them with positive regard and believe they are capable.
Seek to understand their personality and what motivates them. Find ways for them to develop their strengths. Remember, what you focus on grows!
Catch them when they are doing something “right” and affirm them. If your teen has a tendency to not pick up after himself and you catch him bringing his dishes to the sink, affirm him, “Thanks for helping out and bringing your dishes to the sink.” Look for evidence to disprove your label and counter-act it.
Get the support to develop the skills your teen is lacking. Each and every teenager has areas where they still need to learn and develop specific skills. They are a work in progress (and so are we).
When parents catastrophize.
Catastrophizing is an irrational thought that has us believing that something is far worse than it actually is. Catastrophizing can generally take two different forms: making a catastrophe out of a current situation and imagining what is happening at that moment or blowing it up in your mind to be a future catastrophe.
When our teenagers make mistakes, argue, don’t think, make poor decisions, break the rules, or don’t do their homework, to name a few, it’s easy to worry about what the future holds for them.
Unfortunately, what often happens is we overreact out of fear and anxiety, which results in us yelling, threatening, or laying down overly harsh consequences.
What to do:
Think back to what you were like at their age (yikes!) It’s important to remind yourself that growing up during the teen years is a developmental process. Chances are there were some significant areas where you had some growing up to do, If you’re like me, you look back and are amazed that you have come such a long way.
Focus on the here and now and address the specific issue proactively versus calling up a laundry list of past mistakes or offenses or how this is going to impact their future negatively (fight the urge to go there).
Normalize where they are at developmentally – they are going to test the boundaries, make mistakes, and “not be thinking” (read more on the adolescent brain here). These behaviors are age-appropriate.
They are in this developmental process where they are trying to separate from us and they’re fighting for independence. It makes total sense that they wouldn’t like us saying “no” to their requests. They want to be their own boss. Not only that, but they also don’t always have the skills and the tools to communicate in responsible ways.
When you beat yourself up and feel like a failure when you blow it.
We’ve all be there – your tween or teen says something to you that hits your hot button. Before you know it, you’ve blown up, yelled, and said a few things that you wish you hadn’t. You feel terrible and like a horrible mother. Then comes the relentless beating yourself up, “I’m a bad mother.” “If I only would have _____(fill in the blank) this would never have happened.” “I should have_____.” “I shouldn’t have _______.”
It’s exhausting and we are our own worst enemy!
What to do:
When this happens, and it will, because after all, we are human, remember, the key is repair, repair, repair.
We’re going to blow it. We will make mistakes AND there’s no such thing as perfect parenting.
Make a commitment that you will make amends when it’s needed and apologize. Own what you could have done differently and then practice trying on new behaviors.
When there’s a breach in your relationship with your tween or teen, reconnect as soon as possible and apologize when necessary.
So, here’s the thing…we’re going to blow it sometimes. We’re not always going to say things all sweet and nice. We’re going to forget and react in ways that we wish we hadn’t. The good news is, just like our teen we are learning to do things differently. We can say to them, “Hey, I’m right there with you. I’m learning too. I blow it sometimes and I’m going to work on changing how I respond.” And, then, we can extend grace towards ourselves and our kids.
When we’re curious to understand our teens and what they need, listen to their feelings and seek to understand, believe in their unique gifts, and trust in their incredible potential, we can support them to thrive, and build a great relationship with them.