If you’d been a fly on the wall when my oldest child turned 13, you would have learned a lot from me – a lot about what not to say to your teenager.
Have you ever heard the definition of parenting insanity?
Continuing to do and say the same things over and over again and expecting a different result.
While I admit that it can be very difficult to stop saying these things (this is when the sock in the mouth comes in handy), a little self-awareness goes a long way in helping us to shut up.
Here’s my list of the 10 things we need to stop saying to our adolescent immediately.
1. “How was your day?”
This question rates at the top of the list of worst and most unsatisfying adolescent conversation starters.
It’s usually met with a grunt, a shrug, an “I don’t know,” or a “Fine.”
It’s a lucky day when the response is “Good.”
Maybe, “How was your day” is your way of greeting them. Fine.
Just don’t get upset when they mumble or don’t act eager to answer you.
Let’s say “Hey.” Give them a break, provide a snack, and several hours later ask a more interesting question.
Here are some ideas:
What was the best part of your day, what was the worst; what is something that you learned today that was interesting?
What teacher do you like and why?
What was hard today? What was easy.
What are you learning about that interests you?
2. “What were you thinking?”
What are we expecting them to say when we ask this question?
Isn’t the answer simple? They weren’t.
Remember? Their brains are under construction!
Who knows why they do the things they do sometimes. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to figure it out (there’s that insanity thing again). If we want to gain some insight into their thought process, we need to watch our judgmental tone. Be patient.
I’ve found a supportive “I care about you and help me understand” is more likely to get them to think, open up, and talk about it.
3. “Don’t be sad. Don’t be angry.”
Unless we’re dead, we feel sad and angry sometimes.
I know it can be difficult to watch our kids in pain or to listen to them when they’re angry. If they’re sad it’s natural that we want them to feel better.
And when their anger is directed at us, we may feel defensive or disrespected.
But telling them not to feel a certain way isn’t going to make their feelings lessen or go away.
We might as well say, “Stuff your feelings kid,” or “Lie instead, so I don’t have to deal with listening or trying to understand what’s going on with you.”
We’re dismissing their true feelings and robbing them of the opportunity to learn to work through their emotions. It also hurts our relationship with them.
Stop it. Be a safe place to be real.
4. “It’s not that bad.”
Maybe not to you, 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 upset about it too. I was telling them it wasn’t that bad to calm myself down.
Empathy will improve your relationship and bring comfort, “This is hard.” Or, “I can see how upsetting this is for you. I’m here for you.” can go a long way.
5. “Let me help you.”
When our kids are facing a challenge, don’t be the parent that jumps to the rescue.
I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit to doing this sometimes.
If our parenting goal is to raise responsible adults we must resist jumping in and fixing their problems.
It’s vital that we let go so they can learn to be responsible for their own stuff – homework, emailing teachers, time management, remembering assignments, doing their laundry and earning their own money. We also have to allow them to fail and make mistakes.
These are opportunities for them to take ownership and develop grit and perseverance.
Instead, we might say, “Would you like my support?” “What might help you?” “What do you want to do about that?”
We want to set them up for success by helping them develop the problem-solving skills they need so that they’re equipped when they enter the real world.
If they need help, teach them to ask without rushing in first. And once in awhile give them a little grace, but less is more.
6. “Why can’t you be more like…”
We may not say these exact words but our message comes through loud and clear – “You aren’t enough the way you are. I want you to be different and more like so-and-so.”
The comparison game creates anger, hurt, rebellion and people-pleasing.
If it appears to work, trust me: it sucks as a motivator and creates low self-esteem.
We need to allow our children to be who they are. If you want them to do something, be direct with your request. Don’t compare. 9 times out of 10, when we compare our kids, it’s our own baggage and has nothing to do with them.
You are better off biting your tongue than comparing your kids.
7. “Are you okay? You sure? You’re okay? Really?”
Can you feel your anxiety rising? Maybe we’re not saying these words out loud but inside we’re feeling anxious.
We’re worried about something – their social life, if they’re doing their homework, among many other concerns that come with parenting an adolescent.
Oftentimes our own anxiety results in frantically trying to control them, hovering over them, and pelting them with questions.
We will only make matters worse when we’re parenting out of fear. They will resist and resent us. It will become a power struggle getting us nowhere, and it won’t help them.
Instead, take a deep breath. Go for a walk. Read a book. Be responsible and do something that you’ve been avoiding.
We can choose to believe they’ll figure things out and let them know that we’re there if they need support.
(Please note that I’m not talking about getting your adolescent help if they’re depressed or in need of counseling)
8. “My thighs look fat.”
Let’s not cower in shame if we’ve all said something negative about our physical appearance.
Recently my daughter and I were shopping for a prom dress.
Standing there looking beautiful in a dress, she began criticizing herself. I was baffled, “Are you kidding? You look beautiful. What are you talking about? Don’t say that about yourself.”
Her reply, “Mom, you say the same things about yourself all the time.”
She got me. I was speechless.
Convicted, I told her I would be intentional to catch myself when I’m tempted to say something demeaning about myself and, instead, I would say something positive. She agreed to do the same.
I had my golden opportunity the very next day (shocker!).
Looking in the mirror I was struck by the dark circles under my eyes. I almost gasped and said something negative. Instead, I looked at her and myself, “I love the color of my eyes and my hair is awesome.”
9. “Why did you get a ‘C’?”
I know. I know! We want to hold high standards. We want our kids to do well.
When did we get so hung up on grades that we forgot to focus on the enjoyment of learning and the amount of effort they put in?
I want my kids to know I care and to gauge how they’re doing. However, the more important issue is the underlying message we’re sending to our kids.
If you haven’t heard of Carol Dweck’s book, The Growth Mindset, it’s a must-read.
Focus on effort instead. Ask them when they get that ‘C’ how they feel about it. What did they learn that can help them do better the next time? How would they grade their effort? What might help them? And when you see them working hard, no matter what the grade praise the effort and hard work you see.
10. “You’re grounded for a month.”
What parent hasn’t over-reacted just a little bit in the heat of the moment?
We threaten to cancel their phone service forever or deliver a consequence that punishes us more than them.
The next day it dawns on you that the consequence may be a little extreme and you blew things out of proportion.
What do we do now? If I take it back, what kind of example will that set? I will lose my credibility. Before you know it they will be walking all over me.
Regret often comes when we threaten consequences when we’re angry or upset.
I’ve learned a much better strategy.
I tell them I’m really upset. And if I don’t cool off I may send them to Siberia so rather than do that, I will talk to them in the morning.
On occasion when I’ve thrown down the gauntlet and over-reacted, I remember, I’m not perfect and as their parent I reserve the right to change my mind with a lesser sentence. Then we talk about it together. It’s about the relationship first. We need to remember that.
So, here’s the thing…we’re going to mess up. We’re not always going to say things all sweet and nice. We’re going to forget and react, talk about our flabby stomach or the wrinkles that we hate. We will hover and over-parent sometimes, lose our cool and say the wrong things.
But when we’re conscious about what we say and how it impacts our kids, we can learn how to do things differently, support them to thrive, and build a great relationship with them.
Let’s keep our eyes fixed on our goal – raising kids who thrive and cultivating a great relationship with them!
Peace and grace,