Five years ago if you told me I’d have a teenage son and would be helping other people connect with the kids in their world, I would have laughed. Out loud. In your face.
I enjoyed working with older kids on and off when I was younger, sure. In college I was a summer camp counselor and after college I worked closely with university students for several years. But kids weren’t my thing. In most ways, they still aren’t. But God has a sense of humor.
After moving to Lebanon some years ago to work with abused, abandoned, and neglected kids and teens, I began reading everything I could find about helping kids with rough starts. I asked for recommendations from counselors and others with relevant experience (like parents in the therapeutic foster care system).
I read psychologists and neurologists, specialists in therapy and child development, parents and counselors-of-all-types. I read for the every-parent, the therapeutic parent, for people working with high-risk teens, for teachers, and for parents who currently have kids in concerning situations.
I’m still reading.
And here’s what I’ve found. Regardless of the author’s specialization, their purpose for writing, or their approach to myriad concerns, everything comes back to a single issue:
Connecting with teens isn’t easy. If it were, there wouldn’t be so many books on the topic and you wouldn’t be reading this post. But recognizing that it all comes back to connection simplifies our thinking in our dailyaltercations
interactions with our kids.
There is this sweet magic where by nailing this one thing, connection, you can half-fail at everything else and still end up with kids you enjoy and who can survive the suck that life throws at them.
Today I’m sharing some common beliefs and mindsets that deserve our scrutiny. Many of us haven’t questioned the beliefs we’re navigating by, and if our north isn’t true north, we’re going to end up off track.
Next week, I’ll share actions for connecting with the teen in your life. But adding those practices onto a wonky foundation is gets nothing but wonky. And we don’t want wonky. So, today we’ll be uprooting the junk so that next week we have some solid space available to plant the new practices.
There’s no way I can share all-the-things in two posts. I couldn’t do it in two weeks of posts. My hope is to open up some new questions and possibilities, and help you have new experiences with your teen that will encourage you to go deeper with connection.
Perhaps your relationship with your teen is already stellar. You have a great connection with them and are convinced they feel a deep connection with you, too.
If that’s you, you can stop reading. There’s not much for you here.
But if you’re like most of us, you suspect things could be better with your teen. And you want them to be. If that’s you, you’re on to something. Keep reading.
So here’s where we begin, seven beliefs to reexamine in our quest to connect.
1) All Behavior is an External Sign of Internal Distress
Just like our own missteps, less-than-fantastic behavior from our kids is a sign that something is amiss within them. When your kids are stressed, afraid, confused, or anxious, they need your unconditional love more than ever.
Next time your kiddo is acting up, ask yourself what might be going on with them.
Something from school? A life change they’re not equipped to process? Hunger? Hormones? Disappointment? Instead of seeing them as “bad” or “wrong,” remind yourself that they are hurting or confused.
Their behavior is a reflection of what’s going on on the inside. In the moment, be their ally against this tricky, messed-up world.
2) Kids Do Well if They Can*
People want other people to think they’re awesome. We don’t feel great when we’ve treated people unkindly and we really don’t like looking stupid in front of others. Kids are the same.
If our kids have the skills they need, and they have the internal resources at the moment to access those skills, they will. If our kids aren’t doing well, it’s because they’re lacking skills or they are at their limit in terms of what they can self-regulate, or because they have unmet needs.
If your teen is failing in a particular area or behavior right now, it’s because they’re missing something. The good news is that you can supply it or help them find it! But it’s not a matter of them just wanting to do better. They’re missing something, and if they could get it, they probably already would have. Kids do well, if they can.
(*I’m directly quoting Dr. Ross M. Greene. Check out his own explanation here.)
3) Kids Want Connection
Of the truths on this list, this one has taken me the longest to believe.
We have regular episodes at my house. Yesterday I spent most of the day on the receiving end of a tirade that insulted everything from the walls of our house (they’re white for crying out loud) to the motives of my heart, “all you care about is your headphones!” (I’m really not certain where this one came from). On days like these, it seems like the last thing he wants is me.
But since every professional I’ve read on this topic insists that what teens truly want is connection, a while back I chose to adjust my assumptions. And I’ve been shocked.
Your teen might be pushing you away. You might not know how to connect with them. If things have been rough lately, they might not be ready to rebuild just yet. But they want you and they need you.
As teenagers, they are asking all kinds of questions about what it means to be uniquely themselves. They’re figuring out who they are apart from who you are or who (they think) you want them to be. They are seeking new independence and since they’ll soon be adults, this is important! But they need your help. And they are hungry to connect with you.
Because he missed out on mothering in early childhood, I sit with my son each night while he falls asleep. Last night I entered his room to some mean-spirited glaring. I kept my approach, the loving, accepting one I’d chosen. The glare continued.
I sat on the sliver of bed I could find and said, “I know today’s been a hard day. But I always love you just the same.” He rolled away from me, making space, and gave me the shoulder twitch that let’s me know he’s ready for some back-scratching.
Today, we’re good. He’s easily responding to my requests and not picking fights. He’s playful and easy-going. And really? He likes feeling this way much better.
Our teens want to connect with us and will move toward that if they are freed to do so. It’s tricky, and hard to believe, but it’s true.
4) Discipline is not the answer
Limits and natural consequences are great, but discipline (punishment to curb undesirable behaviors) is not the answer.
We all grew up with discipline. Every system we’ve lived inside of our entire lives from family to school to government assumes that discipline is the way to curb undesirable behaviors. But is it?
Does punishing our kids or teens help them with their behaviors or help them make better decisions or help them become better people? People who study it say no. Further, the evidence suggests that alternative approaches do meet these goals.
This post isn’t about raising adults; it’s about connecting with kids. (Which helps raise great adults, but that’s beside the point.) Many of our punishments/consequences, however, are putting a wedge between us and the kids we love.
With punitive discipline, our kids feel misunderstood, feel a sense of injustice, and perceive that we’re just trying to control them. They react accordingly, and the distance between us grows.
But most alternative approaches encourage connection instead of disrupting it. If we could get closer to our teens instead of provoking them to shut us out, especially if our new way is likely to achieve our purposes better than punishment, shouldn’t we consider it?
5) Kids Don’t Know Why They’re Doing It
Whatever it is, they don’t know why they’re doing it.
We’re the same, right? We could sit down and figure out why we flipped out during that conversation last Tuesday, but we don’t. We know we were really mad, and we were. But why did our filters fail at that exact moment? We don’t know. And of course our kids don’t either.
The difference between us and our teens is that they don’t have have the years or skills or complete neurological development to get as far as we could get if we really tried. So really, truly, we should give them a break.
Asking kids why they did something only makes them feel stupid, something they feel too often as it is. Don’t ask them why they keep doing that thing. They don’t know.
6) It’s Okay to Be Pissed Off
It’s not wrong for your teen to be angry. Or frustrated. Or anxious. Or disappointed. It’s not wrong for you to feel these, either, even toward your teen or their future.
But whether toward our kids or ourselves, we often respond with a “what’s wrong with you!” when an, “I can see that you’re disappointed about this. It’s okay to be disappointed” would be more generous and kind.
More importantly, the first pits us against each other while the second leaves room for us to be okay with imperfection. When our kids feel it’s okay to be imperfect, they feel accepted. And acceptance is a powerful way to connect.
7) We Must Learn to Tolerate Our Discomfort
Adults should be in a healthy frame of mind before entering into potentially emotional conversations with their kids. We already know this.
When we’re stressed or outraged or overly-tired or anything short of calm and present, we’re likely to overdo it in an emotional moment with our kids. I’ve experienced this approximately 10,492 times with the kids I work with, an another teeny tiny handful with my own son.
But recently I read something that blew my mind. Dr. Shefali Tsabary writes,
The point about feelings is that they don’t have to make sense, don’t need to be justified, and don’t require our approval. Because we are so oriented to intellectualizing, we want to explain feelings away instead of allowing our children to simply experience them. The issue is our own discomfort, which we need to learn to tolerate.
“The issue is our own discomfort, which we need to learn to tolerate.”
Oh gosh. YES!
When my son is on the fritz, I want him to stop because I’m uncomfortable. But that part has nothing to do with him, and yet that’s the real reason why I’m tempted to try to control the situation with some law-throwing-down that does nothing to help and everything to enrage.
We must learn to tolerate our discomfort.
Whew. You made it!
That was a lot, I know. But we’ve got to pull the weeds if we want the plants to thrive, and these unquestioned beliefs are suffocating many of our efforts with our teens.
I’ve got a challenge for you. A simple one!
Of the seven beliefs above, choose the one that most immediately catches your attention. This week, recall it to mind often (paper or digital reminders can help) and see if it shifts your approach to a situation with your teen.