I was chatting recently, with a Mum and her teenage daughter and I asked the daughter how she was feeling about leaving school to move on to Uni. “I’m nervous.” She said.
Just as I was about to acknowledge that it’s a big step, her mum cut in “You’ll make some friends and you’ll be fine.” The daughter’s face clouded over, she withdrew from the conversation. Her mother, in all her loving optimism, had just shut her down.
When our children are small we hope they will always feel able to come and talk to us about anything. We’d all love an open, connected relationship with our children both now and through the teen years and hopefully, right into adulthood.
Yet, we know from statistics, that so many children and teenagers are struggling with emotions and will so often say they don’t feel understood. There is so much to juggle as a mum, it’s hardly surprising that our children’s issues sometimes get a little squashed. But here are 3 ways to keep those communication lines open.
- Stop solving!
As mums, we can be quite the magician: We can replace that lost item, tape that torn book and we can pacify, console and compensate when they’re feeling sad, rejected or disappointed: “Never mind, don’t worry, it’ll be fine.”
As they get older, the gears go up and we can solve their challenges and bolster them when friends have let them down or teachers have misunderstood them. We can advise and minimise in the hope of bouncing them back to a happy state of mind. As a friend of mine said recently “I’m a solver.”
But, by swiftly solving their problems, we’re not always listening. Our children might admire us for our ability to get things done. In fact, they may even use it to their advantage. But they could also be registering that there’s no room to process the feelings and emotions involved. Maybe that lost item was sentimental, perhaps they were upset over how the book was torn, it’s possible that they do mind, are worried and it doesn’t feel fine at all.
Parents don’t mean to barge past their children’s feelings. It’s natural to want to restore peace. The trouble is, we’re not restoring internal peace. We’re just downplaying, solving and moving them away from their negative emotions. It’s a short term gain. If we want them to be open during the tween and teen years and even beyond, we need to show them we can be trusted with their emotions.
No matter how trivial their issue sounds or how differently we might have reacted in their shoes, the most powerful way to connect with them is to stop and listen. By seeing the situation through their eyes we can acknowledge how difficult the challenge must feel for them. If you can convey that, they will feel safe to share with you.
Attentively listening has a healing affect. It’s not a quick solve, but it does give them space to come up with their own solutions. Feeling emotionally safe with you allows them to move the problem from the fight or flight area of their brain to the pre-frontal cortex where reason and rationale reign. From here they are more likely to consider their options and possible outcomes. They may well invite your advice at this point. But it will be welcome rather than inflicted on them.
I know that when one of mine is having a paddy, words like “This must be really hard for you, darling,” aren’t necessarily on the tip of my tongue! Especially if I’m juggling dinner, sports runs and other commitments. Listening is the harder option. However, if we want them to feel safe to really share the things that are going on in their hearts, they need to be confident we’re not going to barge in to manage it, fix it or downplay it.
2. Conflict is healthy
What if it’s our boundary that’s causing them the grief? It’s hard to imagine how we can empathise with their frustration at the same time as keeping the boundary in place. When a conflict is over bedtime, a chore, a deadline or digital media, it can feel like it’s standing in-between you and your child, keeping you apart.
Here’s an alternative way to see it. Instead of allowing the issue to stand between you, suggest to your child that you take the ‘conflict’ and put it in front of you so you can sit side by side and view it together. It is possible to hear how it feels for them and accept their feelings on the situation without having to cave in.
Last night I sat with one of our teenagers and we both looked at a situation that he sees one way and I see very differently. It was helpful to understand why the issue felt so important to him, why he’d made certain commitments and the timing of them. It hasn’t changed the outcome (though we are pondering some compromises), but he does believe we understand the complexities involved. That won’t necessarily give him the outcome he wants, but it does leave him heard and understood, so the relationship remains in good shape.
This response shows them that there’s a way to understand and accept another person’s feelings at the same time as holding healthy boundaries in place. It will give them more chance of working through friendships when there’s a difference of opinion, rather than de-friending! It also helps us to reconsider the boundaries as they grow. Sometimes they can be out of date!
3. The Trust-Bubble
There are many conversations we’ll have with our children in passing, at mealtimes, on journeys or sitting on their bed. But it’s also beneficial to make intentional dates with each child individually. Ours opt for a drink at a nearby café-bar that serves Oreo Milkshakes. I’m under no illusions! It’s a time when they have my full, undivided attention and it makes them feel valued.
A few years ago I added an extra dimension that made quite an impact. I told them that in that café-bar they could tell me absolutely anything and there would be no repercussions, it would remain confidential and also that I wouldn’t give any advice or instructions unless I was invited to. (The only caveat was if they posed a danger to themselves or someone else).
We don’t always talk about deep issues over Oreo Milkshake, sometimes it’s just trivial chat. But, I’ve learned some critical things in those times. Our 14 year old calls it ‘The Trust Bubble’. It has become a place where they feel able to talk about edgy subjects and things they’ve got up to, with full diplomatic immunity. It has been insightful on many levels, but more significantly there were two specific issues that were shared which could have had dire consequences if they hadn’t opened up in that safe place.
I still find it hard to pause and listen when I’m brimming with wonderful advice. But I know that if I want my children to continue to share openly with me (even when they’ve done something daft!), I need to pause and listen and even work through conflicting opinions. It can be testing at times, but the rewards are well worth the effort.
A Guest Blog from Madeleine Stanimeiros
Madeleine lives in Cheltenham with her husband and they have five children. She writes, presents and speaks on parenting in amongst managing a growing family. She is currently finishing a book and can be found at www.thecourageousmumma.com