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.