To those of you who still have cute, little kids who think you're the greatest thing since their pacifier, I bring bad news.
There's a good chance that, somewhere down the road, they're going to turn on you. Some will stop talking. Others will only grunt. And, sadly, some will think that you are the root of all things bad in their life. This is one of the most painful parts of parenting. It usually happens during the tweens or teens. Or both. In my 23 years of parenting, it's one of the deepest valleys I've known.
The good news is that much of it can be softened, if not avoided. But you have to work at it. For me, as I've navigated these roads with my three kids, I've come to view it as focusing on the four "L's".
This is where most experts say parents usually fumble. Many of us, in the spirit of wanting our child to have success and happiness, become over-focused on grades, sports, social life and achievement. We get anxious about everything. We want perfection.
"We fear the worst, and as a result, our communication changes," states Dr. John Duffy, clinical psychologist and author of The Available Parent. "We demand more. We become suspicious of our child's motives and actions. We check text history and phone GPS. And we lecture. Man, do we lecture."
We become air traffic controllers for our kids. We monitor everything. We direct. Redirect. Reroute. And somehow, along the flight pattern of the tween-to-teen teen years, many parents stop listening. And when we stop listening, kids stop talking.
Here's a good rule of thumb: Try listening 75% - 85% of the time you're interacting with your kids. You'll be surprised at how much that changes the dynamics of your relationship.
Listening is only valuable to your kids if you are also learning. You need to understand what they say. Validate their thoughts. You don't have to agree. But you must understand. You need to provide your kids an environment for sharing that is safe, free of anger, fear, judgment and your ego.
"Put your stuff on the back burner and let your kid's needs be the focus," suggests Duffy.
I've learned the importance of restating things my kids tell me to make sure I heard them correctly. Even when I want to respond with a preachy lecture, I remind myself that what's best for my kids is something that starts with, "So, it sounds like you're feeling (fill-in-the-blank). Is that kind of it?"
And when they reply with, "No! It's not that at all! I'm (fill-in-the-new-blank)!" I feel like dear old dad just hit a communication home run. I learned. I validated. I showed them I cared.
Even when I disagree with something, having a better understanding of my child helps me when I go back to them (later) and say, "You know, I was thinking about what you said regarding (fill-in-the-blank). I was looking at things from a different angle and wanted to share some of those ideas with you. Is now a good time to talk?"
Learning involves asking questions without ever making your child feel like you're asking too many questions. Instead of the daily ho-hum snoozer, "How was school?" see if you can ask it a different way each day.
"Anything make you laugh today?" Make your kid stop and think. If they tell you that you're a tad nuts, so be it. They're receiving a message that you care.
Some of my best learning comes in the car. Either alone with a kid or, better yet, with a car full of their friends. Listen with "one" ear so the kids don't think you're totally creeping on their chatter. Throw out random questions to the kids. Listen. And you'll likely walk away with something to toss out to your own kid later.
"Boy, I was sorry to hear Billy talk about his problems in gym class. Do you ever feel like that?"
"Ask questions, and listen, really listen, to what your kids have to say," reminds Dr. Duffy. "You'll get to better know your child, and you'll be less fearful of the unknown. So ask about parties, drinking, school and sex. Engage in open-ended conversations. A lot."
For me, a great stepping stone to meaningful conversations is when I tell my kids about stories and mistakes from my youth. It works. I also make a point to tell my kids what I like in their friends. I ask them about music they listen to. I learn about their world. And the more I engage in their world, the more I am surprised by them asking about my world. It just takes patience.
Sometimes, a kid needs a rope thrown to them. When communication is strained, broken or painfully non-existent, it's still up to you to throw that lasso out to your child and gently help lead the way to a healthy relationship. You are the adult. Remember that.
For me, I've learned that it's best when I clearly establish my feelings while, at the same time, invite them to participate in the journey to solving problems together. I'll say something like this:
I don't like living with this tension. I don't want to fight. I don't like being angry. I'd like to work with you to make this better for both of us. I'd like you to think about this and, when you're ready, tell me the number one thing that upsets you. I won't yell. I won't lecture. And I might not even have a response. I may want to think about what you say. But I want to start by learning how you feel.
An opening invitation like that might be the lasso your child needs to start to work with you to improve your communication. From there, just continue to listen and learn. Take it in small steps. And don't ever be afraid to visit with a trained therapist.
Lighten up! If you aren't laughing with your own child at least once a day, you're missing out on some good fun! Things are serious enough in the world. A good chuckle with your child is important.
Listen. Learn. Lasso. Laugh. Will they solve every problem in front of you? Not a chance.
But if you give these four "L's" a shot, they'll show your kids that you're available to them. And being available -- no matter how you do that -- will help bring a little more of that cherished fifth "L" word -- LOVE -- into your home.
If you'd like to hear more from my interview with Dr. John Duffy, I hope you'll listen to his radio interview with me on Bobblehead Dad Radio on WebTalk Radio. The show is titled "Those Terrific Tween and Teen Years!"
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