Parenting on purpose
By Alison Molea-LaVigne, LCSW-R
During this time of resolution-making, consider giving your teen a trust fund. I’m not talking about the Wall Street-invested kind that has lately lost 40 or 50 percent of its value. I’m talking about an investment that will pay dividends for you and your family, today and in the future; one that will help you leave a lasting legacy. Resolve to make an investment in your relationship with your teen.
There is a direct correlation between the amount of respect you get from your children and how bonded you are with them. By "bonded" I do not mean "BFF's". I mean the extent to which you and your teen relate positively to one another, as human beings. If you have a teen who has been lying, stealing, cutting class or doing drugs (or all of the above), you may be exhausted and disgusted and have an intense urge to reject them. You may have become critical and judgmental and have low expectations for your teenager's chance for success. Arguing is frequent and hostile and may have been occurring for months, even years. If you work full-time and/or are a single parent, your resources are further limited, the most important one being time.
If this is the case, do not lose hope, no matter how dire you believe the circumstances to be. But, be fore-warned: reclaiming your child and repairing your relationship can only happen if first you change your approach, attitude, expectations and reactions, not the other way around. Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book Everyday Blessings discusses the strategy of “mindful parenting”. Mindful parenting is intentional parenting, using your looks and words and gestures on purpose when it comes to interacting with your children, instead of the "knee-jerk" responses which come so easily.
In 2009, you may want to add these tips to your list of resolutions as you set out to "parent on purpose":
1. Own up to your part
Look your teen in the eye. Tell them that something is not working in your relationship and you want to find a different way. Tell them exactly what is in your heart; that you miss the way you used to get along and you want to get it back. Tell them you are worried about the choices they are making, but that you want to be on their side, not the one they hide things from. Tell them you are working on changing. Parenting on purpose means being loving while disciplining; targeting a teen’s behavior, not self-esteem. Apologize, if this is the case, and move on.
2. Practice under-reacting
Know that all you have control over is your reaction to your teen. End of story. Whether the issue is the dishes not being done or a failing grade due to not handing in homework, how you respond will directly make or break your relationship. As much as you can, speak calmly and sincerely. A good rule of thumb, in the words of financial guru Suze Orman, is to ask yourself, "Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true?" before you open your mouth. If what you have to say is not all three things, stay quiet until you figure out how to make it so. Try your best to go against your natural urges to yell, accuse, argue, hold grudges and/or storm off. Remember, the sum of your interactions with your teen to date has most likely involved a great deal of nagging and criticizing. Flip the script. Your teen will listen longer and less defensively.
3. Step away from the mood
All too often we hang onto our child's mood. When they are happy and pleasant, we follow suit. When they are grouchy and bitter, we make it personal, and lecture about how much we do for them and how non-appreciative they are. We let them change our mood from pleasant to sour.
A better strategy is to welcome, even embrace your teen's mood (especially upon waking and arriving home from school). Next, ignore that mood and go about your day. When/if your teen snaps out of it, greet them warmly. If not, continue ignoring. They'll come around, so don't make the mistake of feeding a bad mood with one in return. Teens often have no idea what the cause of their mood is – let it run its course.
4. Expect more of the same
If your teen is in a downward spiral (declining academics, increased drug use, poor choice of peers), realize there is nothing you can immediately do to change what is in motion. Realize there will be fallout from decisions that have been made up to this point. Perhaps there are things you do not know about that will alarm you. (Refer to #2 as often as needed).
5. Ready, set, bond
Recall what you used to bond over. Get creative about out what you can bond over now. Make a list and keep it close. You might need it sooner than you think.
Alison Molea-LaVigne is a clinical social worker in private practice. She works with individuals, families, couples, teens and children on a wide range of issues. She is also an independent consultant for Synergy Counseling Associates in Albany and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 222.7613.