In this edition of LIFEadvice, life coaches Kim Giles and Nicole Cunningham share some hints for improving your connection with your teen.
I can't seem to communicate with my 17-year-old son without conflict. I am trying to get him to respect me, and listen to what I am saying to him about his friends and his school work. I worry about the kids he is hanging around with and the lack of interest he has in achieving things. I only want what is best for him, but he isn't listening to me anymore. I am a single mom and I worry that I am not doing enough to keep him on the right path. Do you have suggestions or advice?
It sounds like it's time to shift from a child/parent relationship with your teen, to an adult/adult relationship. When our children are small, we parent from a place of authority. We often correct them and dictate the rules and the consequences, and this works when children are young. However, as they mature and their need to express themselves, their wants, their needs, and their opinions increases, and it becomes time to make some adjustments to the dynamic of your relationship.
In an adult/adult relationship there is more talking to each other with mutual respect and treating your child as more of an equal. This does not mean you start treating them as an adult or giving them the same responsibilities or freedom though. It's just about honoring their intelligence and feelings more than you used to.
Instead of speaking down to your teen, speak to them with the same level of respect you might use with a friend or peer. You would probably ask them about their ideas and opinions, instead of just talking at them. If you show up differently and have genuine interest, respect, and concern for their thoughts and emotions, not just authoritative dialogue or lectures, you will get much more respect back. You will also find they feel safer with you and are willing to actually talk to you about what's going on in their life.
As children become teens, you must strengthen your connection with them if you want to maintain influence. You can do this by making them feel heard and validated and doing more listening than talking. This doesn't mean you always agree with what they say, but you do give them the space to share their ideas, while at the same time maintaining the final say.
As your children grow, if this shift from control, to one of trust and respect continues to grow, you can have great, healthy and open conversations with your teenagers and adult children. The shift here is really a shift from fear and control — to trust and love.
Parenting from a place of fear means you are afraid that your children will not behave or make the decisions you want them to make, and as a result of those decisions you will either lose them or look (or feel) like a failure as a parent. Because we can be really scared of these things, we can have a huge need to control them and make sure our fears aren't realized. We believe no one can trigger your two core fears (the fear of failure and the fear of loss) easier than your children.
When they make mistakes or choices that scare us, we may react from a place of fear and respond in a way that is driven by the need to quiet our fear, not in a way that's really best for our children. Our fear of not doing a good enough job as a parent may actually make you not a good parent.
Instead, we must parent from a place of trust and love, rather than control. In this place of trust and love, because we aren't scared, we can focus on what our child needs and behave in a way that teaches, guides and influences with respect, honoring where they are and what they think and feel.
Here are four ways to shift from fearful parenting with control and punishment, to parenting from trust and love, where you empower and equip children to make good healthy decisions for themselves:
Have an open mind and analyze for yourself what could be fueling your fearful parenting. What are the fears you have about your children? Are you afraid that they will fail, they will go off the rails, they won't reach their potential? Are you afraid of how you might look to friends and family if your children make choices they don't approve of? Are you afraid of losing them? Probably a bit of them all, right?
Most of the high risk teens we work with have parents who struggle extensively with fear of failure. They are afraid they are not doing enough, doing too much, or not guiding their children effectively. This fear is of little use. It only makes you show up as confused, controlling and overbearing, and it makes it hard for you to ask questions, listen and take the time to respect and honor your children and how they feel. The truth is they are scared too, and their fear of failure is often driving their bad choices. When you understand this, you will spend your energy building them up, instead of using fear-based reactions.
Remember, you can see your value as a human being as in question and something you have to earn, or you can see your value as a human being as unchangeable and not affected by the way you parent your children.
We recommend you choose to see your value as infinite, unchangeable and intrinsic, as something you cannot lose or gain more of. If your children are successful, get great grades and hang out in the right crowds, it doesn't make you better than people whose teens are struggling.
This might sound obvious, but at the subconscious level, most of us still think our performance (and that of our kids) reflects on our value. But we don't lose value if our child goes off the rails or gets into drugs.
Stop the comparisons with other families and choose to trust your value is secure, and the same as every other human being no matter what happens with your kids.
Your teens and tweens have fears of failure and loss too, which influence their behavior and decisions. They suffer with major fear of failure and they compare themselves to their peers and desperately want to be accepted. They are also scared to death they won't make it in the world.
If we want to have real connection with our teens, we must first earn their trust by creating a safe place for them and showing them the way out of their fears. You do this by loving them exactly as they are. Loving them through their bad choices, when they disappoint you, and teaching them to see their value as unchangeable too.
When they know you see their value as infinite, in spite of struggles or bad choices, they feel safe with you and this will create a relationship where you could be their 'go to' person when they need help, which is really the goal.
This is the hardest part for most parents, because it feels like it would be safer to control them, but control is really a delusion anyway. The truth is you can't really control your kids, and safety only lies in encouragement, building them up and inspiring them to be all they can be so they decide to make good choices for themselves.
The better your connection with your child is, the more influence you will have. Showing them you believe in them and believe they can make it in the world (and telling them this often) actually makes them want to live up to your highest opinion of them. While comments coming from fear that imply you don't trust them and their judgment tend to encourage bad choices.
Choose to trust God and the universe to provide the right classroom journey for each of us. This means trusting God is in charge of your kids and has their education well at hand. If they sign themselves up for some rough lessons, don't freak out. Trust that God is the author of everything and feeling safe and in his hands, will make you more capable of showing up with love and compassion — instead of fear.
Our favorite parenting book, The Conscious Parent, written by Shefali Tsabary, encourages parents to view their teens as their perfect teachers. When you remember you are a student here too, and your child is triggering your fears, you have a chance to work on your fear issues, grow, and learn to trust more fully and love more liberally, and it will change the way you see your child's struggles.
Work on these four things and focus on loving your son unconditionally and telling him you believe in him constantly (even if you aren't sure you do). The more you can tell him he's fantastic, smart and capable, the more he will see himself that way and make better choices. Set your fears aside and make sure most of your interactions with him are love driven, not fear driven.
You can do this — and your connection will improve.