My son awoke on edge yesterday.
“It looks like you’re thinking about some things that are frustrating you,” I said. “I’m sorry you’re not feeling great.” He didn’t join us for breakfast and stayed prickly through the morning, calming a bit when we did some gardening.
In the afternoon, his distress escalated to the level where his brain isn’t absorbing information and he gets reactionary and pushy. Nobody’s favorite.
This kind of day used to be the norm.
He’s new to the realities of having actual adult authorities (i.e. parents), and new to trying to regulate his emotional responses. Being a new parent myself – and of a teenager, no less – I’ve read and read and read as I do my best to understand where he is coming from and what I can do to give him the best chance to heal.
As I read, I realized that no matter the approach, no matter the situation or the author’s background, regardless of the purpose of their writing, the majority of everything came back to a single issue:
Even parenting advice geared toward helping prepare kids for adulthood relies on connection to “work.” The same techniques layered on a foundation of disconnect don’t succeed.
Taking the advice offered from every professional I’ve read or encountered, I now keep connection foremost in mind. It comes before everything, even school. And especially before my needs and agenda. (As an introvert, that last part is rough.)
As our teens drop their defenses, though, and freed from fighting for the right to be who they are, from that healthy place they naturally begin responding to opportunities to be their better self. Even in areas where there has been no explicit instruction.
This is simplicity of connection. The more you succeed at connecting, the less you have to work at everything else.
It can be challenging to develop new habits, sure. And connecting instead of correcting might be a new habit that feels clunky at first. But as we orient to true north and move toward it, the path toward whole goodness with our teen emerges.
One quick thing: If you haven’t already last week’s post about mindset-shift, click over and read it first. Shifting how we think about our kids makes it much easier to connect.
Get to Know Them
You see them every day. But do you really know the now of the soul unfolding before you?
Listen to your teen as though they’re a new friend you’re getting to know. When they’re talking, don’t give commentary or rebuttals or jump in with a teaching point. Just be a safe place for them to be themselves and observe who they really are.
Ask questions about what interests them and discover what they enjoy about it. If you can later explain their interests and what they love about them to your best friend, you’re on the right track.
You’re bound to hear things you’ll want to follow-up on, and one of the best parts of listening like this is getting insight into what guidance they really need. But rather than interrupting them, save it. You’ll communicate that your time together is about them and not about your personal agenda.
I don’t mean accepting all choices or behaviors. Uhhhhhh, no.
I mean letting them know they are one-of-a-kind with unique things they bring to the world and that are valuable and loved just the way they are. Not once they get better grades or learn to do their own laundry or become a perfect mini-me. But loved and accepted, just as they are.
Acceptance communicates that no matter how many fumbles they make, or how many decisions they make that you would have made differently, they always have a place cuddled up next to you.
As for them making decisions you don’t agree with? They already know you don’t agree. They want to know if they belong even though they feel like they’ve failed you.
Every book about connecting with kids, helping them succeed or heal, or becoming healthy adults has a sizable section about empathy.
Feeling understood feels good and increases connection. It also does some crazy-good brain voodoo that is still beyond my paygrade. There’s a deep magic in empathy.
But what does empathy look like?
It looks like trying to imagine how they are feeling, naming it back to them, and expressing that you’re feeling it with them. It also means not minimizing what they’re experiencing at that moment.
Recently my son was apprehensive about going to watch the World Cup with a big group of Brady’s friends. In the past, we might have tried to convince him it would be fine by pointing out that he would know several people and that he loves Chili’s so he’d be sure to have a good time.
Now we see that trying to convince him that he feels something other than what he truly feels only makes him feel defensive and misunderstood.
So instead, Brady said, “I know you don’t like groups of people when you don’t know everybody there. And tonight might be uncomfortable a bit, especially at first. It’s okay to be uncomfortable and it’s okay if it’s not your favorite thing ever. We’ll just have to stuff our faces with chips and salsa and see how it goes!”
(He went in a good mood and had a blast.)
Kids need to belong
Make your family the place they belong. The place they shine. A place that doesn’t get along the same without them.
Purposely have family interests and likes.
These aren’t your personal interests, they are the places your souls intersect in enjoyable moments. Do them often. This is not the annual trip to the beach but the grilling on Sunday afternoons and the weekly summer trips to the pool.
In our family, we surf. We go exploring on short road trips. We have family movie night every Saturday. We learn stuff and play games. We sample all the ice cream places to find the best one. We make fun of our dog and make word jokes, and we love Survivor (G’night!).
Kids also need to find their identity in the group.
If you haven’t already, find what role your teen feels best about themselves in and let them do it.
This is difficult for me because my son’s thing is fixing stuff and I’m a bit neurotic. I’ve had to force myself to stop worrying that he’ll break things and just accept that it’s bound to happen and that it’s an acceptable risk.
I’ve had to let go of fixing certain things myself. And I often have to endure a string of commands about how to fix my phone… fixes I’ve already tried. Which means I also endure unending insinuations of being an idiot.
But being our fix it guy and our homemade ice cream guru and our navigator cements his role in our community and helps him know he belongs.
Whatever attitudes come your way, whatever accusations, whatever blaming or complaining, keep your poise. Later, when everyone is calm, you can revisit any mishaps if you really need to. (And we don’t always need to.)
Staying steady makes your kids feel safe in their relationship with you and in the world. It also prevents you from being the cause of unnecessary provocation and escalation.
This is hard, but embracing the seven mindsets helps. As does a glass of wine at the end of the day.
5 More Practices for Big Connection
Now that you have some ideas connecting day in and day out, here are a few specific practices to get you started. (Or keep you going if you’re already well on your way.)
There are a million more, but these are a few that have had the biggest impact for me:
▪ Join your teen in something they enjoy. You can hate it, you can be bad at it, just spend small amounts of time with them regularly enjoying something they love. I saw big changes when I began playing a bit of PlayStation with my son each day.
▪ Give lots of hugs and physical touch. Go as far as they’ll allow and then push it a bit (but not if they’re in a bad mood). Put your arm around them when watching TV. Dance or wrestle or head-butt them when they’re not expecting it. Scratch their back when they’re working on homework and then give them a hug from behind and a kiss on the cheek. And of course, hugs. Lots of hugs.
▪ Comment on the the positive. Notice something positive, especially if it was a personal success for them, and comment on it. Tell them in the car on the way to school or write a note and put it under their pillow. Just see the good things they’re making an effort in and find a way to tell them you notice.
▪ Work together to find creative solutions. Instead of saying a flat “no” to things you’re uncomfortable with, figure out exactly what your concerns and considerations are. Invite your teen to do the same. Can they suggest a solution that works for both of you? Your teen will feel considered and they’ll be practicing thinking of others and problem-solving at the same time.
▪ Let them know it’s okay to feel how they’re feeling. Teens often blame us for the discomfort they feel. They’re frustrated that their friends are going somewhere they can’t. They’re annoyed that their screen time is limited. They’re disappointed that their weekend plans got cancelled. Let them know it’s okay to feel that way. “It’s okay to be frustrated when things don’t go as you expect.” “It’s okay to disagree with us on this. You’re a thinking kid and you have your own ideas and that’s a great quality.” This is one of my favorite practices because it gives me something affirming to say in every situation. Try it!
Connecting with our kids is fun, enjoyable, and provides the security needed for their personal growth. But staying receptive, steady and available, and sacrificing other important things for the sake of connection, can be very, very challenging.
Perhaps you like the idea, but it seems like an uphill climb from your current situation. Be encouraged!
The more we connect, the less drama we face.
The less drama, the less tension, and the less felt need for discipline. Which means fewer difficult conversations and less work. The gain in peace and enjoyment is so worth it.
This week, pick one connecting thing to focus on and try to do it every day.
I like posting a reminder as a prompt like, “Ask a question about an interest he brings up in conversation. Ask a followup question I don’t already know the answer to.”