Getting kids to listen may be the hardest thing you’ll ever do. From the time they can walk, they want to be like us, and as they approach adolescence, it’s only right they’re moving toward owning their power and independence. Combine that with raging hormones, stress, or just plain “feeling different,” and you’ve got an argument brewing.
Recent research at the National Institutes of Mental Health suggests that adolescent brains have emotional responses and cognitive function much like adults’. Yet the parts in the brain involved in keeping emotional, impulsive responses in check are still reaching maturity. These findings would explain a teen’s love of risk, novelty, and thinking after the fact.
But how to keep our cool and carry on while raising kids who seem to want the opposite of what we believe will keep them happy? Here are some tips for making it easier on us AND them.
Active Listening. Often we’re there in body but not in mind. We’re thinking about cooking dinner or driving or our work or texting someone else. Put everything down when you see your child walk through the door at the end of the day. If they run up to their room, let them. But if they want to talk, listen with your entire self, not just half your attention. Try to meet their eyes, try to assume an easygoing pose and a “chill” tone. Then listen.
Really listen. If you think you don’t understand what they’re conveying, repeat what they say or ask for clarification. The worst insult from our children is, “Stop freaking out! You just don’t understand!” That means they’ve shut down, and the conversation is over.
Avoid Advice. But how? I’m not sure I know a single parent, including myself, who hasn’t fallen into this trap. Our kids know us better than we sometimes know ourselves, and they know which buttons to push. Yet here’s where active listening comes in.
Here’s an example:
“Mom, my coach was mean to me. He yelled at me because I was late.”
An impulsive, reactive response:
“Wow. How many times have I told you that you can’t be late? Of course he was upset. You’d better not be late again, or he may kick you off the team!”
A proactive response involves repeating what you heard using your own words and validating your child’s emotions, instead of preaching or nagging:
“Your coach was upset you were late? That must have made you feel bad.”
Often, if we validate an emotion, our kids will come up with a solution themselves, and if not the next time we can ask:
“Did you and s/he come up with a plan for preventing this? Is there anything we can work on together to prevent your being late?”
Breathe. Most kids want to test our boundaries. They want a reaction from us. They want to well…bring out the child in US. They want to learn the hard way, their way. A deep breath can work wonders in any relationship, especially one that is triggering us to remember our own childhoods. So take a deep breath, or a few, before you say something hurtful you’ll regret. And if you breathe and still feel like screaming, take a time out. It works for them. It’ll work for you. Then come back and talk when you’re both calmer.
Act As If. Most of us fear not being heard. Act as if you are. You probably are, even when you don’t know it. Most of us parents fear their kids might be up to something. Act as if they will do the right thing. You’ve created a foundation for them, and hopefully, you’ve led by EXAMPLE, as a mature adult. Trust them to do the right thing, and most of the time, they will.
Be There. Try to be available, in good times and bad. Institute something fun that your child chooses, of better, suggests: a family vacation, new sport, game, or creative activity. You don’t have to hover; in fact, that will only cause resistance. But make sure you’re there if they need you. Instead of saying, “I told you so,” tell them, “I’ll be there for you always, even if you’re embarrassed.” Then make sure you are.
Communicate. One day our son worships us, the next he’s defying us. He’s growing. We’re stuck in “advice” mode. I let my kids make their own decisions early, like which toys to keep and which to give away. Or which extracurricular activities to pursue. Now, I wait for them to come to me to ask my advice, unless it involves a dangerous situation.
If we want them to be honest, open and real, we have to be honest and open. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answer. Don’t be afraid to share your feelings.
Create Rules Together. Compromise. Long gone are the days of “my way or the highway.” If your daughter is coming home late, be her designated driver. If she’s hanging out with wild friends, have them over to your house and stock the fridge. With older kids, you can wait for their actions to mete out natural consequences. That way they own the experience and learn to behave differently next time. However, if a rule continues to be broken, you’ll have a mutual plan of what the rules are, and what the consequences are if the rules are broken.
In our house, it’s three times, you’re out. If a rule is broken three times, an agreed upon consequence is leveled. It’s a balancing act, but if we’re constantly saving our kids from their own decisions, they’ll be anxious, disempowered adults. (Your consequences should come when natural ones don’t come into play.)
Don’t beat yourself up if you slip. As writer Anne Lamott tells us they don’t come with operating instructions, but then, neither do we. Yet if we’re trying to break every fall, they won’t learn to run. “If you try to protect them from hurt, and always rush to their side with Band-Aids, they won’t learn about life, and what is true, what works, what helps, and what are real consequences of certain kinds of behavior. When they do get hurt, which they will, they won’t know how to take care of their grown selves. They won’t even know where the aspirin is kept.”
Perhaps the worst thing about parenting is that we have to make it up as we go, but that’s also the best thing. We learn from each other. I am a better person for those days of tough decisions and small sacrifices, of knowing when to step in and when to keep my thoughts to myself. I am better for searching within instead of worrying how my child might be representing me in the neighborhood. I am a better person for this journey of self-discovery that only a child can bring us.
Want a happier family? Want to stop pulling your hair out? I can help. Contact me for a complimentary 30-minute strategy session