There is nothing like our kids to bring out, well, the kid in us. And I’m not talking about being playful. What I’m referring to is arguing like a child. Children, tweens, and teens will always frustrate us and bring us to our wits end- they are supposed to. They are one more reminder (consistently) that we are out of control of those around us. We can’t force them to listen, obey, love us, or heaven forbid eat. A lot of parents come to me as their tweens turn to teens when they feel the most out of control. “The won’t listen” “I think they are lying” “What’s wrong with them?” “I’ve done everything I can think of and their still not happy!” and “Why are they choosing to be bad?” But what is it about our children that causes us to lose control emotionally and lower to their level. Sooner or later, parents can find themselves arguing like a teenage peer rather than being the adult in the room.
The first thing we need to remember is that these teens may look like adults, bathe and be responsible (maybe) with their homework like adults, but their brains are not. All too often, parents stop parenting when a child seems self-sufficient from the outside. Arguing and fighting, assuming they think like adults is only going to go from bad to worse. Parents need to understand that the part of the brain that is still developing in the teen is the frontal cortex, where impulse control and future thinking is housed. This doesn’t mean they are unable to think into the future, it just mean it takes 10 times the effort it takes an adult (I’m making that number up, but you get the point). If that is true, then when things get heated, the first thing your teen is feeling is all of their emotions in the moment and no way out. They feel overwhelmed, mad, sad, and probably like they want to escape- all at once. They don’t have the wisdom we adults have that if they just push through the conflict and connect, then the relationship goes deeper and becomes more safe. But of course, that’s assuming that we are indeed having a mature, grown up argument and have learned that ourselves.
When you have parents that have also not learned how to engage in healthy conflict and are still emotionally stuck as teens themselves, you end up with a big fat mess. You end up with a teen that is depending on their parents to teach them how to communicate now completely overwhelmed and beyond frustrated. The only answer for them is to somehow be the adult in the relationship, if they can figure that out. Otherwise, you have a teen that either mimics the immaturity in the home or shuts down completely, often going inward and hating or hurting themselves because they assume they are the problem. When they see their parents scream, stomp their feet, slam doors, call names, shut down, interrupt, drink, and go on the defensive- they might as well just go to their room and stop communicating all together. They can get plenty of that drama at school.
Come on parents, why are we expecting more from our kids than we ask of ourselves? Part of teaching your child how to communicate like an adult means that we have two brains full of feelings and thoughts that both matter. We have to be willing to listen to the tough stuff, the behavior they see in us that is hurtful, doesn’t make sense, and that they need to change. Just because we have “rules” in the home, doesn’t mean that the same rules we had for them at 12 will look the same at 17. They are going to have their own thoughts and feelings about those things and we have to be willing to listen. Adult to adult conversations “should” start to sound like this:
“When you ask me a question and don’t let me answer it, I feel like you don’t care”
“I’m so sorry you feel that I don’t care. I’d like to try again and I’d like to listen to what you have to say.”
We would hope our conversations with our spouse looks like that, why is the same conversation with our teen considered disrespectful? Is it because they are calling attention to something in us we don’t want to see or admit to? Isn’t that the way you would want them to communicate in their future relationships? We, and our home, is supposed to model that. If we don’t provide the place, atmosphere, and courage to practice this, we are setting them up to view themselves as unworthy to be heard, an inconvenience, and that they don’t matter. They need someone to teach them that they have the right to ask someone to change their behavior if it feels wrong or disrespectful, but it starts with the safest relationships around them, which includes us as parents.
So, first that begins with us learning how to communicate more like adults ourselves. Whatever you feel like you need to do to learn how to communicate more effectively, more maturely… start today. This is likely not a new issue, it may be already showing up in your marriage or work setting. Buy a book, join a small group, find a therapist, whatever you need to do to learn new strategies for handling your frustration and triggers. Sometimes previous relationships or conversations are triggered in our mind during conflict, but it often has nothing to do with your child- in that specific moment. It is your responsibility to manage yourself and that is what we want to also teach them.
Second, slow down. When things get heated between you and your child, take a deep breath and realize this is an OPPORTUNITY to teach and coach your tween/teen through how to talk like an adult. Your connection is always more important than the problem at hand. Breathe, remind yourself you are talking to the child and that you are the adult. Remind yourself that you need to be the adult that models healthy communication.
Third, model rather than lecture. Listen to what is going on in them. Ask or help them identify their feelings. Don’t talk them out of it, that is aggressive or passive aggressive (sometimes worse). Listen assertively, which means “Your feelings and thoughts matter just as much as mine do.” Listen for how they may have perceived something, even if it doesn’t make sense to you. To them, it is real- children and teens think in concrete ways and they often accidentally make concrete assumptions. You’ve been in their shoes I’m sure in other adult conversations.
Fourth, own your stuff!! If you took something too personally, got triggered by something else, or hurt them in some way- there is nothing more important here than owning it! Forgiveness modeled in the home is absolutely crucial to a teen’s ability to forgive themselves and keep connections with others. Keep your side of the “street” clean and teach them to do the same by taking responsibility for their part. Don’t expect them to do this if you are not modeling it yourself.
Finally, remember that it is often what we have said in anger that our child will remember the most. It’s not what we “meant to say”, it’s what we said, or worse- how we said it. Saying “I’ve had it” really sounds like “I give up on you.” “This is too difficult, I don’t know what else to do” actually sounds like “You are too much for me.”
Being a parent is possibly the most difficult thing in life, second probably to marriage. Do the hard work, be willing to grow yourself. Family is a crucible for chaos that eventually leads to a more healthy, balanced, and mature existence, hopefully for everyone.