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Hope for Moms With Boys That Struggle to Emotionally Regulate with Jen Kehl

If you’re tuning in today and you have a tween or teen that is challenging – maybe they’re disrespectful, arguing constantly, or have explosive emotions – you are going to want to listen to today’s episode:

It’s real.

It’s raw.

And it’s honest.

Today, I’m interviewing Jen Kehl, CEO here at Moms of Tweens and Teens, who is also a ninja mom of an adolescent boy. She is a writer, podcast host of the show, Watch This, Not That, and social media extraordinaire. Not to mention, she is a wonderful friend.

If you’re a momma of a boy, you should give this episode a listen!

Scroll down to read the full episode transcribed, if you don’t have time.

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Where To Find Jen Kehl: 

What You Will Learn: 

  • How she struggled with her son’s angry outbursts, disrespectful behavior, and attitudes.
  • What she learned that turned the titanic around.
  • What led her to have a close and connected imperfect relationship with him today.

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And here is the episode typed out!

Welcome to the Moms of Tweens and Teens Podcast. If some days you doubt yourself and you don’t know what you’re doing. If you’ve ugly cried alone in your bedroom because you felt like you’re failing. Well, I just want to let you know you are not alone and you have come to the right place.

Raising tweens and teens in today’s world is not easy. And I’m on a mission to equip you to love well, and to raise emotionally healthy, happy tweens and teens that thrive.

I believe that moms are heroes, and we have the power to transform our family and to impact future generations. If you are looking for answers, encouragement, and to become more of the mom and the woman that you want to be welcome. I am Sheryl Gould. And I am so glad that you’re here.

SHERYL:  So on to our guest today. She’s especially special because she is a CEO here at Moms of Tweens and Teens. She is behind the scenes, and she’s just awesome.

I mean, she is the reason that we have grown and just been able to reach all of you moms. I am extremely grateful for her. She is also a ninja mom of a teen boy. And she struggled. I mean, she has gone through a lot of challenges with him — dealing with emotional outbursts, disrespect, mood swings, and feeling like she was failing. 

I want to start with what are three words that you would use to describe having a teen boy?

JEN: The three words I would use would be exhausting, surprising, and rewarding. 

SHERYL: So tell us what is exhausting?

JEN: I was going to say that the three words to describe parenting a teenage boy were exhausting, exhausting, and exhausting. So if that says anything, but what is exhausting is having to be on top of everything all the time. He’s exhausting and he never stops asking for things and doing things I don’t want him to do.

It’s like stop doing this one thing — whether it’s running in circles around the living room while I’m trying to chill out and saying stop 500 times. 

It’s exhausting just being the parent of a 14-year-old because you’re driving everywhere and you’re organizing things, dealing with emotions, and so I don’t think there’s any aspect as wonderful as the other pieces of parenting a 14-year-old boy that is not exhausting. I don’t think there’s any aspect of parenting a teenager period that is not exhausting, to be honest. Just waking up in the morning.

SHERYL: Yeah. And that is true. And having a teen boy is different from having a teen girl. My son is now 26. Understanding a teen boy is so different when you’re a mom. We are trying to get it because we are wired differently.

JEN: Oh, absolutely. Part of the problem I’ve had is watching him interact with other boys. I’m like, “Don’t do that and don’t say that.” That’s not what a friend does. That’s not how a friend acts. But boys are different — boys do communicate differently. 

And I’m so thankful for a community that reminds me of that. When they are roughhousing, I want to go hide because I’m going to get in there and stop them. But that’s what they do. And so that’s part of it, too. It’s funny how letting goes can be exhausting.

SHERYL: Yeah, right. Exactly. 

JEN: You’re like having a war in your head. 

SHERYL: Controlling ourselves is exhausting. Right? So that leads me to ask, what’s surprising about parenting a teen boy? 

JEN: I think being the mom of a boy is surprising because I did not have to go through a male version of puberty. So I didn’t have to. When he started to discover his body, it was disgusting, to be honest. I could not handle all of that. 

He’s very open about his burgeoning sexuality. He wanted to talk about what was happening with his body hair. And he’d say, “Hey, Mom, you know, other guys smell and I don’t smell yet. And that’s so cool.” So there were all these pieces around that were very surprising. 

I think that the other thing was just in general, watching. The decision-making process has been surprising, but it’s mostly that aspect of being a female.

It’s watching how a male person becomes a person, how a male baby child moves into being a person, and how that really is different. You can understand it, and I have a sister who only has a daughter. We’ve watched that happen side by side. And it is not the same. You cannot anticipate what’s going to happen next at all. You might think you can, but you can not.

SHERYL: They’re going through so many transitions, but so are we. And I know a lot about that. Their son used to cuddle with them and sit with them on the couch. And then all of a sudden, they start pulling away, and what do you do? It’s hard. And then they’re not a girl. They’re boys. And so just having to let go of that and allow that process to happen. 

JEN: Exactly. They want to be a man.

SHERYL: You said it’s rewarding. What’s rewarding? 

JEN: Oh, my gosh, the rewarding part is seeing them make good decisions. You’re just worried as you send them out in the world because you know what they’re like at home.

Maybe they’re disrespectful and mean, or they don’t listen or any of that stuff. But then you send them out into the world and you see them make the right decision or good decisions. 

You see them have empathy for somebody or something. They’ll come to you and talk about something that’s going on in their lives. You actually have an ability to connect with them at a completely different level than you did when they were 10 and seven. 

They start to become people. I can have conversations when we go to the movies together now. I would never have gone with him before. Obviously, he’s 14, and we can go to a movie and have a discussion about the movie. I still feel sad when I project into the future that he’s gonna leave me.

As much as I struggle, we fight, there’s a lot of push, pull and chaos, there’s also all of this really wonderful stuff in there too. It’s rewarding because you see the fruition of what you’ve been working on and what you’ve been trying to make happen. You’ve been trying to create this communication and this openness. You see it happening, and you see it working.

SHERYL: I think that’s a great jumping-in point because I know that there’s a lot of moms that are listening, that are struggling, and their sons aren’t expressing. 

There are other boys, and they’re not talking at all. They’re pulling away. But you have gone through some really significant challenges and behavioral challenges as well.

Can you share about the disrespect that you’ve gone through?

JEN: I would say that our major challenges have definitely been disrespect, which with him, manifested itself in extreme anger. And also the anchor piece still is there. It’s down like 100 notches, but it manifests itself when it first started as real severe anger, and also meanness. I’m sure all moms can relate to that. 

When he’s mad and doesn’t get what he wants, he is so mean. It is so hard not to take that personally. He has anxiety and has dyslexia. He knows he shouldn’t let that define him, but he still does. 

His Sensory Processing Disorder actually kind of built-in this anxiousness about not knowing what to expect. That’s really difficult for him where he doesn’t know how something’s gonna go, and he doesn’t want to do it. Even though he’s a very gregarious kid, if you meet him, his personality is on fire, but try and get him to go to the first day of a class or the first of a meeting — and he shuts down

So he has a lot of issues with anxiety that has definitely caused a lot of challenges for us. He also has technology stuff, obviously, that’s been hard for us. And it’s a work in progress, the technology piece. We have a good plan in place, but that doesn’t mean that I turn it on and leave it; it’s constantly a moving piece. So I’d say that those are the primary challenges that we’re dealing with.

SHERYL: You said that he shuts down. When he shuts down, what does that look like? 

JEN: He starts trying to avoid things, situations, and conversations. He’ll try to change the subject. Like if you’re saying, “Okay, hey, we’re gonna start this new class that you’re so excited about, you’ve asked me to sign you up for it forever.” And he’s excited. And then I’m like, “Okay, so tomorrow,” and he’s like, “You know what, I think I have a lot of homework.” So he’ll deflect, and then either he will get really angry at me and say he never said he wanted to do something. 

So it will then start being anger, and he will blame everything on me. It will just become all about me. He’ll say, “You did this. You pushed me.” It gets really hard to not get into a push and pull with him where I’m like, “No, you said you wanted to. I did it because of you.” I have to shut up, and I do as much as I can.  I’m the bad guy.  

And then he just shuts down and he doesn’t shut down as in, “I’m so quiet. I’m so scared.” But as in, “I’m giving you the silent treatment because you suck. You did this to me. So now I’m not even going to talk to you. So don’t try.” He’ll either put in earbuds or just literally won’t talk to me.

He’ll say things if I try to say something like, “What don’t you understand about don’t talk to me.” He has no problem. I know in my mind, I should just be quiet, but sometimes I can’t. But that’s what happens to him when he’s anxious. He turns to anger.

SHERYL: That is something just to note, when your kid is expressing a lot of anger, that’s oftentimes anxiety you’re dealing with. I know you shared disrespect, and he shut down and got into those power struggles. What have you done about that? 

JEN: The disrespect piece started really bad. It really did. Because first of all, he went from being this wonderful, loving, sweet child. I mean, he’s always been a wild child. So it’s not like he did everything I wanted, but being angry with me for everything and expressing it in a negative way. 

I tried to do as much as I could on my own, but then I realized I needed help. I think that’s a  big piece that people need to understand. They can’t do this alone. I was reticent because now we have to talk about that anxiety piece, which was trying to get Isaiah in the door to go see anybody.

I knew that we, to put it mildly, were really screwed if we didn’t deal with it because he was getting bigger and bigger and angrier and angrier. He was starting to get physical about it because he realized he was a big kid. He got in my face.

And I said, “I need to get help.”

And we started on a journey with just a very nice social worker. It was not like, oh my gosh, he needs a psychiatrist, and he needs to get medication. People were saying, maybe he’s depressed or maybe it’s us. I’m thinking, maybe he’s just a boy and maybe this is his way of expressing himself.

So we made a lot of changes, and we had help. The best thing we did was listening. That was the hardest piece because when your child is being disrespectful, the first thing you want to do is be like, “You can’t talk to me that way.” You can’t do that. Because I know when I was his age, I never would have talked to my parents that way. 

So I’m thinking, what did I do wrong? How did I wind up with a kid like this? 

Before I knew better, I would say things like that to him. I would say, I raised you, right? Why is it that you’re acting this way? What did I do? And I often times I would play the “poor me card” — what did I do to deserve this? How come you’re treating me this way? But at no point was I saying, “Okay, so you’re mad.”

I never just allowed him to be angry, and to express it and talk about it. So it always escalated really fast. If I didn’t catch it early on, it would escalate. We learned a lot of tools — about him recognizing when he was starting to feel angry, and vocalizing it, and saying things like, “I’m starting to get angry now.” 

I hate thinking that a parent might feel like, “Okay, I’m gonna try this. And if it doesn’t work, that I’m doing something else.” I have been working on it for three years, and it’s never going to be perfected. He is still disrespectful sometimes, but it’s been a journey of learning how to listen to him.

He’s adopted, and he will say, “I wish you never took me from my real mother.” I mean, imagine that’s like a steak through your heart. 

It’s learning how to not react and not engage — to say, “I don’t deserve to be talked to this way. So I’m going to walk away.” 

Where are times he will follow me and just keep doing it. And I would say, “I’m going in my room and I’m locking the door.” And he would stand outside the door and he would say, “You better listen to me.” And I will just be like, “Okay, all right. I hear you. I mean, it was like just a broken record in a sense because I had to say those words to keep myself from saying other words. I had to just say, “Okay, I hear you.” 

And then when he would get past it, if we could defuse it without some humongous issue, he would actually talk to me about what happened afterward. And he would apologize. When we talk a little bit about that rewarding piece, and that’s an even surprising piece. It was like if we could get through it together. And I mean, together as I got to be a punching bag for an hour, but he worked through whatever was happening.

On the other end, he would say, “I am so sorry, I did not mean any of those things that I said, I love you. I don’t think you’re fat.” 

I think moms feel so alone. I think my kid is the only one who talks to me that way.  But you don’t know that because nobody talks about it. He did talk to me that way, and I would just have to take it.

But afterward, he would apologize. He would remember everything he said, and he would apologize for every single word. I would be able to say, “Okay, you’re mad that I took your phone away?” And he would say, “Yeah, you took my phone away. And I really wanted to talk to my friends.” And I would say, “Okay, well, why do you think I took your phone away?”  I would just start asking questions to try and get him to see where we started.

The thing that started it was whatever he did that made me decide to take the phone away. They always focus on that consequence — they don’t focus on what got them to the consequence. So we would talk it through, and it would take forever. It would be exhausting. And sometimes I would have to let him apologize to me for an hour. He would be like, “I’m so sorry, I couldn’t let it go.”

It all comes down to listening. There’s no other piece to it. You don’t want to it has been a long and hard journey. I will 100% say, it has been really hard. He has changed so much that other people tell me that they see it. It’s not just me — he has learned so much about his own emotions, what happens inside of him, and why he’s feeling the way he’s feeling. And this is not 100% on me.

That was not me. Finding somebody and advocating for your child. We went through three therapists before I found the right therapist for him. I didn’t make him stick with somebody. 

So you have to let them be part of that decision. The first time we got to the therapist’s office, he wouldn’t get out of the car. He was not doing it. You have to find a therapist that’s okay with that too. Because I had one therapist say, “Well if he doesn’t get out of the car, you’re getting charged for that appointment.” I’m like, “Okay, we’re not coming to see you.” Because I said this is what is anticipated.

The first time he went to his tutor, he wouldn’t get out of the car. He wouldn’t get out of the car if he didn’t know what to expect. And he’s feeling anxious that I can expect that.

So I found a therapist who said, “That’s okay, let him sit in the car. I’ll just come out and I’ll talk to him. And if he doesn’t roll down the window, I’ll just stand right next to the car.” When you have somebody who will do that, then your child will start to trust them and understand that the person is not going to push them. They will meet him where he is at. 

And some people say, “Well, I’m not going to bargain with my child.” But I think that you have to understand where they’re coming from. If they’re coming from a place of anxiety, then you can’t just let them flounder — you have to support them. And he was coming from that place.

I helped him take the baby steps that it took to get in the door. Once he got in the door, it was me going in with him. Then it was slowly, “Hey, you know what I have to make a phone call. Do you mind if I step out for a little while?”

I think we need to pay really close attention to our kids, and we have to see how we can help and support them. That’s the only way they make it through to the other side.

Our kids cannot do it alone. Our job is to advocate for them. And to help them understand themselves. I mean, you talk a lot about it, Sheryl, and I learned a lot about it through the therapist — this emotional intelligence piece is humongous. It also helps them empathize with other kids and relate to their struggles. He’ll be able to say that kid is obviously feeling anxious about that.

I just want to stress again, this is not a quick fix. It’s not even in six months, things will be better. This is almost like a lifetime.

People don’t know how personal our relationship is Sheryl, but you said that to Isaiah, on the phone the other day. When he was on speakerphone, you said, “You’re going to do this for the rest of your life because it’s going to keep you being strong and healthy.” 

I have to stress to parents like if you’re going to start with anything — start by just hearing what they’re saying, don’t fight back, don’t take it personally (as hard as it is to not take those like knives and daggers they’re throwing at you personally). They don’t mean it. They really don’t. They’re just trying to figure out what will hurt us. Because they are hurting. They need us to just say, “Okay, all right. So you hate me right now?”

SHERYL: Yeah, listening and also not even having to say anything. Just keep it to yourself. As you said, listen, and saying, “Yeah, I get it. You are angry. It makes sense. You’re angry at what they’re feeling.” 

JEN: When he’ll say, “Doesn’t it make you mad when I call you these names?” It’s like he gets angry with me for not being angry back. He is trying to bait me. And I’m not falling for it. That makes him angrier. And I think parents can understand that too. And my response is always like, “Yeah, it does. It hurts my feelings.” But I don’t get mad. I don’t start yelling at him.

SHERYL: You don’t retaliate. It’s really hard not to but you got better and better at it.

JEN: There’s no perfect way. When you’re building this piece that’s getting really solid, you don’t cut the whole tree down when you say one of those things one time. Like saying, “You’re being a jerk.” But it doesn’t ruin everything that we’ve worked on so hard. They start to understand you’re human too. That’s an interesting piece that happens is empathy grows from that, and then they start to feel like, “Okay, I see why that just made you mad.”

SHERYL: Mm-hmm. And you also say, “That hurt my feelings.” You acknowledge that it does impact you when he says those things. And you aren’t going back to him and retaliating. 

JEN: Or telling him he’s the bad kid. It’s so easy to go down that road. 

SHERYL: Yeah it’s such a process. I’m so glad that you’re reminding the moms, it’s not a quick fix. It’s about all growing together. That’s a big paradigm shift, and our kids need to know that we are human. We’re figuring this out right along with you.

Sometimes we’re not going to do it perfectly. But if we can go back and repair that, and say, “I didn’t like how I responded to you at that moment.” Then that is going to help develop and strengthen empathy.

Another thing that you brought up is how you reflected back and ask him how he was feeling and what he was thinking. It strengthens that emotional intelligence piece where he could say to you, “I’m getting angry.” He was able to start recognizing it in himself because you were helping him by asking good questions. 

JEN: The thing is he will even say that in a threatening way, like “You won’t like it if I get angry.” And I accept that as him saying it that way, too. I don’t have to be reactive to the fact that he’s saying that because sometimes I want to be like, “Of course, I’m not gonna like it.” or “Don’t talk to me that way. Now you’re trying to manipulate me, and it sounds like manipulation.” And in a sense, it is manipulation because he is about to try and really bait me into an argument. So don’t take the bait. 

He got to a point where he knew that I was afraid of him having a blow-up. So he did use it against me. My response was still the same. You will still react the same way and you still listen. 

It’s super important to try and get their feedback and try and get them to reflect on how we got there. Not say things like, “Well, what happened to you? or “Why did you do this? Why don’t you get it?” They will never work.

But saying things like, “Well, why do you think I got mad about this?” or…

“What were you supposed to do?

“What was the plan?”

“How did this start?”

“What were you doing when this happened?”

I need him to have an answer so that he says it out loud. There’s no scripts for how to say things or what to ask.

But the reality is, what you really have to just get good at is knowing how to ask questions without accusing. If they feel like you’re accusing them, it starts all over again. If they feel like you’re blaming them, it starts all over again. So you have to be in that place where even if it takes you a second to ask every question , that’s okay. If you have to be quiet for a second. 

SHERYL: And if the question is wrong, they’re going to tell you. I love how you were talking about the shame piece and you’re sharing the things that he said to you because moms do feel alone.

I want every mom to know that you’re not alone. Our kids don’t know how to process their emotions. I say that over and over again — they have all these emotions. We struggle with it too. How do we manage our emotions as moms? You’re saying you wanted to say XYZ to them and knew that that wouldn’t be helpful. 

So it’s that much harder for them. And also, then their prefrontal cortex is a disconnect. It’s all reconnecting. They don’t have that emotional regulation. You’re actually helping those the connectivity in his brain to wire with those questions. 

So now I hear that moms struggle to get their kids to counseling. I love the part about how if you wanted to sit in the car, you have the therapist come out.

How did you get through that?

JEN: Okay, here’s the trick. I pick Isaiah up from school on those days, and we go straight to the therapist. He’s in my car already. I don’t have to get him in the car. That was a mistake I learned early on is when I have to try and get him in the car, we won’t ever get to the therapist.

It’s really hard to try and get a child in a car to go to a therapist without saying negative things. So I figured out if I pick them up from school, he’s in my car. Now we just go straight to the appointment. So you have to find someone who’s got a 3:30 or four o’clock. I mean, our appointment was half an hour after pickup.

I’d be like, “Do you want to grab something at Dunkin Donuts a treat?” I would let him get stuff I would never normally let him get. And then we would go straight to the therapist. If we were sitting in the parking lot, now we had the therapist who was willing to come out to the car.

There was no other way that it worked for me. Even three years in, he has a new therapist now. The first woman got us through the anger piece, and I am so thankful for her.

But now he’s 14 and he wants to talk to a guy because he’s got guy stuff to talk about. And so we are seeing a new person. And even though he was willing, when we talked about it, and he said okay. I was still nervous.

And by the way, we have the same problem with the piano. Piano is right after school, and he goes to a therapist from piano practice. If we went home first, he would never leave. That’s what works.

You need a therapist that understands your child is in such a place of anxiety, anger, or won’t get out of the car. It’s so common that that happens — other moms maybe don’t know that.

You find the person who’s willing to come out to the car and just stand there if they need to. He’ll kick and screaming — I’m not kidding. He was kicking my dashboard so hard. I was sure something was gonna break. He was screaming, “I hate you. Why are you doing this to me?” I’m not even trying to say it went smoothly.

Getting the donut went smoothly, and as we drove towards the appointment it he got quieter and quieter. When we pulled in, he starts by saying, “I’m not going in there. I’m just telling you right now.” Some days he would go in and some days he wouldn’t. It wasn’t easy. It was never an easy road, even towards when we stopped seeing her and things had improved so much. There were days he just didn’t want to go.

At that point, I let that happen. I felt like he was starting to understand himself more because we had been seeing her for a year and a half at that point. So I felt like he was starting to understand what he needed. If he had a hard day, the last thing he needed was to talk about his emotions. He was already emotionally exhausted. So I would say okay to that. 

SHERYL: And don’t expect them to want to go. I think just accepting that they want you to validate, listen, and say, “I get it. I understand that you don’t want to go, and we’re going to try somebody until we find somebody you really like. “

JEN: Right. When they question therapy, you can say, “You and I don’t communicate very well. And I’m guessing that if you were talking to somebody who wasn’t me, you’d be more willing to talk about what’s going on.” You can’t just ignore their questions. You just have to find a way to respond to them, where you’re not blaming them. You’re not saying, “Well, you get angry all the time. So we need to figure out why or we need to get or whatever.”

SHERYL: So what are some encouraging parting words you can leave with our listeners? 

JEN: I would say that we got there and I’m in a really good place with him. I’ve learned to be okay with the silence. All I would say 90% of our moms ask, “How do I get my kid to talk?”  I’ve learned to be okay with him not talking, which actually makes him talk. And it’s not an anxious feeling anymore.

In the beginning, I was anxious that he wasn’t talking to me. Now I understand. He just needs to process, and when he’s ready to talk, he will. I feel okay with that. The more okay I get with that, the more he talks to me.

He’s learned to trust me and learned that I won’t use what he says against him. Ge will come to me with things and I’m like “Oh, crap, I can’t believe he did that.”

There is an amazing, beautiful light at the end of the tunnel. You can’t force them to talk and you can’t flip a switch, but you can build this foundation of trust by listening and not judging over time. You will see a huge change. And I have seen a huge change and my child doesn’t even rage anymore at all. Not even at all. When he’s angry, he’ll go outside or he’ll stop talking to me. 

He doesn’t call me names. He’s still disrespectful. Sometimes I don’t want people to think it’s amazing and wonderful, but it’s different now. 

SHERYL: Instill in him that you care about how he feels, that you want to hear what he has to say — even when it isn’t pleasant, even when it was hard that you heard, understood, and you earned his trust. It takes a lot of self-control not to react and take things personally. But to really listen rather than giving advice. But we’re hurt. And we don’t know what to do. We’re really good at lecturing and giving advice.

So to step back and to listen more, it sounds so simple, but it’s like speaking a different language.

JEN: That goes for positive stuff as well. I mean, if you think your kid likes a girl, for instance, and you start asking lots of questions, you can be sure that they’re not going to tell you anything. And if you try and give advice, they’re going to shut down.

 I said to Isaiah, just the other day, I’m like, “Well, do you have her phone number? Do you want me to give you some ideas on how you can get her phone number?” And he’s like, no. And then he didn’t talk to me about it anymore for like, two days, he was done with me because I tried to be part of it.

As much as I think I can think like a 14-year-old, he still sees me as a mom who doesn’t know anything. I want him to open up to me. So I have to back off.

He might actually like a girl that I actually like that would be that’s great. But I have to shut up, and I cannot get involved. So even with the positive stuff, you still have to not give advice, unless they ask for it. You have to just keep your mouth shut.

SHERYL: Great advice. Yeah, even with the positive stuff. If we get too excited, they shut down. They don’t want to tell us anymore. Absolutely.

Well, that’s it for today.  I am so glad that you joined me! Wasn’t that just an awesome interview with Jen? I hope you leave today feeling encouraged and reassured. And like I said, we can get through this.

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