In the course of the last week alone, I had three different clients address major issues related to their teenagers. In one family, a 14 year old girl’s diary was found to contain a suicide note along with evidence that she was acting out sexually. In another family, a 13 year old boy, who had been recently diagnosed with ADHD had just failed the eighth grade. And in yet another family, a 16 year old girl was involved in cyber-bullying and sexually explicit harassment over the internet with another girl in her school.
In each instance, my initial response to the parents was the same, and I’d like to share the coaching I gave them to you here, as I believe many parents need all the support they can get in this day and age – with what their children are exposed to and contending with.
When a parent initially discovers that their child has made a mistake or has a specific challenge, the range of emotions can span from shock, disbelief, distress, anger, rage, frustration, loss, grief, fear, and worry. Parental reactions from these emotions typically look like punishments, lectures, “raking over the coals”, expressions of extreme disappointment and dissatisfaction, yelling, or maybe even a complete break-down, from the devastation and fear.
Very few parents are prepared to effectively deal with major, emotionally charged, and frightening issues that most teenagers face in the course of that developmental stage. The strategies they choose are the ones that were modeled for them, years ago, when the world was a different place, and when the family dynamics were different as well. Add to the equation that most parents BOTH work now, and, for many teenagers, they are living with only one birthparent at any one time, and you’ve got a recipe for even more challenges in dealing with the toughest issues in the lives of teens.
So, what can you do?
First, and foremost – BREATHE. When you learn that something awful has happened (or you think has happened), immediately breathe deeply and consciously into your belly. At least 6 deep breaths, allowing yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling fully. If your teenager is right in front of you – just simply say, “Stop. Wait. Breathe with me.” And invite him or her to take in some deep breaths. I recommend holding each breath for a moment, before letting them out with an audible sigh.
At any time you start to feel yourself becoming emotionally reactive around the issue, take a “time out” and breathe deeply again. You’ll be amazed at what this will do to calm you down, to allow you to think more clearly, and to bring you back to the present moment with your child – who needs you more than anything in that moment.
The reason we become so reactive is because we take ourselves out of the present moment by projecting into the future all the horrible things that may happen to our children as a result of this one mistake or present issue. The mind latches on to the possibilities as if they are factual, and then proceeds to scare us out of our wits – literally. It’s hard to access your intellect and your resources when you are terrified about what could happen – as if it has already come to pass.
Breathing keeps you present, and keeps you from getting caught by the stories your mind wants to feed you.
Now that you have the concept of deep breathing down, here’s the second thing I strongly recommend that you do – before anything else …
GET THEM! Go into your heart, find your love, empathy, and compassion for the teenager in front of you and SEEK TO UNDERSTAND what THEIR relationship is to what you’ve just discovered. Questions like “What was that like for you?” and simply asking them to “Tell me more” can be very helpful.
Years ago my teenage stepdaughter, Robin, used my car while I was away for the weekend. I had noticed before leaving that the odometer had a funny number (333333). When I returned, the number was different. What was I to do? She’d obviously used my car and I knew it. I was shocked and upset. And, I knew that she had to be sitting on the knowledge that she had done something behind my back.
There are many ways I could have handled this same scenario, and been totally justified and within my rights as a stepparent. Some ideas that came to mind were to ground her from using my car for a month; or taking away other privileges as well; or having her wash my car and work off the mileage she added to it, etc.… I also contemplated going to her father and having him give her all sorts of punishments and consequences, and not confronting her or addressing this with her myself. I’m sure you’ve thought of all kinds of options I could have used to address her disrespect and disregard for a boundary I had given her. After talking with her father about the options, I came up with a solution that made the most sense to me – with the goals of (1) deepening our connection and (2) using the opportunity as a chance to guide and consult with her around choices and trust.
I chose to wait to talk with her until I had to drive her to school the next day, in my car. I calmly showed her the odometer and let her know that I knew she’d used the car, because I’d noticed that the reading was different. I then looked at her and asked her, “Can you help me understand what caused you to choose to use my car when I’d asked you not to?”
She knew she’d been caught and she started to give me excuses and reasons. I then asked her, “What was it like for you to use it when you knew you weren’t supposed to?” and she opened up more and shared her worries, her fears, and her reasons for taking the risk. I followed this by asking her to share what it was like for her to have me know and confront her with it. Her immediate response was relief – like she’d been holding her breath and finally got to let it go.
We then had a whole discussion about what it’s like to do what we want even when we know it is wrong. And we talked about what happens in life when we make choices that could hurt others, or when they could backfire and hurt us in the long run. We looked at how she’d hurt the trust between us and that she’d need to work to earn back my trust, and what a loss that was for both of us. And we discussed ways she could go about earning back my trust.
Our conversation finished with an exploration together about what would be a reasonable and natural consequence for her, given the fact that she chose to go behind my back and use my car without permission. The fact that she never lied about it and that she was willing to explore the whole thing with me helped her cause, and I showed her that her choice to own up to her decision was already a step towards earning back my trust.
Using this approach took forethought combined with a clear INTENTION about what I wanted for the outcome. My goal with my teenage stepdaughters was to be a role model for them, and to support them in being young women who make healthy, life-affirming decisions for themselves in their lives then and in the future. As a result, the majority of my interactions with them came from that place of seeking to understand first, and then being curious with them about the results in their lives that happen due to the choices they were making.
Many parents and stepparents get tripped up by the notion that if they seek to understand that they will somehow appear to approve of the behaviors that have them so concerned. What I find happens is the opposite. By treating teenagers with respect, and as people who can think for themselves, you get to discover their whole world, and what matters most to them. You get to know them as who they are in that moment – instead to imposing onto them who you want them to be and making them wrong because they are not the perfect child anymore.
Once you meet them with understanding and get them of their reality, they become MUCH MORE OPEN to listening and respecting you for your perspective and opinion. Teenagers are in a constant state of turmoil and confusion. Their hormones are running amuck, they are bombarded by so many social pressures, and they are still trying to learn and succeed in a teaching environment which is sorely lacking in what they actually need at that stage in development (that’s a whole other topic). What they need more than anything is a way to make sense of their inner and outer worlds, and to be loved and accepted for who they are – while also being given clear boundaries and limits, and being shown what happens when they step over them – now and in the future. Your lack of approval, when shared after you’ve shown the respect and understanding, will be met with respect, and they are much more likely to comply with their consequences.
The next time your child or teenage acts out or steps over a boundary, remember to
- Breathe deeply and deliberately.
- Meet them first and foremost with curiosity and seek to understand their perspective.
- Explore with them the possible consequences of their choices/actions
- Determine together what steps they will take to earn back their privileges
If you have on-going challenges with a teenager in your home, you may want to visit www.mikeriera.com for his books and ideas on how to parent teenagers. I also highly recommend Kelly Nault’s book, When You’re About To Go Off the Deep End, Don’t Take Your Kids With You – she has great insights into parenting strategies that really work. And, I always tell my clients about www.loveandlogic.com, as their resources are exceptional for parents (best to start with them as early as you can).