Grandma Charlotte's Parenting Wisdom: Heard Not Fixed
A good friend of mine recently remarked that all she seemed to be getting from her son, in the last few years, was flak, constant ongoing flak. No matter what she recommended to him, no matter what problem her 16 year-old son had, all this mother got in return was resistance. To her credit, her son still came to her with his problems. But she felt like she never got through to him, no matter what she recommended or, at times, pushed him to do.
I shared with her one of the best pieces of wisdom I ever received from my own mother, Charlotte, 87, who raised six kids of her own and counseled countless other parents, over the years, and taught at the graduate level in Early Childhood Education. It is a maxim whose truth proved itself, time and again, in my counseling practice, over the past 25 years.
"Sven, as kids grow into their teens and then 20s,
they less and less want to be fixed,
and more and more want, and need, to be heard."
She would offer that the reason listening -- truly hearing -- is so critical with teens and young adults is three-fold:
1. "Flush it out." There is a powerful, powerful calming result that comes from simply being able to tell your story. Giving the child the opportunity to fully flush out his or her problem, with all its long avenues and cul de sacs, releases the event and many of its accompanying feelings from inside the young one. And that releasing of the story and its feelings has a profoundly calming effect. That, alone, is pure gold. Too often, the child remains in a state of anxiety, as well as resistance to the parent, because the child feels that his or her truth is not allowed to be heard. "You're not listening to me!!!" a youngster will often say when the parent is jumping to conclusions, jumping in too soon, or simply talking rather than listening, as parents are often very quick to do. And as parents, we do this because it's what we've always done when the kids were younger and more dependent upon us for direction. But the problem for the parent is that the previous pattern of steering the child not only no longer works but has the exact opposite effect -- the child doesn't follow .the parent's instruction or coaxing.
Kids resist most when they feel the parent is trying to 'fix' them, rather than hear them. And it's just doggone hard to let go of trying to fix our kids. Yet, nothing will have a more profound calming effect on a child than feeling heard, rather than constantly feeling the parent is trying to solve the child's life or tell the child what to do.
And to let go of fixing is often incredibly difficult for parents.
2. "Naming the beast is half the solution," my mom would regularly say. To be heard, without any effort by the parent to then direct or steer the child -- i.e. to be silent when the child is done speaking -- has the delightfully disorienting effect of allowing the teen to be present in the problem, yet at peace, not stirring with excess anxiety. And it is often right there, in the midst of it, that a child often knows his or her own solution, or at the very least is able to see much more clearly what the real problem is. Poorly delineated problems only create half-solutions.
But, the parent who both allows the child to flush his entire story out and then simply asks the child something along the lines of, 'So, what do you believe to be the real problem in this situation' often discovers that the young adult has a rather astute assessment of the situation. If that is that followed up with, 'And what do you believe the solution to be, in this case' and/or 'What is it you most want to do that also seems feasible, in this case', the parent will discover that the teen/young adult often has an excellent, or at least doable, solution, moving forward.
Again, flushing the problem brings calm, and we make our best assessments and decisions when we've purged the anxiety and are calm. Further, naming the problem as clearly as one is able (and this is one area where a parent can help the child have clarity about what is perhaps really going on) often produces an almost effortless and obvious solution. And when that solution comes from the kid, and not the parent, he or she is far more likely to endeavor it. Yes, the kid may fall down, fail, get hurt inside, or embarrass him-/herself. But that is how we learn, how we gain inner strength, and how we eventually begin to more and more trust our own inner voice.
3. "Teach the child to trust his own inner voice." Both allowing and teaching the teen/young adult to trust and act on his/her own inner guidance system/instincts is absolutely imperative to their being able to stand on their own two feet as adults. When the parent is constantly, or even periodically, trying to steer or influence the kid, the fundamental underlying message being conveyed is 'You don't know what's best for you. Your instincts, wants, inclinations, and sense of self-guidance cannot be trusted. In other words, don't trust yourself; and your own voice doesn't matter.'
That is a powerful statement to convey. The parent may have every good intention, and usually does. But the effect is precisely the opposite of the intent. The young person not only feels who they are doesn't really matter, but that who he or she is isn't good enough.
THAT is why your teen or young adult is resisting you. It's not that you have bad ideas, per se. It's that by constantly sticking your nose in and trying to solve his/her problems you're fundamentally conveying the message, 'You're an idiot and don't know how to solve your own problems.' You may have no intent to send such a message, but that is precisely how the kid is feeling. And the truth is, every kid is going to make a thousand mistakes; you did, I did, they will. But until they start making their own mistakes, they will never grow, become stronger, or be anywhere near ready for adulthood.
"Sven, you're not a dumb person,
you just did a dumb thing.
And it won't be the last time you do.
I still do, myself.
But, what did you learn from it, both about life and about yourself?
THAT is the question."
See, the long term effect of forever trying to direct your child is that the child/teen/adult is then forever looking for external sources of guidance -- parent, spouse, boss, friend -- rather than trusting his or her own ideas, instincts, and gut. The effect is that other people wield an enormous amount of influence on the young person, even as they progress further into adulthood. That sense of dependency not only grows, but an inner weakness grows with it. The man or woman is very susceptible to the vicissitudes of external forces, his or her happiness and life direction never controlled or determined by his or her own self.
By attempting to exert influence over the teen/20-something, the parent potentially infantilizes the child for life, or at least a very long time. And that is in no way a healthy way to live, as an adult.
But it's so hard to let go of not only the influence we had on our kids when they were younger, but hard to let go of the position of influence in their lives. It's hard to recede, just when the child needs to expand. It's hard to let go and let the child fall down, as he moves through teen years and into college. We so don't want them to make our mistakes. We so want to make their way easier. But that does little to help the child. For, even if we do make their way easier, eventually they will long to carve their own path. Further, eventually they will outgrow us but lack the inner strength and inner sense of direction necessary to steer their own way. And, I've counseled enough middle-age folk to know that ain't a pretty picture.
At the core of this letting go for the parent is also a letting go of a sense of identity. The parent has been largely setting her own identity as the one who tells a little person what to do. And the need of that child for the parental steering used to be clear and obvious. But who is the parent now when the teen/young adult seems to not need the parent? What is one's identity when it's no longer boss of the kid?
And it's just damn hard to let go of that position of boss. It's hard to watch your kid potentially fall and fail. It's hard to watch your kid potentially embarrass you. It's hard to know who you are when you're no longer the primary influence in the kid's life.
But the identity of the parent must shift from boss to facilitator, encourager and, perhaps, occasional 'nudger.' The job of the parent, as the teen ages and more and more begins her own life, is to facilitate the kid releasing tension and anxiety that invariably come with new challenges, and to facilitate helping the kid trust and act on his/her own instincts, desires, and sense of direction. The job of the parent is to recede and allow the young one to expand, even when it scares the bejeebers out of the parent (with obvious allowances for intervention when severe physical harm is a possibility). The job of the parent is to begin to get a life of her own, so that the child no longer feels that he must remain as a child so that the parent can maintain a sense of identity. (And never underestimate the sense of obligation an adult child can feel toward a parent who has no [or little] identity outside of telling the kid what to do. Tragically, many a kid will contort his own path and passions, just so that the parent won't feel bad, be alone, or have nothing to do with her life.)
The parent can still nudge the kid, or offer gentle and occasional influence, when the parent feels necessary. But if you feel or hear the kid resisting you, it's because you've gone beyond nudging and into trying to steer the ship that is no longer yours to captain. Nudging often has the most significant impact when delivered with something along the lines of, 'It's totally your decision, but you may wish to consider x, y, or z.' If the parent is not willing to truly give permission to the kid to, more and more, run his life, the parent is doing a profound disservice to the child, causing him to doubt his own instincts and decision-making abilities, not to mention continue to carry the false belief that his own voice doesn't matter or is no good.
I'm quite fond of a paraphrased quote from the great theoretical physicist, Werner Heisenberg:
"I must constantly remind myself
that I am part of the problem
I am trying to solve."
More often than not, the way to change your child's behavior, reduce his/her resistance to you, and also prepare him for adulthood is by articulating the real problem going on inside yourself -- how you, yourself, are in fact largely creating the very problem you think you see in the child. And, as mentioned, when it comes to this notion of resistance and problem-solving among teens/young adults, very often the biggest thing gumming up the resolution of the dilemma is the parent's obliviousness to her own refusal to change, particularly her identity.
So, how are you most in need of changing in your parenting, today? What part of your identity are you unwilling to let go of or allow to morph into something else? Do you have the courage to allow your son or daughter to, more and more, determine his life course? Do you have the patience and sense of quiet to allow your kid to talk his or her own sh-t out? Can you ask the right questions at the right times, where previously you would interject your opinions on what your kid 'should' do?
At what point do you allow your parenting to change....by first changing who you are and where you, yourself, are now going in life?
-- Sven Erlandson, MDiv, is the author of five books, including 'Badass Jesus: The Serious Athlete and a Life of Noble Purpose' and 'I Steal Wives: A Serial Adulterer Reveals the REAL Reasons More and More Happily Married Women are Cheating.' He has been called the father of the spiritual but not religious movement, after his seminal book 'Spiritual But Not Religious' came out 15 years ago, long before the phrase became part of common parlance and even longer before the movement hit critical mass. He is former military, clergy, and NCAA Head Coach for Strength and Conditioning; and has a global counseling/consulting practice in NYC, NJ, and Stamford, CT: BadassCounseling.com