Developmentally the young person/teenager is geared towards understanding and finding their own identity. Up till now, the young person has looked towards the parent/care giver for this, however as they physical development, the young person will start to look towards their peers. This is a time for the young person/teenager to start to spread and test their wings through increased independence. For the parent/caregiver this can therefore be somewhat scary as our children start to rely and want to be more with their peers. Letting go and watching our child make mistakes and hopefully learn by these mistakes, takes a whole new set of skills!
Parenting young people/teenagers can be likened to the parent being the wharf or dock and the young person being the ship. The ship leaves the safety of the wharf to go off and explore. In order for the ship to return for ‘maintenance’, the wharf needs to be strong and firm yet flexible in order to survive the differing weather patterns. The wharf also needs to remain steady, not moving so the ship knows where to return. The wharf needs to be ready for the ships return.
This analogy translates to our need as the caregiver, to be the adult in the relationship. The person who sets and maintains the boundaries; does not ‘give in’ to every demand nor becomes a ‘mean enforcer’. The adult is flexible but consistent. In order for young people/teenagers to explore their world, they need a sense of safety. We, as the wharf/dock need to provide this safety. The young person/teenager needs to know, that no matter what has happened, what they have done (good and/or not so good), we will be their steady (wharf) rock. As such, our young person/teenager will know that although we might not like what they have done, we won’t blame or call them names, but help them through whatever the natural consequences of their actions are.
How can we be that parent/caregiver I hear you ask? Well first we need to understand that as human beings we don’t have control over other people. In fact if you stop and reflect for a minute, what do you honestly have control over?? Very little as it turns out. We can’t control our brain – it works 24/7 all by itself. If something upsets us, for example if we come home from work to find Junior hasn’t done the dishes as requested, we can’t stop the feeling of anger, or frustration or annoyance. The only thing we can control is how we respond to that feeling. So in this example I could start to yell at the culprit or I could take some time out to make myself feel a bit better before I address the situation. In other words, we can only control how we respond. We have more ability to ‘influence’ situations; such as we can influence our health by maintaining a healthy weight and exercising, although again, we can’t control our health. For example we could still live a healthy lifestyle and get cancer! Or we influence our children by modeling behavior. We can influence far more than we can control, however the biggest denominator is ‘no control’. There are many, many things in life we have absolutely no control over, including other people. Unfortunately this is the area where we blame and get stressed.
Consequently as parents/caregivers we need to think about ‘what can I control/influence/not control when it comes to my child. You can influence your child to study by encouraging them; giving them somewhere suitable to study; helping them with their homework if appropriate; giving them nutritious meals or most importantly being emotionally available. By being emotional available I mean helping your child sit with difficult feelings. For example, taking the above scenario of wanting your child to complete their homework, if your child is struggling to understand the homework and maybe slams the text book shut and walks off, the first question we ask is “How is my child feeling right now”? We don’t need to know what made them slam the book shut and walk off, we just need to try and work out by their behavior how they might be telling us about how they are feeling.
Let’s go back a step again. If you’ve had a difficult day say, maybe got stuck in traffic and was late to work then the boss had a go at you, found you had something important that needed to be finalized by lunch time but also had a meeting to attend, got stuck in traffic again and then walked into your home only to find no one had started cooking dinner. How might you behave?? Well I know I might well huff and puff, forcefully put my bag down and very possibly have a go at the first person in the household I meet! My behavior is telling other’s I’m not happy, in fact I’m possibly feeling angry, frustrated, tired and fed up. Now if this was you, how would you want the person you yelled at to respond or perhaps even your partner to respond? Would you:
- Want that person to have a go at you, yell back maybe, tell you you’re over reacting and to take a ‘chill-pill’? or
- Want that person to start solving your problems, telling you to go a different direction to work to avoid the traffic, or change jobs or relax and just start cooking? or
- Empathize with you: “WOW it seems you’ve come home a bit angry and upset. You must have had a bad day. Would like a hug?
Well I don’t know about you, but I’d choose Option 3, which basically understands how I feel right now. THEN later possibly that person might be able to help you solve the problem, but initially we all just want to be understood.
Getting back to our young person, the first our children want from us is ‘understanding’. That’s right – this is not rocket science. When we feel understood we feel safe. Hence we might therefore follow our child and calmly say something like “I can see by the way you slammed your books closed that you appear upset”. At this stage, if you have mis-interrupted the behavior the person will tell you. Once you connect with how the person feels, in naming and empathizing “yeh, homework can be hard sometimes can’t it” helps that person to calm themselves. For our brains to function at their optimum, the brain needs to be on an even keel. Once the person has calmed you can then give them some advise or help. It’s interesting to note, that until the person has calmed, you’ll be wasting your breathe in either reprimanding or giving helpful advice because the brain isn’t functioning sufficient well enough to take this in.
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