I believe the highest compliment children ever give me is when they come to me with a problem or want to talk about something that is really important to them.
I know that they have many choices about whom they share their thoughts and feelings with. When they were in elementary school, their parents most often heard about the events and concerns that were nearest their heart. But as they got older, parental ears were more and more often replaced by their friends and classmates, teachers and coaches and parents are increasingly left out of the loop. It's not easy, but it's natural.
Since the opportunity to be your child's sounding board doesn't come as often as it once did, when it does you need to make it count because you may not get another chance for awhile. Unfortunately, two very normal parental responses can make a mess of things in a hurry. Number One: I love them more than anything on earth and I don't want to see them hurt. Number Two: Along with age and experience (translation: many screwups) I have accumulated wisdom (translation: opinions) that I know will help my children avoid unnecessary pain and suffering. That's a pure motive, isn't it?
The Greater Wisdom
It takes some time to figure out that even though sometimes children are asking for help to solve a problem, many times they just want someone to listen. This isn't very easy when we have accumulated so much wisdom. Yet the greater wisdom lies in taking the time to understand which resource is being asked for.
The quickest way to shut them up is to verbally or nonverbally let them know how foolish, or worse yet¾stupid¾you think they were to get into the mess they're telling you about. Do you know how much you hate it when your kid rolls his eyes at what you are saying? Or she lets out a sigh the neighbors can hear? Your own kids feel the same way when they are telling you something important. Even when a voice inside your head that sounds like an air horn is screaming YOU DID WHAT?, just nod your head and listen.
Your Opinion or Not?
You will be personally amazed to learn that even when their sentence begins with, "I don't know what to do..." they are not asking what you think they should do. "I don't know what to do," does not equal, "Please tell me what to do." If you're not sure whether you're being asked to listen or problem solve, listen for a while and then, in so many words, just ask. Example: "You know, I can just be a really good listener or try to help you solve this. Tell me what you need." That may sound a little weird, but it really works. If you feel compelled to share your opinion and no one asked you for it, say, "Can I tell you what I think?" If they say, "No," try very hard to accept their wishes. And when you do share your opinions, er, wisdom, asked for or not, do so with unmistakable Love. Love they can hear all the way to their so-often frightened, confused, topsy-turvy heart. In your own life, think how many times that would have made all the difference in the world.
So after all of my screwups (translation: experience), I hope you can gain something from this opinion (translation: wisdom)¾keep your opinions and problem solving to yourself ... at least for awhile. Especially if no one is asking for them. The longer you are able to keep your own ideas out of the conversation, the more you will be able to focus on what is going on down deep inside this precious person you love.
You also will be making several powerful statements to the one you are listening to:
What I Learned as a Counsellor
Frazzled and yet delicate, a 16-year-old girl sits before me. She speaks rapidly as if she needs to make sure she gets it all in before the end of our session. As a counselling intern, I doubt I will be able to say the right thing for all she knows I'm a stuffy counsellor who cannot relate to her life as a teenager; after all, I'm old 36.
She scatters words before me like confetti: her life; her struggles; her boy troubles; her parents; her hopes; her dreams; her fear and fascination with death; her questions about God and goddesses; her longing to be skinnier than her best friend who is 55kg; her faith in the miracle bra; her desire for privacy; her dreams of getting her first car; her love of Marilyn Manson because of the thrill; her teachers who make her laugh, piss her off, and wear frumpy clothes; her desire for a new snow board; her questions about sex; her annoying siblings; her status as a cool senior in high school, and her tears of confusion.
Before me she sits, not wanting me to say anything for what could I possibly say that she does not already know? As I look at the clock to signify the end of the session, I breathe and get ready to make a profound statement. I say, " I think you..." Her words blend with mine and she says, "I feel so much better!" She smiles as wide as her mouth can stretch, and says "Thanks. You at least let me talk. See you next week."
She pranced out of my office as if she could conquer any problem or difficulty that came her way. I realized that what she needed most was someone to acknowledge her by listening. It was not about making the most profound statement or trying to fix her troubles. It was about being with her and acknowledging her voice.
I think the most precious gifts I can give my adolescent clients are a smile when they walk into my office, and silence so they can say what they have to say.
Pick your Battles
My colleague's favourite parenting story: "I remember it like it was yesterday: My son Sam was 8 years old and we were in the car. I was doing the Dad thing, imparting my precious fatherly word to Sam's (up until then) apparently totally malleable young mind, when the unthinkable happened: He defied me, and totally disagreed with what I was saying! Never mind that I don't recall what we were talking about, it certainly wasn't anything significant, but this was the first time Sam had ever come out in total disagreement against my word; it was the first time he"d ever said, "No, you're wrong."
How could he be so disrespectful, so ungrateful as to question my pearls of wisdom? Now, of course, I can see the humour in the situation and my reaction to it now, but at the time I lost my temper. I actually had to pull over to the side of the road in order to devote my full attention to giving my son a full portion of my mind.
It didn't occur to me until later that Sam was merely doing what his mother and I had spent years preparing him to do: thinking for himself and making his own decisions. It was his first step in the process of walking away from his parents toward independence. It was our first real clash of wills (discounting childish tantrums and discipline). It has not been our last.
Hoping to Become Jobless
My wife both agreed early on that the most important job of a parent is working themselves out of a job, that is, making it so their child can stand on their own two feet. That's both harder and easier than it sounds: First you make sure your kid feels safe, loved and valued instil self worth in them by your words and actions (hopefully stopping short of spoiling them).
Don't fight their battles with the world for them, but always be in their corner a good ringmaster should never hesitate to offer advice on tactics, whether it is on how to handle a bully or how to ask a girl out to the school dance. And, of course, to closely observe their environment and never hesitate to call a spade a spade (that is, never ignore the elephant in the living room).
When you raise children to believe in them, and to stand up for them, you're going to get children who are strong-willed and speak their mind. Unfortunately, as they reach adolescence and start to stretch their wings, they're even going to (gasp!) question you, their loving parents. Conflict is inevitable as the umbilical cord is stretched to the breaking point. That's when it's vital to pick your battles.
Forget About Winning
Arguments are inevitable, it's every teenager's job to start them, it's their job to exploit power vacuums, to create dissension between mother and father, and to get their way. Also, from a lifetime of intimate study, they know all the buttons to push to get a reaction from you.
Any time you're having a clash of wills with your child, what you have to ask yourself is: What does winning mean in this particular instance? If you give in, will the results be relatively harmless, or is it something that could have major, devastating consequences in your child's life?
In our case, there's a lot of give and take. My friend with Sam describes his room is a toxic waste dump, but he's learned not to pick a fight about it. He just keeps the door closed so he doesn't have to look at it. Surprisingly, without harassing Sam it's gotten steadily neater as he's gotten older you could probably step through the door without needing shots now. Sam gets to stay out late as long as it is known where he is. Sam has more independence than a lot of his friends, because he's taken responsibility for keeping his parents posted as to his whereabouts and how to get a hold of him.
Sam knows a lot of kids that smoke, or drink or do drugs even though he's only 14 that's an argument that will never even happen, because Sam has too much self-confidence to cave in to peer pressure, and because he believes (for some reason) that he would suffer severe physical harm at his parents hands if he ever got high and his parents would know if he did.
Making a Trade
As I say, Sam is 14 now, and still several years away from leaving home. I'm sure his parents will be more battles in the future, probably about things I can't even predict now. As it is, in picking our battles, Sam's parents have traded a neat room for staying clean and sober, allowed a little back talk as long as he gets good grades, given him a great deal of freedom in exchange for keeping them posted and setting their minds at ease. It seems worth it.
You can't win every fight with teenagers, not if they have any spine (and I hope they do). You'll just drive yourself crazy if you insist on nitpicking them to death, as well drive a wedge between you and them right when they need you most. Being a teenager is an incredibly difficult job, even under ideal circumstances¾ don't give in to the melodrama and lose track of the big picture. Ask yourself what are the things that are unimportant, and what are the things you won't budge on. Like grades, and drugs, and teen pregnancy. Stuff like that is way scarier than what colour your kid's hair is this week, or if they blast their stereo a little too loud at times. Think about it.
Time Out for Tough Girl Talk
I'm told that Fort Knox is a difficult place to stage a break-in. Whoever said that has never met my daughter. I've begun to notice that my kids rush to me with good news, but dawdle and avoid me when there's bad news. You know the drill: midterms come out and suddenly she's nowhere to be found. The phone bill comes, she disappears. She forgot to do her chores and now she's vanished. She's got a life-shattering problem going on with a friend and all you get is stony silence. How do we get little missy to speak?
All Show and No Go
A client recently described this situation to me: "Not long ago my daughter, Lisa got into some grade problems at school. I knew instantly what was up because she"d been spending tons of time online chatting with her buddies, lots of time on the phone with her buddies, and lots of time just being obsessed with her buddies. She"d promised me that all was well with her grades, and wishing to believe her in spite of evidence to the contrary, I did.
Good grades were expected and upon finding out my client was pretty mad, as Lisa's performance was all show and no go. The solution here was to talk things through with Lisa.
The Duck-and-Shuck Routine
Let's remember a few things. Above all else, remember that few of us enjoy attacking our problems and dealing with them immediately. That's a learned behaviour. If you're an avoider, you learned to duck and shuck when you were very young ... teenagers to be exact. And make no mistake: Your girl is a graduating senior from the bob-and-weave school of problem resolution.
Also remember that one of the main reasons we"ve learned to avoid fixing problems is that we really don't have any solutions. We act on the things we know we can handle, but veer swiftly from the stuff that looks overwhelming or scary. When it comes to dealing with problems involving you, your daughter has probably learned that stealth and silence is something she can do. It works better than approaching you directly, a tactic that to her probably seems filled with terror and the high likelihood of misery.
Steps to Success
Let me offer some suggestions. First, try to be patient. Your daughter didn't learn to avoid you overnight, and she probably won't learn to approach you bravely overnight either. When we as parents get mad, we want to fix things fast, but that timeline crashes hard against a stonewalling young woman. You can try to pound out permanent solutions to temporary problems, but don't be surprised if she just grows more reluctant and fearful of dealing with both you and her messes.
Along the same lines, start taking notes. Writing allows you time to coolly consider what's going on and allows you to think through how you'll approach situations. Also, if you're making an attempt at patience, it will help you remember things when you're cooled down that you really must address.
Second, remember that in the long run parenting is about creating open lines of communication. Not sizzling lines (which is what we"d prefer), but opportunities for good things to happen. The only way you can know if a line is open or not is to be occasionally faced with busy signals, wrong numbers and dead lines. Don't freak out about that, but take it as a way to measure how you're doing. When you hit a communication snafu, be careful not to rush to judgment about either yourself or your daughter. By nature she wants to have a relationship with you, but often gets herself into situations where she doesn't know how to proceed. Your steady hand on the tiller makes navigating these times the way you build open lines of communication.
Last, take her to a new location to speak. Kids open up when they're away from the sources of their trouble. For many kids that means home. Take her away to talk, and watch what happens.
Take these suggestions and make your communication work. Believe or not your children want it badly.
Keeping Your Children Safe
Communication Skills & Tools to Prevent Youth Violence
From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s murders of juveniles increased by 82%, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, with murders of juveniles by firearms nearly tripling. Homicide is now the second leading cause of death for persons age 15 to 24, and the violent rampages that appear nightly on television raise momentous questions: What causes youth violence? More important, what can we do to prevent it?
Uncontrollable Anger = Violence
The causes of violence, and the question of why Australia has so many violent young people, are issues that are too complex to explore in detail here. But it's important to keep in mind that the primary stimulus for violent behaviour is uncontrollable anger, and in 1997 a Harvard survey of junior and senior high school students found that 33% of the students surveyed agreed with the statement "When I am really angry, there is no way I can control myself."
Often, people whose anger erupts in violence are unable to talk about their feelings and lack the skills to resolve interpersonal conflicts peaceably. Such deficits may leave them especially vulnerable to media messages that encourage using violence to settle disagreements. It's not surprising that 41% of respondents in the Harvard survey agreed with the statement "If I am challenged, I am going to fight."
Opportunities for Communication
There are no simple answers to our national epidemic. But data suggest that effective communication within families is one of the keys to preventing youth violence. Parents need to talk with their children about the destructiveness of violence, teach right from wrong, and explore alternatives to violence. Discussing the past year's shootings in Washington, DC, or Columbine, for example, could create opportunities for parent-child dialogues about productive ways of managing anger and preventing violence from erupting.
Communication between parents and children strengthens family bonds and is crucial to helping children understand and cope with their frustrations. But when children become teenagers, there is less willingness on their part to open up to their parents. At around age 13 they begin to pull back, become more independent, and talk less, creating a communications gap that can cause parents to feel frustrated, especially parents who find it uncomfortable to talk to their children about family conflicts. Yet parents need to know what's going on with their children, and they need to make sure their children know that they are always available to talk to. Where youth violence is concerned, the effectiveness of a parent's communication skills can mean the difference between life and death.
In a recent Monash University survey almost all parents said they believe good communication is important, and 26% said they are currently looking for ways to improve communication. Finding new ways to increase the effectiveness of family communication is especially crucial today, when being able to spend time together has become an infrequent luxury for too many families. The Monash survey revealed that 50% of parents who want to be in better communication with their children are away from them for at least 30 hours every week. And according to the Australian Census Bureau, 62% of mothers with children under age 6 now work outside the home double the 1970 percentage. Whether one parent should or should not stay at home is not the issue. The point is that parents and caregivers need to achieve a balance between their professional lives and their home lives that supports effective child rearing, and a major part of child rearing is communication.
Keeping in Touch
Effective communication between parents and children depends in part on parents' interpersonal skills. But it also depends on the ability of both simply to stay in touch with each other. And as new technology opens up additional modes of communication, today's parents can stay in touch with their children in ways they couldn't have imagined 25 years ago, when parents who were temporarily away from their children could talk to them only over traditional telephones. Now pagers, cell phones, and e-mail let parents keep track of their children conveniently while enhancing everyone's feelings of safety and security.
When kids are away from home at the playground, at the mall, at the library the nearest pay phone may be out of commission, making it difficult for them to get in touch with their parents in an emergency.
Many parents, understandably, are opting to supply even young children with mobile phones as soon as they are capable of dialling a number. And three-quarters of the Monash survey respondents who wanted to be in better communication with their children said they thought pagers or mobile phones would help them achieve their goal.
I know of people with children in boarding schools who communicate primarily through e-mail. Clearly, technology is opening up the way people communicate and becoming an important tool for helping to keep families together even when they're separated physically. As parents, we need to make use of new telecommunications technology as it evolves. And we need to remember that communication is an ongoing process that requires our continued attention. Like parenting, it's also a process we must attend to as a nation if we are to address the problem of youth violence effectively.
Surviving Teenage Moods
It is said that our children are the generation of the future. Yet sometimes I wonder how each of these generations made it through their teenage years. When children turn 13, a number of adjustments have to be made when it comes to the seeking of independence and the mood swings that follow. All the changes a teenager goes through will be new experiences for you as well. There were so many new feelings both teenagers and parents have to learn how to handle.
For adolescents, mood swings are a normal part of growing up. In the process of adjusting to their changing lifestyles, they begin to expect independence. When my 13-year-old daughter began to fight for her independence, the moods that followed each of the decisions I made that she didn't agree with caused a great deal of upheaval. At first I ignored her, so she yelled louder. Then I tried fighting back, but it felt like being in a war zone. And trying to sit her down and talk to her got us both nowhere because she was too agitated to see reason.
To make our lives a bit easier I began to realize that I had to make a few drastic changes, and I followed some simple rules.
Cool Down. The first one is approaching a teenager in a bad mood is like taking the cap off a hot car radiator. You should let them cool down.
Communicate. Then when making any decisions, it is important to establish good communication habits. Communicating with the teen is one of the most effective ways to lesson mood swings. Parents who use effective communication help their children to grow into mature and understanding adults.
Always be willing to listen to the teen that is trying to tell you something, even if it is through a lot of attitude or sulking. Never yell at an angry teenager. They take it very personally and their trust in you can be damaged quite badly. Talking down to a teenager can also be quite damaging to their self-esteem. At this stage of their lives, they need lots of reassurance and no criticism.
Find a Balance
When it comes to setting limits, make sure there is a balance; try and stay flexible yet firm. Doing this helps your young teen see that you trust them to make the right decision.
Today the issue of when to let our children go and when not to be a complicated matter. The many dangers our children now face, such as sexual disease, drugs and the harshness of society, places both the young person and parent in a catch-22 situation. If the parent doesn't give the young person freedom they face a rebellious child, and if they give them too much they put their lives at risk. When possible, it is best to find out what the teenager really wants and why they want it before any decisions are made. Only in hindsight can they know that when their parents seemed to be unfair they were trying to protect them from serious difficulty or trouble.
Of course, there will still be times when the stresses of life are felt and displayed in their home and school lives, no matter how easy the parent tries to ease their transition. But with patience and love, both the parent and teen can learn and grow and develop a good relationship that will last into their adult years.
Listening to Your Teen
Mark comes home, flops in the chair and says, "Damn, this day was awful." Your nose in the evening paper, you respond, "Don't swear, Mark," and go back to reading your paper. Kelly slams the back door and cries out, "I hate him!" Trying to get dinner on the table, you say, "Can't we talk about this later?"
Each day opportunities come up to listen to your kids, but you're too busy. Listening is a learned skill; no one is born knowing how to listen.
Below the Surface
Although we hear with our ears, we must actively listen to our kids with our whole bodies. Be on the lookout for body language, as well as the words you're hearing. Pay attention, hear what's said, and look below the surface for what's not being said, but what is being felt.
If your teen wants to share something with you, stop what you're doing. It only takes a few minutes to listen. Sit down so you can be face-to-face with your child and give her your full attention. Respond to her feelings, as well as to what she is saying. As your teen grows, continue to use those same listening skills. As the problems become bigger, your child will come to you because you have developed a bond of trust and of listening.
When your teen reaches out to you, some of his feelings may be hidden so deeply that even he doesn't realize they are there. As you listen, help him sort out those feelings. Giving those feelings a name will not only comfort him, but also help him to understand his problem. While you listen, use phrases such as: "You really sound angry;" "Breaking up with your girlfriend can really hurt;" and "Having someone say things about you behind your back can really make you upset."
Empathizing with your teen's feelings can make her feel safe and secure. She will feel more like confiding in you if she feels she can trust you. You may not agree with your child's feelings, but you do need to acknowledge them. One of the hardest things you will need to do is not over- or under-react. Reflect your teen's feelings back to her; don't insert your own feelings into the conversation.
Reword the Words
To be a good listener, you need to take an active role. Paraphrase what your teen has told you so he knows you understand what he has said. It's important not to repeat his words exactly. That may anger him and doesn't prove you really understood. Using your own words shows you are listening, and you care about what he's telling you.
As you listen, encourage your child to talk by asking open-ended questions. These are questions that require more than a "yes" or "no" answer. Don't say, "Did you have a bad day?" Instead say to your teen, "Tell me what happened today that upset you so much." Other types of open-ended questions are: "How did you feel about that?" "What do you want to do about it?" and "What did you do when she said that?" Try not to be the one doing the talking. Kids are actually very good at figuring out solutions to problems when given options.
Be an attentive listener. Nodding your head from time to time or saying "uh huh" lets your kids know you are listening. Other phrases to encourage your child are: "What happened next?" "Can you tell me more about that?" and "How did it make you feel?" Be sure to maintain eye contact while you're listening. If your eyes wander, your thoughts may wander as well. Maintaining eye contact lets your teen know you're focusing on what she is saying.
Keep your comments and questions relevant to your child's problem. Changing the subject causes the conversation to drift, and you will lose your teen's confidence. He'll believe you really don't care, and you aren't listening.
Remain calm while your teen is sharing her problem. If you have built a relationship of trust and confidence over the years, she may feel comfortable telling you her boyfriend physically abused her, for example. Don't be afraid to name the problem. Don't blame her or judge her actions. If the problem is too big for you to handle alone, ask her permission to contact a minister, crisis relief counsellor or other support person.
If your teen confides in you that he feels suicidal, believe him and listen carefully to what he is telling you. Don't be judgmental. Don't be afraid to say, "I hear you telling me you want to die." Actually putting the problem into words doesn't encourage him to follow through on it. Rather, it gives the problem a name and allows you to talk about it further. Work with your teen, offer him options, and encourage him to seek professional counselling to overcome his depression.
Offer Options, Not Edicts
It's difficult as a parent not to make choices for your teen. Offer your teen various solutions to her problem, but don't tell her what to do. If you tell her to do something, and it doesn't work out, she will hold you responsible. By listening carefully to your teen's problem and offering several solutions, she can make her own choices and accept ownership of the outcome. Some good rules to follow as you listen to your teen are:
As a parent, it's not easy to be a good listener. It's difficult not to revert to old habits ¾ to blame and to yell. But if you want to develop a relationship with your kids that are based on trust and confidence, you must learn to listen. If you can remember to:
Thinking and Reasoning
She went somewhere she wasn't supposed to. You found out, expressed your disappointment and grounded her. She doesn't think it's fair, so you listen to her reasoning behind the fairness issue. Her explanation makes no sense to you. Are you surprised?
You shouldn't be. Teens think and reason differently than adults. In their world of fuzzy justification, often their explanations make perfect sense to them. As parents, we strive to teach our teens action and consequence lessons: You do this and this will be the consequence. It makes perfect sense to us. So why doesn't it make sense to our teens?
"I Just Want to Have Fun!"
It's important to remember that in their inexperience, teens don't see the world as we do. We have been around long enough to hear the stories about the rapes, the murders, and the hidden dangers lying in wait for them. They know about those things, but teens seem to be desensitised to the crime in our country. After all, one only has to pick up the remote and turn on the TV or pop in their favourite CD. The popular media, not to mention the 6 o'clock news, is filled with rapes, murders, robberies and kidnappings. It's a new crime, but it's old news. Why should they be shocked? Nothing bad will ever happen to them. They are, in their eyes, immortal. Why, they reason, do we have to worry about everything?
Sometimes, it's just a question of priorities. Teens want to have fun, and often see our rules as a roadblock to having a good time. Why, they ask, don't we want them to have any fun? Lest they think we are total killjoys, we tell them, yes, we want them to have fun, but we also want them to be safe. What they see in that reasoning is this: They don't see the danger, so they are more convinced than ever we don't want them to have fun. Vicious cycle? You bet it is.
Our Rules vs. Their Agenda
Another reason teens don't see our reasoning is sometimes they have an agenda that often does not include our rules. How do you reason with someone who wants to take a joyride with friends at 2 a.m.? What do you say to convince them running around at 2 a.m. is dangerous? Bottom line? You don't. Because participating in such a reckless act IS dangerous and there is no justification for doing so. It's one of those things that defy any reasoning they could possibly come up with.
In their quest for autonomy, sometimes teens just don't want to see our reasoning. To do so would reinforce the fact that they are not in charge. It's times like these that you have to walk away from. Because no matter what you say or do, they will not like what you have to say and in their minds, it will make no sense to them whatsoever. Better to pick up the discussion later when nerves are calmer and the heat of the moment passes. And maybe your teen will gain a better sense of reasoning in the interim.
My daughter was grounded for two weeks through and including her 18th birthday. She tried in vain to justify letting her off early so she could celebrate with her friends. Her reasoning? "It's my eighteenth birthday!" and "None of my friends parents would ground them on their eighteenth birthday." How many of you have heard of these imaginary parents who are way cooler than you will ever be? "Give me a good reason, and I'll consider it," I said. "But I haven't broken any rules since you grounded me," she cried. That's a given, I said. My justification for not giving in? Rewarding good behaviour by caving in on punishment for bad behaviour doesn't make any sense. "THAT doesn't make any sense!" she replied, defeated. She ended up serving her time.
The Long-term Guarantee
So what's a parent to do? Listen carefully to what your teen is telling you. Punching holes in their reasoning, even as flawed as it may be, will only make them defensive. Likewise, resist the temptation to belittle their reasoning with, "That makes no sense!" Better to acknowledge what they are saying, then render a final decision. Explain only if they ask for an explanation. What it may come down to is this: Sometimes you must agree to disagree, but YOU still make the rules. You may not always make sense to them, but in the bigger picture, you are trying to do what is right by your teen. They may not see it now, but they will one day. Guaranteed.
The Perspective Check
An important step in conflict resolution is the perspective check. Putting a problem into perspective means asking two questions:
One family uses the initials NOTGY (Nobody's Out To Get You) as a reminder to eight-year-old Gene to try to replace his reflexive thought that someone's out to get him with a new, positive, more realistic appraisal. He has to think that the person who has made him mad has another reason for acting as he did, and it's up to Gene to figure out what it is.
Gina, a little girl who was angry and hurt over not being invited to a birthday party, was asked to think of some reasons why she wasn't invited other than the ones that made her mad, namely that the six-year-old hostess didn't like her or wanted to be mean. "Maybe she just forgot," Gina suggested. Her mother reminded her also that the neighbour's mother may have set a limit on the number of children to be invited and she may have said, "Only children in your class" or "only six-year-olds," or "you have to invite everyone in your car pool." Gina, inspired by her mother's reasoning, added, "Or maybe they were just going to play kindergarten games, and I'm too old." This was a perspective check.
Here are some ways to talk to your elementary school age child about perspective:
Your older, preteen child may also have a knee-jerk thought, a first response that comes from childish thinking, such as, "She won't let me do anything by myself," "He thinks he's better than me," or "Just leave me alone." Preteens, if anything, are in a time of change; such automatic response thoughts are no longer appropriate, if they ever were.
Similarly, you, the parent, may have thoughts that are no longer valid like, "He doesn't know how to do that. He'll get in trouble," or "Because I told you so..." Both parent and preteen need to look at how the child has grown up and ask, "Is it really so bad? " or "Maybe it's time I looked at things in a different way."
Perspective check means not only seeing things in a different light but also seeing things through another person's eyes, a learned skill that takes experience and practice. Here are some points you can gently make to your preteen:
First of all, it's important to handle your own conflicts well so the preteen can see disagreement without loss of respect or inappropriate behaviour and, hopefully, can observe successful resolutions.
When in conflict with your preteen, don't let him provoke you to your own worst style--whether that is being haughty, sarcastic, disrespectful, or out of control. Unwittingly, preteens may provoke you to behave badly so they can blame you for your bad behaviour--and thereby excuse theirs. They often know how to hit your hot buttons. Anticipate this and resolve to keep your cool and return calmly to the real issues of the conflict.
Teaching by making casual comments during a real conflict with your child is a good middle-ground strategy between modelling and direct instruction. As you go along, you can point out your own efforts, for example, to see his point of view or to repeat what you have understood him to say. Such verbal reminders keep you straight, as well as instruct your child. Such verbal reminders emphasize an awareness of process.
When giving instruction, try not to "lecture." Give short comments with space in between instead of long discourses. A pause after you say something gives the child time to take your comments in. If you pause long enough, the child may say something in reply that clues you into his feelings and how well your lesson is going. (But don't expect him say anything like "I see what you mean." Preteens often don't give you the satisfaction of letting you know they learned something from you--not until they are at least 40.) If you don't pause, you're likely to overdo the lesson before you even know if your child is receptive.
Try concentrating on the most critical steps of conflict resolution or the one the preteen does least well because a full-scale teaching or critique session may not go over well during a real problem or during a good show.
How to Get Started
Getting the preadolescent to buy into learning to resolve conflict is often a challenge. Here are some examples of things you can say to start the process:
Find something they say that you might agree with, and then add:
When you get resistance to resolving a conflict or learning how to resolve a conflict, you might offer the child a little time to think the issue over. But be clear that you will be discussing the issue later. Suggest a reasonable time and stick to it.
Teaching Your Child to Resolve Conflict
One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is a set of attitudes and skills that allows him to manage his anger well and find a solution to conflict. If your child can resolve conflict well, he can have genuine intimacy, better overall physical and emotional health, improved productivity, and in general a happier, more meaningful life.
Children need to develop a mindset that favours peace, not by avoiding conflict or winning through intimidation, but by resolving conflict with others.
It is possible to teach your child ...
For years, in my family psychiatry practice, I've used a three-part model of conflict resolution as a teaching tool. Many families have learned to resolve conflict better using this method. It's my belief that you, too, can experience success using the model. And what is success? If your child has a significantly better attitude toward resolving conflict or changes even one behaviour pattern for the better, you have reason to celebrate. Better attitudes are contagious; better behaviour leads to more good will.
Here then are the three parts to the conflict resolution model:
thinking appropriate thoughts before speaking or acting in anger is so critical and so often neglected that I call Part One of the three-part conflict resolution model "The Thinking Steps." The Thinking Steps not only help hold off the impulsive, angry behaviour that could jeopardize reconciliation but also allow the angry person to become more open to resolving the conflict.
In Part Two, "The Talk/Listen Steps," you state the problem as you see it, in resolvable terms. Then you really listen while the other fellow states his perspective. Both of you listen to and appreciate the other person's point of view.
Finally; we have Part Three, "The Solving Steps." The participants in the conflict brainstorm solutions and reach a workable agreement. The problem is either solved, or, if it's unresolved, it drifts away and then circles back, coming upon the conflict participants again and again from behind, in the same or another guise.
Over the years, working with individuals and families, I have developed and elaborated on this three-part model to conflict resolution until it is admittedly complex. If Think, Talk/Listen, Solve was all you had to learn, this would be a much shorter book. But there's more. Each of the three big parts of the conflict resolution model has five steps. And three times five is...
"Fifteen steps! I don't have time to teach my kid fifteen steps! I don't have the patience!" you may be thinking. Bear with me. If you spent fifteen minutes for fifteen days teaching your child these steps, how would that compare with the time you spend fussing about clothes left on the floor, arguing whose fault the sibling squabble is, nagging about homework, and dealing with the "my teacher/coach/playground bully picks on me" ordeal? These fifteen steps will not cost you time; ultimately they will save you time and frustration. Many families report an improvement in their family dynamics within weeks of conscientious use of the model.
If you need further reason to expend the effort, think of the overall importance of conflict resolution in life.In relationships, conflict resolution is an important source of intimacy. Knowing that anger and hurt can be talked about without destructive behaviour enables couples, parents, friends, and others to bring up and get through problems that inevitably arise. Unresolved anger underlies a lot of heart disease, depression, and other illnesses. Conflict resolution is important for health--physical and mental.
Resolving conflicts is a major factor in doing well in business and getting along with neighbours, classmates, and co-workers as well as family. We even use conflict resolution strategies to promote peace among nations.
As parents, we spend tons of time and energy trying to prepare our kids to have an economically secure life by education and career guidance. Your child may spend an hour a day on math, for example. Let's do the same for their attitudes, emotional reflexes, interpersonal habits, and conflict resolution skills. These are areas that contribute heavily to "emotional intelligence," the set of abilities that author Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Books, 1995) describes as mattering more than IQ or academic achievement in getting along successfully in the world.
We also provide our children with hobbies and opportunities to socialize with groups. Isn't conflict resolution worth the same commitment of time and attention as Scouting or Little League? Think of conflict resolution as you do learning piano or tennis--as a project needing formal lessons and lots of practice. Work on reflexes toward anger as you do reflexes in tennis, encourage good habits in conflict resolution as you encourage good habits in piano, and teach conflict resolution skills as you do soccer skills. Make it a family project and keep momentum going with approval and recognition.
The Defensive Child
Reflexive defensiveness--a conditioned, rapid, automatic response of resistance--is a big problem at any age because it limits communication and shuts down learning new things about yourself. Habitual defensiveness is so extreme in some children that I'm often tempted to call it "defensiveness disorder."
Some children are defensive even when you give them teaching, advice, or coaching, no matter how reasonably stated. They seem to be thinking --and they often say--"What do you think I am, stupid?" Some children even become somewhat defensive when you praise them. Criticism, advice, and praise remind them that they're constantly being evaluated. They would rather be left alone than know their parents are thinking about their behaviour and giving them a mental grade. Take, for example, the parent who says to her child, "I was so proud of you today." The child begins to beam. "You didn't interrupt my conversation with Mrs. Edmunds even once." The child's face sinks. Praise is sometimes just a reminder that the child has a problem.
Forms of Defensive Reaction
Defensiveness takes many forms:
I theorize that sensitive children who are difficult in temperament or children with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) are more prone to defensiveness. They understandably get a higher frequency of criticism and ultimately get fed up.
Moreover, some parents are excessively evaluative no matter what their child's behaviour. They seem to think that the main duty of parenting is evaluation. Almost everything the child does goes through a perceptual filter and comes out with a grade attached.
At one end of the spectrum, we find overt anger, direct harsh criticism, and an overly strict authoritarian style that meets a parent's need for control more than the child's needs. Next, there's lecturing and preaching. Then there's coaching, advice giving, and teaching. At the other end of the evaluative spectrum, there's affirmation, praise, and approval. Of course, I'm not implying that you should accept all of your child's behaviour. What's appropriate is the middle ground between managing every little thing and total lack of supervision.
Depending on their parents' behaviour and their own sensitivity, many kids feel overly monitored, evaluated, and critiqued. Their antennae are almost always out anticipating evaluation. The longer their antenna is, the more likely they are to overreact, misinterpret, and display their defensiveness as they mind-read.
Some parents do have a high frequency of intervention. Such "eagle-eye" parents bring a child into my office and deliver a constant stream of directives: "Look Dr. Waugh in the eye when he's speaking to you." "Speak up, he can hardly hear you." "Keep your feet off the couch." These usually well-meaning parents are trying either to socialize their kids or to prevent any problem from arising.
"Eagle-eye" parents who create an evaluative atmosphere often have a child who is sensitised to criticism and quick to be defensive. This defensiveness begets further evaluation and renewed efforts to get through to the child. The intervention frequency and defensiveness escalate, cycling to no resolution.
It's hard to say who 'started" such a cycle of escalation. It's more important to make an effort to change simultaneously in a teamwork fashion.
Breaking the Defensiveness Cycle
I don't have to tell you that it doesn't work well to tell a child to just quit being defensive. One thing about a child's defensiveness is that the person who triggers it has a hard time being the one to talk to the child about it. When a child gets defensive about being defensive, he creates an almost impenetrable barrier. "Well, you don't have to be so defensive about it," is a remark that makes some older children (and adults) go through the roof.
Nevertheless, there may be a time when you think your child will be receptive when you could talk calmly yet frankly with him about his defensiveness. Or perhaps one parent with whom the child is less defensive can talk to him about his defensiveness with the other parent.
First, explain to him the concept of defensiveness and why it interferes with learning new ideas and maintaining good relationships. Draw him out as to whether he agrees it's a problem. Explain that it's a reflex he likely learned when he was very young and trying not to feel bad about himself at difficult times.
Then try to teach him a "new reflex." Tell him that, when he feels that first rush of defensiveness, he should try to replace it with this new reflex: genuine curiosity. He could invite the person who is criticizing or bossing him to tell him more about the problem. Explain that he needs to be sincere lest he be seen as a "wise guy."
Drawing out a person who is angry with you is sometimes called a "diffusion" strategy. This response tends to disarm the other person and make him express criticism more succinctly and calmly. This strategy influences the conversation and alters a blaming, criticizing, or angry confrontation. Doing this makes the kid feel more mature. With practice the new response of curiosity can become more genuine and natural.
If your child is not mature enough to understand, there is much you can do. Pick your battles. Try not to be an eagle eye. Use a calm voice that isn't bossy or hostile. And don't be defensive yourself.
Playing By the Rules
Finding and establishing the balance between rules and consequences with your teenager often turns into a parental nightmare. Parents know rules and limitations must be set. Teens know it, too, but repeatedly test parents where rules and boundaries are concerned. Here are five tips to help parents achieve success when trying to get their teen to play by the rules.
1. What Are Your Expectations?
Write down what you expect from your teen. A starting point might be obeying curfews, no drug or alcohol consumption, and completion of homework and household responsibilities. Try and keep your list of expectations to a reasonable length. Figure out what you truly believe is important for the health and well being of your teen, and include those on your list. Leave off the petty stuff, a novel-sized expectation's list may overwhelm your teen and undermine your goal of getting your teen to play by the rules. Create and design this list with your family in mind. Don't try to keep up with the neighbours or anyone else. What works for them may not work for you and visa-versa.
2. Discussing Your Expectations
Schedule a meeting with your teen and discuss your list of expectations. During this discussion, ask your teen for feedback, and listen to them. Let them know you are interested in what they have to say. During this meeting, establish consequences for broken rules. Make sure the severity of the consequence coincides with the rule. For example, failure to do household chores would receive a less harsh consequence than breaking curfew or using drugs or alcohol.
3. Consistency Is Key
Enforce consequences the first time your teen violates a rule. Continue this practice each time your teen fails to follow the rules. This is no place for threats. "The next time you do this you'll be grounded," will more than likely backfire and soon "next time" will be staring you in the face, leaving you with the choice of making another threat or following through with the consequences. Don't give "next time" a chance to happen -- implement your consequences from the very beginning. Keep in mind that on occasion your teen may have a good reason for breaking a rule. Unexpected situations occur: Maybe they were late arriving home because they drove someone else home or helped out someone in need. If you believe your teen is telling the truth, do not punish them. But if you find the same excuse keeps arising, be aware, you are probably being lied to. If this happens, enforce the consequence for dishonest behaviour.
4. Recognizing and Rewarding Good Behaviour
Often, good behaviour goes unnoticed because it's expected. Take the time to praise your child for following the rules. After you see some consistency you might try rewarding them. For example, if your teen never breaks curfew, you might reward their behaviour by extending their curfew for 30 to 60 minutes. If they regularly do their chores, you might consider increasing their allowance. Be creative; ask your teen how they would like to be rewarded. If you feel their response is reasonable, acknowledge their request.
5. Taking Responsibility for Their Actions
This step is probably the most important factor in raising a responsible teen. Teach your adolescent that they must be accountable for their actions. If your teen breaks a rule and chastises you for the consequence, remind your teen that you didn't force them to break the rules, they did this on their own accord, knowing there would be consequences for their actions. It is much easier if your teen learns this behavioural concept on the home front vs. the legal system.
Contrary to what many people believe, you can be a disciplinarian without being the bad guy. Teens want and need boundaries, and as a parent, it's important that you meet this need; regardless of the resistance you get from your teen. As long as you are fair with the rules and consequences, you and your teen will soon come to a mutual understanding of what it means to "Play By the Rules."
Tim Dansie, psychologist (2006)
Clinical and Educational Psychology
12 Stuart Road
DULWICH 5065 South Australia
Mobile: 0403 161 386
Phone: (08) 8333 2111