Wouldn’t it be great to to have the proverbial ‘users manual’ for each of our kids. Parenting dilemmas would certainly be diminished and, theoretically, parent/kiddo relationships would be strengthened by our ability to refer to our child’s ‘answer key’. While it might not be the teacher’s edition to your child, there are a bevy of suggestions that tend to be elicited by the question “If you could teach your parents one thing that would make them a better parent, what would it be?”
1. Stop problem solving!
Problem solving can easily be confused with validation and, for prolific problem solvers, it can feel like parents are helping the situation rather than listening to the problem and being the resource our child needs. In spite of the fact that our child’s problem may seem easy to ‘fix’, it can actually be experienced as very invalidating to take a really complex problem (even if it is only complex in preteen/teen world) and spit out a simple, 2 sentence solution that contains covert invalidating words like ‘just’. The importance of listening and understanding will be much more appreciated than problem solving. Parents who learn to problem solve less also tend to……
2. Become a better listener
This is often the corollary to avoiding the problem solving pitfall. There are few things more uncomfortable than bearing witness to our child’s suffering and remaining quiet and listening…..and it may be the most effective communication we can provide. When we listen, we communicate our care as well as the belief that our child can be complicit in solving their own dilemmas. This may be the most universal complaint that preteens and teens have and, while our kids can bare some of the responsibility around their vulnerability to being more emotional and, thus, less effective communicators, we can absolutely help the process by speaking and planning less and listening and validating more.
3. Feeling is not the bad ‘F’ word
Watching our own child experience sadness, shame, fear, envy or other difficult emotions can be one of the most challenging things that parents have to tolerate AND a parent’s ability to tolerate watching a child experience those emotions can be one of the greatest lessons we can pass along to our kids. Emotions have incredibly important, biologically informed purposes. They can help provide information for others, ourselves and inform action. When we fear emotions or emotional expression as parents, we often implicitly teach our kids that the emotions we stifle are not good, don’t make sense or shouldn’t be expressed. Also, when we try and problem solve emotions rather than allowing emotional expression, kids learn that emotions aren’t actually problematic – although how we act upon them can be.
4. Become less predictable with questions and consistent with behaviors
Preteens and teenagers often have one major complaint about conversations with parents – they’re always the same! How are you? How was school? Did you do anything new today? Do you have homework? In addition to the monotony of the questions and mindlessness of the 1-word answers that are volleyed back (which increases a parent’s frustration), try asking different questions that could elicit more than 1 word responses or not end in the dreaded yes/no answer. Sometimes it can be helpful to change up our own behaviors. Sometimes switching up the time or place can even help shifting the routine. The subtlety in this point is that, while we want to change the predictability of conversations and interactions, we want to remain consistent in our behaviors, especially around consequences (positive or negative).
5. Take care of yourself
There are few things that scare kiddos more than breaking their parents. When we stop doing things for ourselves socially (hanging out with friends), physically (staying active in whatever we enjoy) or emotionally (practicing self care or being chronically overwhelmed), it can be easy for kids to blame themselves. No matter how frustrated kids can get with parents, they are the consistent, stabilizing force that is always in their life. When we, as parents, stop being ourselves as people, kids will notice (after all, no one knows us better than the people with which we spend every day) and can be hypersensitive to feeling responsible for the negative shift in their parents. The bonus? When we take care of ourselves, we are typically less vulnerable to parenting stress, are able to keep families balanced and are less likely to be overwhelmed when stressful parenting situations appear.
6. Spend more time together
This can feel counter-intuitive as preteens and teens are pushing for autonomy, friends and distance, but it may be one of the most important times to have a stabilizing influence and sounding board for tough interpersonal dilemmas that often arise during these years. Finding mutual interests, activities that can tolerate conversation or bonding events can be helpful in creating an anchored time/day to spend some time together. Sometimes, just getting something on the calendar can help so if something comes up with a parent or teen, it can be rescheduled rather than skipped.
7. Be as patient as you are with your closest friend
Many parents of adolescents often wish for more patience as their kids venture through the poop storm that is their teenage years. While being a witness to some of the disasters that are elicited by this difficult time can be scar-varating (scary aggravating; coined by a parent experiencing this complex emotion!), it can be helpful to manage as we would with our longest, lifelong friend. By assuming the best intentions, casting the least amount of blame and creating judgments that are kind (much as we would for a great friend), it can help establish a strong, patient, forgiving, compassionate foundation for our parenting values to rest.
8. Be transparent and let me know what is going on
As previously discussed, our kids know us better than anyone and are expert at reading our affect and non-social cues. If something is up, they’re probably on to it. Some kids are more prone to asking while others silently try and put together clues to figure out what is really going on when mom or dad are not acting as they usually do. The problem with most non-verbal communication and the ensuing interpretation is that it can often create a pretty incomplete, sometimes incorrect picture of reality. Adolescents will appreciate the my boss was a jerk story much more than a frustrated parent who may apply the work resentment to home or parenting. And what a teaching moment. As kids understand the complexities and dialectical nature of interpersonal relationships (my boss was a jerk today AND he is important and generally a good person) and can hear how we effectively manage those situations, they can learn those relationship-salvaging skills from their most important mentor – YOU!