Giving Our Teenagers the 1-1 Attention They Crave

I consulted with a woman recently about how to spend quality time with her teenage daughter. In a previous consult we had discussed the importance of regular special one-on-one time between the teen and the mom to build closeness in their relationship and create safety for the teen to open up to her mom. Now in this second consultation, the mom ‘Karen’ shared her struggle with how to put this plan into action.

“I really want to do this, but she never wants to spend any time with me,” Karen lamented. I encouraged her to explore this thought in our session, and it sounded sad and discouraged: “she is super busy with her friends and activities. I’m sure it never crosses her mind that the two of us haven’t spent any time together lately. All I am to her is a source of clean sheets and school supplies and new skates.” This went on for about 10 minutes, and then spontaneously shifted.

“All she wants to do is go to the mall!” Karen suddenly exclaimed. Again I encouraged Karen to open up about all her feelings and judgments. It sounded like this: “the mall is not a place of connection or culture! She spends money like it grows on trees. What about getting out into the real world? The mall is like a big, corporate magazine full of stupid shiny things.” This went on for about 10 more minutes. Mom complained bitterly to me about how going to the mall was the last thing she ever wanted to do.

When someone is struggling with a problem, it’s really important to give them a chance to thoroughly talk about the problem. Don’t try to steer the person towards the silver lining! This goes for teenagers too! The complaining and negativity is an important stage in problem solving and should not be rushed.

At this point I wanted to bring in the possible perspective of the teen daughter. I asked my client, “What do you think she likes about the mall? From your daughter’s point of view, what’s great about hanging out at the mall?” After the opportunity to ‘vent’ to me for 20 minutes, Karen willingly changed her focus. “Well, I guess it’s a public space where she feels safe and welcome. She can hang out there in summer or winter and be comfortable and dry. And not get harassed like you might worry about on the street. And part of that might be that she is surrounded by others like her; lots of teenagers work at the mall and her friends are all there. And it’s a great place to look at and talk with boys.”

Now I asked Karen “has your daughter ever asked you to go to the mall with her?” The reply was an immediate, “All the time!” I pointed out that perhaps Karen’s daughter DID want to spend time with her mom.  “Yes, that’s true I suppose,” Karen admitted. So then I asked, “What would be the worst thing for you about going to the mall?” Karen listed off the following: trying on clothes, looking at jewellery, lugging bags around, or staying for hours and forgetting if it’s still daylight outside.

Next I asked, “Is there anything at the mall you secretly like?” Karen giggled at this question. “To be honest with you,” she began, “there is a pizza place in the food court that I love! And getting a little something from the fudge store is a guilty pleasure. And come to think of it, I’m always happy to go to a movie, and that’s in the mall too.”

You can see that just like earlier in the session, I invited Karen to share what she hated about the mall before turning her thoughts to what she actually enjoyed about the mall.

Remember this the next time your teenager starts to complain about something; try just listening and giving them the space to be as negative as they want. For example, if your teen announces that algebra homework is going to be the death of them, ask your teen to tell you more about how much they hate their algebra homework. AND THEN REALLY LISTEN TO THEIR RESPONSE.

I know what you actually want to say is something like, “nobody was ever algebra-ed to death,” or “quit exaggerating,” or “I made it through algebra so you can too,” or “I spent a lot of money on an algebra tutor for you last year!” or any number of replies that diminish your teen’s feelings. But for the love of small baby animals keep your mouth shut.

The last 10 minutes of this consult with Karen were spent actively considering going to the mall with her daughter and figuring out the conditions that would work for her. She decided to start small, and agree to a half-hour expedition to the mall with her daughter. Karen was prepared to negotiate beforehand and find out what her daughter would like to do at the mall for half an hour, keeping in mind her personal preferences and boundaries.

Starting small is an excellent strategy. Gathering your resources, preparing ahead of time, and planning for success are all excellent strategies too. Well done Karen! I know that half an hour of special time with your daughter every week will go a long way towards building a safer and warmer relationship.


Posted in Conflict Coaching, Parenting | Leave a comment

My Teenager and I Swear At Each Other

It’s true that I have never given my son a curfew. And we don’t actually have any household rules. Plus I don’t give a shit about swearing and if he tells me to fuck off I don’t blink an eye. I tell him the same thing sometimes.

For example:

Me & The Boy in the car

The Boy: I can’t believe we have to go swimming for gym again tomorrow. I hate it!

Kerri: What’s so bad about it?

The Boy: It’s hard! She makes us do 2 laps with the kick board in front of us on our stomachs, then 2 laps on our backs with the kick board above our heads, and then 2 laps of front crawl after that, then 2 laps of this drill. And I’m EXHAUSTED by then!

Kerri: So you think swimming is a lot of work? Now you know how tough I am! [I’m bragging here actually]

The Boy: Whatever.

Kerri: I swim 100 laps a few times a week and you can barely do 6?

The Boy: Fuck off.

Kerri: (laughing) All right. Sorry for rubbing it in. [I realize I had it coming; I wasn’t super empathetic]

At the dirt jumps. The Boy and lots of other teen boys are there.

The Boy: Why don’t you just ride the line straight? It’s way harder to transfer in the way you’re doing it.

Kerri: I’m too scared of the first jump; I don’t like the lip on it.

The Boy: Well you’re doing it the hard way you know!

Kerri: I’m doing it my way.

The Boy: But if you can transfer in you can obviously clear it. Just do it!

Kerri: Fuck off. I’ll do it when I’m ready.

The Boy: Fine.

Swearing is a big deal to some people but I don’t really get that. They’re just words. What matters is the connection you have with the person and the actual intention underneath the words. I think if someone demands that another person not swear that is a power trip. That’s somebody laying down some kind of law. And who has the right to tell another person what words they can or cannot speak?

I think what’s really going on when a parent tells their kid “no swearing” is that the parent is worried about how THEY will be perceived and how THEIR parenting will be thought about or talked about if someone outside the family hears their young person talking with a potty mouth. So it’s about the parent and the parent’s feelings. Don’t kid yourself that it has anything to do with the kid.

For other parents I think it does truly hurt their feelings if their kid swears at them. For those parents it seems to really be like a sharp arrow has pierced their skin and the sting is real. The most authentic response in this situation would be an expression of pain like, “Ouch! That really stung!” That’s a way more honest response than saying, “Show a little respect!” or “Watch your mouth!” Because what are you really saying with this kind of response? You’re saying ‘toe the line’ or ‘act the way I want you to’. Would you ever treat another adult that way? Demanding they act in a certain manner that is pleasing to you? Of course not. And there is no excuse for acting that way with a child or teenager. Additionally, you are essentially lying to your kid or hiding the truth if you don’t indicate to them the effect their words have had on you.

Kids are obviously still learning and growing (who isn’t?) and there’s also the fact that their frontal lobes won’t finish developing until they are in their twenties, so we have to remember that they probably won’t display the most elegant rational thinking at all times. But we have to cut them a little slack here! If we actually want to teach them the consequences of their behaviour then we have to demonstrate those consequences to them. Like this, for example:

Teen: I forgot my damn textbook at school again! I fucking hate that!

Parent: Ouch! That harsh language hurts my ears.

Teen: What’s wrong with you? They’re just words; get over it.

Parent: I worry that other people might hear you talking like that and they’ll think you’re a no-good punk with crappy parents.

Teen: That’s dumb. Who cares what other people think? You’re always telling me not to care about what everyone else is doing or wearing.

Parent: You’re right. I get a little uptight about wanting to be seen in a good light. I want others to like me.

Teen: Who doesn’t?

This parent is taking responsibility for his or her own personal emotional reaction and the conversation turns into a meeting of minds where the two of them are discussing something really important about life – worrying about what others think of us and how to deal with it. This parent is not pinning the responsibility for their comfort on their teen. It’s not the job of our teens to make us comfortable! Their job is to figure out what’s important to them, what they’re interested in, what they like doing, who they like being with, and figuring out how they fit in the world. Making their parents feel good about themselves is not a biological part of growing up.

If I don’t want you to swear because I’m worried I’ll be seen as a deficient parent if other adults knew that I ‘let’ you swear, or because it hurts my feelings, or I feel attacked when you swear at me ALL of that is about ME. It has everything to do with MY needs, MY fears, and MY desires. It’s just plain irresponsible for me to pretend that my kid’s swearing is his problem when it is clearly mine.

Was there swearing in the house where you grew up? Is there swearing in your house now? How do you feel about it? I would love to read your comments below!

Posted in Communication, Parenting | 3 Comments

Teaching Your Teenager to be a Critical Thinker

The day The Boy got his driver’s license he asked me if he could use my vehicle to drive to a friend’s house about 7 kilometres out of town. I said no problem. He seriously aced his driving exam that afternoon and the impressed instructor had even taken me aside to ask who had done so much practice driving with him (me!).

The Boy called me close to 11pm to ask if he could stay the night at his friend’s place because some other teens were there and alcohol had come out. The un-stated rationalization here was that he would not drink and drive (it didn’t need to be talked about during this particular conversation because we talk about it so often). I did not reply to his question. Instead I said, “Let’s see… you have taken the car out for the very first time on your own, and you want to drink tonight and also stay out all night.” For starters, I wanted to simply re-state the facts as I understood them for two reasons:

  1. To check if they were correct. Was this actually what was going on?
  2. I wanted my son to hear this list of facts out loud. Many times the actual words have a lot of power when we hear them, rather than just think about them in our minds. Have you ever had it happen where you think to yourself, ‘I haven’t had a sit-down meal with my kid all week,’ and it’s no big deal, but then you say the same thing out loud to your friend and you think, ‘I’m kind of a crappy parent…’

The Boy agreed that these were the facts. So then I asked him, “Do you think that might be too much for your first time driving on your own?” I wanted to challenge him to reach for his own best thinking, because humans don’t learn to think critically by having others make tough decisions for us; we learn how to think critically by actively making our own tough decisions.

I will write in another post about my views on teens and alcohol use, so don’t worry – I’m not just going to leave that part hanging unaddressed! But for now, dear reader, just know that this wouldn’t be the first time The Boy was planning to drink.

Many of us can be scared to let our teens take full charge of making tough decisions themselves. We worry that their inexperience and still-developing brains and thrill-seeking natures will take them in dangerous directions. We try to convince ourselves that if we take the potentially treacherous activities off the table then our kids will be safe. But we all know that this comes with the cost of conflict; every time we tell our teen, ‘no, you can’t do that’ or ‘no, you can’t go there’ we probably have a fight on our hands.

Also, it takes practice to allow teens to make tough decisions themselves. When they were little, we were able to make almost every decision for them except what they would eat, how much, if they would pee or poo, and if they would sleep or wake. The whole parenting trip starts with us having all the responsibility, and we get so used to having it that we have a hard time letting go of it. We need to start with little things like letting them decide to climb to the top of the play structure, then letting them decide how far they want to swim into the lake.

The Boy thought out loud with me over the phone, explaining what a good time they were having at Alex’s house and who was all there and what he thought they might do for the rest of the night and where everyone would sleep. He told me that he felt confident about being able to drive the vehicle home safely and soberly the next morning because I had an appointment at the garage to get my winter tires mounted. I gave him my good listening attention while he spoke. As a parent who is interested in guiding my son to be a critical thinker, IT IS MY JOB TO LISTEN as he thinks out loud.

I know Alex and his parents, and I also know the other teens that were at the house, so what The Boy was saying made sense to me and didn’t sound outlandish or made-up. I asked what kind of booze they had, and where they got if from, and I asked The Boy how much he was planning to drink. After he answered my questions I told him, “I appreciate you phoning to check with me about this decision. I’m happy that we can think about this together. I can tell that your priorities are having fun with your friends and celebrating your new driver’s license and honouring the fact that you are driving a vehicle that I own and pay for. These are all good things.”

Then I said, “Since we have gone over this together, what do you think is the course of action that makes the most sense?”

After a short pause he said, “I think I want to have a drink or two with my friends. So I will stay here for the night and come home in the morning.” I told him again that I appreciated his call and the opportunity for us to think together, and told him I loved him and that I would see him in the morning.

After I hung up the phone I sat back and felt disappointed. I was hoping The Boy would think having the car out all night while drinking on his very first day with a driver’s license was too much. There was a little voice in my head that said, “I lost that one. Damn.” So I went over the situation again in my mind. Was The Boy safe? Yes, I felt confident of that. Was I worried about my vehicle? No, I really wasn’t. Did it bother me that he was drinking with his friends? No, that wasn’t a problem for me. It was all just a big step to take, and I was processing the fact that my son could now legally drive. It actually made me pretty nervous! I knew I had to work through my fears around having a teen with his driver’s license.

I reminded myself if I had told The Boy, “you really should come home tonight,” that it would only have given him something to fight against. It would have put us in a conflict dynamic where we held opposing positions. I am not interested in making him do what I think is the most rational thing because a) I can’t actually make him do a damn thing! I am not able to physically control him! and b) I am not helping him learn to think critically if I require that he follow my thinking.

About 10 minutes later I was getting ready for bed, lost in thought about my baby growing up, and the phone rang again. It was The Boy calling to tell me he changed his mind about drinking and staying the night, and that he would be home in a few minutes.

Wow! I was so pleased about what I had done to contribute to this outcome! The careful way I worded my thoughts during our earlier conversation allowed The Boy to change his mind without ‘losing face’. He could feel like he had made his own independent decision. Many times teens can only feel independent when they are opposing us, and they need to feel independent in order to grow up.




Posted in Communication, Conflict Resolution, Listening, Parenting | Leave a comment