If you want to get into a real conversation with someone, talk to them about their teenage children. Move past the pleasantries of “they’re fine”. Leap over their accomplishments. Dwell for a bit on how the parent struggles with what their child is doing, what lessons they’re learning, or how their relationship is. I guarantee that this conversation is the most real conversation that a parent will have in a day. I’ve never met a parent that isn’t concerned for their child. (Thank God!) Most of the time as parents we’re wandering in the dark trying to figure out how to not mess our children up too much.
I’m by no means an expert on how to raise teenagers, but a few years ago I got the opportunity to get a crash course on it as I gained six additional children (three of which were teenagers at the time) in one fell swoop. For all seven of my children, I want to be available and appropriately supporting. I want to be what John Duffy calls the “available” parent in his book The Available Parent: Expert Advice for Raising Successful, Resilient, and Connected Teens and Tween.
What Duffy calls availability, I might call connectedness. In a world where electronics are the king and being connected has more to do with Internet service than relationships, I can see why availability might be a differentiating term. However, for me it’s all about having a connection, a relationship, with your teenager – no matter how hard this can be at times. Thomas Phelan, author of 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12, wrote a foreword and said, “Staying in touch is the essence of what Dr. Duffy means by availability.”
Friends, Parents, or Both
One of the ongoing debates about parenting is whether you should be friends with your children. Actually, it’s not a debate. Everyone agrees. You have to be a parent. You should be a friend. The questions arise when you have to make the decision between whether to be a friend in the situation or whether to be a parent. (See Who Am I? for different value systems in conflict.)
Duffy gets it right. You have to be a parent first. You have to fulfill your responsibilities to be a parent before you’re a friend. Of course, this is easier said than done when you fear that your child will come to hate you – as you may secretly feel about your own parents.
Handling the Hate
I expect my children will tell me they hate me. I expect that they’ll tell me I’m a bad, awful parent. I do this because it makes it easier when they do tell me these things. Knowing that it’s natural for children to have moments when they don’t like that I’m doing my job as a parent makes it easier when they lash out at me – and I know they will. When I don’t react when they try to explain their hatred for me, I steal the power that was there to disrupt the conversation.
The truth is that we are all frustrated with our parents when they discipline us. The bible says, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2) and, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” (Proverbs 13:24) While some people attempt to take this literally, it’s more of a figurative statement about understanding how to establish boundaries with our children and to instruct them in the ways of right and wrong. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” Nowhere in this does anyone say the child will like it or love you for it – but they’ll respect you for it, and that’s a good place to start.
What’s My Fear
Too many parents are afraid of what other parents will think. Too many parents believe that their children are a direct reflection on them. If I didn’t raise my child to be a rock star, an all start athlete, or a four-star general then I’m not a good parent and I have to be a good parent – like my parents before me. Without granting innocence, parents do the best they can to raise their children in a sea of influences they can’t control. That is the world isn’t an excuse for how children turn out but it is a factor that parents can’t control. How the children turn out isn’t a statement of their value as parents or as people.
One of the techniques I used with my son when he was younger and he was being disobedient was I forced him to sit on the floor and calm down before we’d proceed. One day he was disobedient in church and I sat him on the floor “right in front of God and everybody.” Many of the parents walking by appeared appalled that I’d make my son sit on the floor at church. However, it was effective. I didn’t have a problem with him being disobedient for long.
Too often parents are wrapped up in their own fears of inadequacy, and those get projected into their relationships with their children, and the result is an ugly distorted version of reality. Some of these fears aren’t fears about the children at all, but are instead fears that they’ll never become what they hoped they would become. It’s the death of their life’s hope. (See more about hope in The Psychology of Hope.)
My Life 2.0
It was a spring morning in a high-rise office building in New York. I was there to help implement an ecommerce system. It was a short engagement designed to get the client through some tough spots. I was sitting in one of the manager’s offices at lunch and he shared with me that his daughter was playing soccer. When I asked him about her interest in soccer, he responded that she was playing soccer. It turns out, he had narrowly missed a soccer scholarship to his prized university and was bitter about it. As a result, he was going to live his life out vicariously through his daughter. He had already decided that she’d love soccer. She’d go to the college that he didn’t get to go to. She was going to be his opportunity to capture the things that he missed. (See Peak for what can happen when parents push their children too hard into something they’re not passionate about.)
Too many parents treat their children like this. Junior is going to accomplish what I didn’t. Susie will be the beauty pageant queen that mom couldn’t be because her family couldn’t afford the dresses. Instead of living their lives, they’re stealing their child’s life from them.
There’s a single reference in the book to a holding environment. There’s a single reference to a set of words that have great meaning for me. My friend Paul Culmsee wrote about it in The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices by quoting Ron Heifetz, “A holding environment gives the parties involved a protected space in which they can develop the behaviors necessary to adapt to the specific situation and environment they are in.” A holding environment is a safe space. It’s a safe space to fail. (See Play for the need to be safe to learn.)
This is what we need to do as parents for our adolescent children. We need to create a space which is safe to fail. We need to create a place where it’s ok for us to be disappointed. They need to be able to try and fail. They need to be able to make mistakes, run into parked cars, and learn from them.
Scoop them Up
The way that Terri and I’ve come to discuss how we approach the mistakes that our children make is that we come and scoop them up. We don’t pick them up. We don’t dust them off and ignore what happened. We scoop them up. We lift them up. While there are consequences for falling, they’re not too large, and they never mean that we’re going to abandon them. In fact, if there’s one consistent message that we have is that we’ll always love them – even if we don’t always agree with their choices.
Here, I think there’s a caution. If you completely eliminate the consequences of the action, you risk depriving your child’s ability to learn from the incident. We’re not talking about interfering with the natural consequences of their decisions. Instead we’re talking about how do we demonstrate our love for them while accepting their need to feel the pain of the consequences?
We need our children to take risks. We need them to stretch. (See Peak for more about peak performers’ need for stretch, and Flow for more about how to get to the highest-performing states you need challenge.) There’s an appropriate concern on Duffy’s part about parents who are “always there for their children” – who don’t allow their children to feel some pain, and therefore they never learn.
Circus performers learn their performances with a net. They know the net is there to catch them. This allows them to take risks and learn new routines. By the same token, they learn not to depend on the net if they don’t have to. Nets can fail. (Just like parents can fail.) They learn that they use the net to learn, but the net may not be there for the actual performance. They need to use the net to learn, not keep the net around forever. It would be ridiculous to see an adult riding around town on their bike with the training wheels still attached.
This is the very real concern about children today – that parents aren’t ever willing to let them scrape their knee by taking risks.
“He Makes Me So Angry”
One of the things that makes me smile a wry little smile is to hear someone say to me, “He makes me so angry!” I shouldn’t smile but I do. I realize that no one has power over another. No one can make me angry. I can choose to be angry in response to their behavior, but they don’t MAKE me be angry. (See Choice Theory for more on the choices that we make.) If we unpack this, in Buddhist thinking, anger is disappointment directed. (I first heard about this through Destructive Emotions.) It’s our choice to be disappointed in someone or something. It’s about the expectation that we’ve created. It’s not about the other person at all.
All too often parents are focused on what the behavior of their teenager is doing to them. While there are certainly situations where the child’s behavior causes direct financial impacts and impacts on your time, however, they shouldn’t be causing your feelings. If your child has this power of controlling the emotions of others, including you, perhaps you should consider signing them up to be one of the X-Men.
Put On Your Own Mask Before Helping Others
During the safety briefing in an airplane, you’ll hear about the oxygen masks and invariably a statement that says, “Put your own mask on before helping others.” This is good practical advice. If you’re spending all your time helping others before putting on your own mask, you may black out before you get your mask on. Caring for teenagers is like this. You have to focus on your own emotional health and how you’re doing before you can help your teenager.
Many parents are focused on helping their child be better without first accepting that they need to work on themselves. Realizing that there are things about your well-being and emotional health that aren’t right is hard. Our ego seeks to defend itself. (See Change or Die for more on The Ego and its Defenses.) It’s hard to admit that we’re not perfect. It’s hard to admit that we’ve got flaws and bruises and hurts. However, we all do have them. We’re all imperfect.
It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the problems of our children. It’s too easy to see the ways in which they can improve. It’s too easy to see their problems and not see our own. That’s a mistake. Not that you should give them a free pass because you have your own issues, but that you should acknowledge and accept your part in any of the communications problems that you’re having with them and work on it. Admittedly, your part in communications problems with teenagers may be small, but if you look hard enough you can typically find some.
Emotional Bank Account
In your bank account, you typically try to deposit more money than you withdraw. This leaves you some reserve – and it keeps the banks happier. However, somehow we don’t think about our relationships in the same way. We don’t consider that we need to put in positive investments to be able to extract withdrawals.
The kinds of things that represent deposits vary by person (as Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages points out). Deposits are things which create positive affinity. It’s the kind of interactions that John Gottman recognizes are essential to intimate relationships, as he discusses in The Science of Trust. These deposits create a balance that you can draw from during tough times.
When you criticize, condemn, or complain, you’re making a withdrawal. You’re making yourself feel better at the expense of the person that you’re speaking with. That isn’t to say that every difficult conversation has to be a negative. You can go through Crucial Conversations (as they are called by Patterson and Grenny) with a greater admiration and respect, but that takes skill.
What Kind of Example
Paul Tough, in How Children Succeed, highlights the powerful influence that emotional intelligence and delayed gratification create for children, and how their success is substantially better predicted by these factors than by their intelligence quotient. Duffy agrees that these are key factors in the development of a child. The interesting question is how you teach these skills. The answer, it seems, may be observation. Children – even adolescents – learn substantially more from their parents than they sometimes let on. They learn their values from our values.
They’re also quick to point out where we’re being inconsistent in what we’re doing from one moment to the next, or how our words and our actions don’t appear to match up to them. (Sometimes our actions do – and sometimes they don’t – match our words.) The best way that we can teach our children is to model the behaviors that we want to see from them.
If we want our children to be available to us, perhaps we have to model to them how to be The Available Parent first.