If there were just three things teenagers and parents could understand about each other, there would be far less drama and way more happy family experiences.
Despite their still developing pre-frontal cortex (the decision making part of the brain) – leading to some questionable choices sometimes – teenagers are not so different from their parents. In fact, teenagers and parents (and anyone in close relationships) really want to be understood in very similar ways. Each truly wants the other to understand three things: I love you; I am figuring things out; I am doing the best I can.
The problem is that rather than leading with understanding, teenagers and parents often interact with each other from a set of expectations rooted in fear – fear of being controlled, of losing control, being abandoned, not being enough, being too much, not being lovable, etc.
Everyone carries their own fear story that can get activated during interactions with anyone, especially those they love. The intensity of that activation increases when it is a parent-child interaction, particularly parent-teenager. As children move into their teen years, they assert more and more independence and move toward establishing themselves as an autonomous being. This activates all sorts of fear in parents as they themselves maneuver the fear and sadness of letting go and trusting that their children will survive the journey.
Through the push and pull of maintaining connection while seeking to separate, there is a desperate desire on both sides to be understood and to be given the benefit of the doubt. Each is saying to the other, believe in me, trust me, and accept me. At the core of this desire to be accepted and trusted is the need to be understood on the levels of feeling, doing and being.
Feeling: I love you. Even though I may be expressing feelings of anger, sadness and fear – sometimes in undesirable ways – it does not mean that I don’t love you.
Doing: I am figuring things out. Even though I feel afraid because I have never done this before (been a teen growing up or a parent trying to support this particular teen moving into independence), I want you to understand that I will figure it out and I want you to trust me.
Being: I am showing up in the best way that I can. Even though I may say the wrong things, and seem like I care too much or don’t care enough, the way that I am being is always the best version of me I can bring forward in the moment. I am always doing the best I can from the state of being that I have access to in any given moment. It is always my best.
If both teenager and parent, were able to first understand this about themselves, and accept this about themselves without blame or judgement, then they could also bring this level of understanding to their relationship. What a difference it would make when a fear thought comes up and each was able to dissolve it with understanding!
When feeling fear that their teen will fail, the fear tells a parent to say, “Stop wasting your time and get to work. You always wait to the last minute. Listen to me! You will never pass this class if you don’t work at it every night and do the extra credit and participate in study groups. ” Fear tells the teen to say, “You don’t understand. I am already stressed and just taking a break. Your just making it worse. Stop telling me how to get ready for the test. Just leave me alone.”
With understanding, a parent could shift out of fear and relate on a different level.
From a place of understanding a parent could say instead “When I see you on your phone instead of studying, I feel scared that you won’t pass your math test and then I worry that I should be doing something to make you get to work. But I realize that I don’t know what you are thinking right now. Are you feeling confident and prepared for the test or is there something I can do to help? With equal understanding the teen could respond, “[Laughing] You just caught me on my study break. I am getting a little worried that I won’t learn all this in time. This stuff is hard, but I am giving myself regular breaks so I don’t get too frustrated. Could you look over my work to see if I am figuring out these problems correctly?”
The first set of statements are critical and blaming; whereas, in the second approach, both the parent and teen are honest about their fear and worry. There is also an absence of judgment about that fear and worry. It is simply there and they are each accepting it in themselves and each other.
Fear and worry expressed from judgment and a need to control have a very different impact than fear and worry expressed from a place of acceptance, honesty and curiosity. Judgment triggers defensiveness and more judgment; and acceptance, honesty and curiosity invite understanding and a reciprocal open hearted response.
The key to employing understanding when fear gets triggered is to first notice how you are relating to your own fear and worry; then do whatever you need to do to get comfortable with it so you can interact with understanding. That may mean taking a few deep breaths, writing your fear thoughts down or talking with a confidante (friend, therapist, coach, etc.) so the thoughts can be examined and challenged.
When you are able to understand that your fear is based on your thoughts and that those thoughts are not necessarily true, while also accepting that scaring yourself is something that you do when you are not paying attention, you can choose to pay attention and regain control.
By taking responsibility for understanding and accepting your own thoughts and feelings, you no longer feel the need to control your teen as a way to manage your own cognitive-emotive experience. When you have practiced curiosity, understanding and acceptance with yourself, rather than making your teen responsible for your experience, you naturally feel curiosity and acceptance as you seek to understand their experience.
So start with giving yourself the benefit of the doubt that you are doing the best you can. Get curious about your own experience and bring that curiosity into your interactions with your teens. It may take some time to decrease the reactivity to each other, but if you commit to this for yourself, it will eventually shift the dynamic between you.
Ultimately your behavior will reflect what you most want your teen to know: I love you. I am figuring this out. I am doing the best that I can.
To learn more about how we create drama based on our expectations of ourselves and others, join me in the Drop The Drama online community.