Have you heard this panicked request from your teen? Is he or she going to tell you about a failing grade? Getting a DWI? Driving with a drunk driver? Cutting school and getting caught? Getting pregnant?
There are two parts to this essential though cryptic message. The first is “I want you to know something very important. I want to trust you to be on my side.” The second is “Please be calm to help me be calm. I’m scared and need your help.”
How can you respond to the real communication underneath the panic and sincerely be on your teen’s side and respect his or her wish to confide in you and get your help? The question suggests you two have a bond that you can rely on.
The answer is by using the first principle of Parental Intelligence: Stepping Back.
Stepping Back means pausing without judgment before reacting. Giving yourself and your teenager time to absorb the situation, think before you act, and bear the news with an open outlook and hopefully some optimism.
Consider the request an invitation for communication, not judgment and criticism.
Stepping Back is difficult but if you register the anguish on your teen’s brow, you can pull up your compassion and the bond you’ve been building all these years to face together whatever is the crisis.
Sometimes, it’s a lot more minor than it sounds. Here are two examples:
My son came in the house and said his plea before entering the kitchen where I could see him.
I said, “Don’t worry. What’s up?” I felt a bit keyed up but really trust my son, so I wasn’t panicked. He walked in and I didn’t notice anything until he turned around and I saw a space where there should be hair. He told me he let his friend, Tom, cut his hair in a cool style but goofed up.
I responded, “You’re lucky you’re so cute. It will grow back!!” Relieved, that gorgeous grin returned and the day went on. This was an easy one.
In my book, Unlocking Parental Intelligence, there’s a story of a teen, Olivia, who comes to her mother head down. She raises her face to show her mother a golden ring piercing her lower lip. Her mother was shocked, but worked hard at reserving her feelings, holding Olivia’s worry in mind. It was important to Olivia’s mother that Olivia could tell her about this without too much fear.
Olivia started to cry and explained that her best friend convinced her to go the mall where they each got a lip ring. At first, they thought it would be fun to have a new look, but as soon as it was done, they knew it was a big mistake.
“How big a mistake could this be?” Olivia’s mother asked. “If you don’t want to leave it in, take it out, and the hole will close up in a few days.”
The Meaning Behind the Behavior
Once you’ve stepped back you have time to find out the meaning behind the behavior, the ultimate step of Parental Intelligence, the crux of the matter that cements your parent-teenage bond.
Olivia and her mother discussed as openly as they could why Olivia experimented with the lip piercing, learning together that there were several reasons. Olivia wanted to feel prettier: her self-image was uncertain, and she wanted to experiment with a new look that she thought was more mature. She also wanted to do something independently from her mother.
The conversation with her mother allowed her to feel her mother’s acceptance, which, in turn, supported her attempt at independence, even though it didn’t turn out well as she had hoped. Keeping her shock to herself, Olivia’s mother reaped tremendous rewards. She learned much more about Olivia than she had imagined was possible, and she suffered along with her daughter as Olivia poured out her lack of confidence and desire to be independent.
This led to greater understanding not only of this experience, but also of their relationship as a whole.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst with specialized clinical training in infant-parent, child, adolescent, and adult psychotherapy. She has been on the faculties of New York University and the Society for Psychoanalytic Study and Research, among others.
She has written extensively on parenting for various publications, including the Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, The International Journal of Infant Observation, The Inner World of the Mother, Newsday’s Parents & Children Magazine, Long Island Parent.
She also wrote her popular column, PARENTAL INTELLIGENCE, at Moms Magazine and has been a parenting expert for numerous publications such as Good Housekeeping.. She currently writes for Active Family Magazine (San Francisco) and blogs for Huffington Post.
Her new book is Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior.
Visit Dr. Laurie’s website: http://lauriehollmanphd.com/