Kids & Families First: Building Connection
Wednesday, November 02, 2016 5:46 PM
That last frustrating conversation with your adolescent daughter stays with you for hours. She walked away, leaving you wondering, “Could I have done anything differently?” You don’t understand why, with your years of experience, she didn’t accept your feedback, which went something like this:
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Daughter: “I can’t believe we just got assigned two more huge projects for biology and I already have no time to sleep or eat, never mind hang out with my friends.”
Dad: “Maybe you need to organize your time better. And hanging out with your friends isn’t going to get you into college.”
She then disappeared without another word, slamming her bedroom door.
His daughter has always been an excellent student, taking pride in her work. It’s likely she’ll go to a good college. She’s disciplined, managing her time well; however, she’s feeling overwhelmed, alone and exhausted. As parents, we typically react to our child’s behavior. Here, if this father could disengage, seeing the situation from his daughter’s perspective, he’d have a better chance of maintaining connection with her.
His anxiety is triggered when he hears her discouragement. Complaints from his honor student about having no time to hang out with friends suggest she may be losing motivation. He can’t hear that, because life is much easier when she stays with the program. Ignoring what’s causing her disillusioned attitude, he risks having power struggles with her, ineffectively reacting with strong emotions.
Behavior expresses how we’re doing internally, the barometer communicating our “emotional temperature.” When behavior is inappropriate, it alerts us that something is amiss. With children, family, close friends, we must listen carefully to the root of the problem: she’s sad, distressed, frustrated, confused, fearful, angry, jealous. We might posture for our own protection, yet that communicates the message “your feelings aren’t important,” or “your view of the situation is distorted,” or “I’m right, you’re not,” “I don’t trust your perspective.” This will certainly have a negative impact on the relationship.
When we feel understood, we can navigate through our emotions more seamlessly. Example: If this father had paused, providing time to detach (viewing this as his daughter’s problem, not his), he might say something like this: “It’s hard to stay on top of everything when there’s so much work. You have a great deal of pressure right now. I get that hanging out with your friends would give you a much-needed break.” By supporting her, without judging or criticizing, she can gain a clearer perspective, more likely to reach her own solution.
We don’t need to have all the answers, although we might believe we must do before proceeding. Asking questions is not helpful, such as “What’s wrong?” or “Why did you say that?” “Why can’t you ever just listen?” when trying to uncover the problem. “Why” questions are never productive, encouraging children to lie, adults to squirm (and possibly lie), and creating a distraction that derails us. We’ll probably get silly answers, such as “I don’t know,” because actually, children typically don’t know the reason.
We tend to give unsolicited advice to our children: “Just ignore him,” “Say you’re sorry,” “Next time, walk away,” “Do what I tell you.” We don’t need to tell our children what to do. If your teen is not doing her homework, or complaining about having too much, the temptation is to clamp down, restricting her from doing the things she wants. That only breeds an angry, rebellious teen, with whom you’ve lost important connection. Rather, try describing what you see: “When I see you losing interest in doing your homework, I realize you must be feeling pretty frustrated with all the work you have. Maybe you’re angry with your teachers. I know you understand it won’t help if your grades start slipping. I bet you feel really exhausted, with the temptation to just let things go.” No questions, no interrogation, no advice or criticism, which encourages your child to talk more. With more information, you can then continue building connection: “I understand you’re discouraged with so much work and no time for any fun or relaxation. How can you get what you want without abandoning your work?” This is now the problem-solving stage, which happens when your child knows you understand her emotions.
Feeling heard and understood is what works for all of us. Connection is where we learn everything. It’s the root of responsible behavior, ensuring strong relationships that will sustain us through difficult times.