How to be the one they come to when things feel big

'Can I talk to you?' It's a phrase parents hope to hear, but how do you let your child know you are there for them? Karen Young, psychologist and creator of Hey Sigmund, shares how parents can show children they can come to them with the big things.

All children and teens want to do the right thing, but the ‘right’ thing won’t always look as it should because they also need to try new things, discover their edges, experiment with their independence, and feel connected with their peers. Sometimes these needs will clash with what’s right. Sometimes the battle will be mighty. As capable as our children are of making good decisions, and as much as they might intend to, occasionally good decisions can be left gasping for air on a cold concrete floor, stampeded by what feels important.

It will take time for them to learn how to get what they want in ways that don’t cause breakage. In the meantime, they’ll need plenty of guidance. The best guidance will come from you because nobody will care more about where they land than you. They know that, but they also know they don’t ever want to disappoint you. As the important adults in their lives, the challenge is to hold the boundaries strong, but with tender hands. We want them to know where the boundaries are, but also that when those boundaries are broken (and they will be, plenty of times) that we’re safe to turn to – even through the messiest of the messes. 

Imagine this...

Your strong, beautiful 16-year-old knows how much you love her, and she adores you right back. She never wants to disappoint you because she’s learned how lonely that feels. She knows the rules and how upset you get with her when the rules are broken. You’ve always been strict like that. She also knows that there’s no point in arguing about the rules. It just makes you angry, and it never makes a difference anyway.

She wants to make you happy, but as with all teens, she also wants to feel her independence and a strong sense of belonging to her tribe. Sometimes she can have all three no problem at all, and sometimes, one has to give.

Now imagine that there is a party happening on the weekend. She knows you have strict rules around her going to parties with alcohol, but everyone is going. As with all teens, she understands that sometimes your rules are there to protect her – wear a seatbelt, use sunscreen. Then there are other rules – the ones that seem to stomp on her personal freedoms and fail to recognise that she’s older and more able to take care of herself now. Teens are much more likely to follow the rules when they believe those rules are about their safety and welfare and less likely to follow the rules when they think they relate to their personal choices. So here’s the problem – you see rules about parties and alcohol to be about safety and welfare. She sees it to be about personal choices. 

She doesn’t want to defy you, but she knows you won’t understand how important this party is to her. She talks to her friends about her dilemma because they ‘get her’, so much more than you. Together, they come up with a plan. She tells you she’s going for a ‘sleepover’. She justifies her decision on the basis that it’s not her fault if you don’t trust her – she’s not a baby anymore, and she deserves your trust. If you don’t give it, she’ll take it.

So she goes to the party, and she drinks. At the end of the night, the only way she and her friends can get back to where they’re spending the night is to be driven there by a drunk driver. If she calls you, you’ll know she’s been drinking and that she lied about the sleepover. She knows how angry you’ll be at her, and she knows the consequences will be big. So will she call you, or will she take her chances with a drunk driver?

How do we let them know we’re safe to come to no matter what?

From when they’re little, our children are learning whether or not we can handle the worst of them. Of course, we can handle all versions of them, but even the most loving, available parent can send messages that say otherwise. They’ll take more meaning from what we do than what we say.

We can’t teach them that they can come to us with the big things, we have to show them. Here are some ways to do that:

1. It starts with the small things.

When they’re littles, their decisions won’t land them in too much trouble – the shoes that got lost at the park, the iPad that broke ‘and I promise I was holding it very carefully and we were only jumping very small jumps and then it fell by itself.’ Every time something goes wrong, it’s an opportunity for us to show them that we will always love them even if their behaviour is questionable. We might judge their behaviour, ‘Do you think it was a good idea to take the iPad onto the trampoline? It’s hard to be careful with an iPad on a trampoline, isn’t it? What can you do differently next time? I know you didn’t mean for the iPad to break, but it did, and now we need to pay to get it fixed. How can you help with that? but we’ll never shame them, ‘How could you be so stupid?! What’s wrong with you?!’. Eventually, they’ll be looking for guidance about the big things – drinking, what to do when everyone else is smoking weed, their new relationship, contraception, sex, the boss/teacher/coach who feels bad to be around. Whether they turn to us, google, or their friends for guidance will be entirely up to them. If we can’t handle conversations about the little things, they’re not going to trust us with big things.

2. Give them proof that you can handle anything.

When my children were younger, we had a rule that when I picked them up from school, they could tell me anything, and we’d stop talking about it as soon as we drove into the driveway if they wanted. Nothing was off-limits. Most of the time we’d just chat about their day, but sometimes the chat would be bigger. Occasionally they’d bring something up in the minute before we got home. This was a safe way for them to open the door on a topic without having to worry about the chat going for longer or deeper than they were ready for. I’ll be honest, sometimes it killed me to stop the conversation when the garage door went down, but every single time they left the door ajar on an issue, they’d come back to me to talk about it more when they were ready.

3. But it’s never too late to start.

If past conversations have given them a good reason to expect tough chats to be a no-go, that’s okay, let them know how it’s going to be different. ‘I can see how in the past I might have given you the idea that it’s not easy to talk to me about some things. I think I’ve made it harder for you to come to be because in the past I’ve […]. I want you to know that I’m going to do things differently. I know it might take time for you to trust that. If there’s anything I can do to make it easier for you to come to me when you need to, I’d really love you to tell me. Otherwise, you can leave this to me. I know what I can do differently, and I’m going to work on that.’

4. Let them argue, disagree, and speak their mind.

We want them to know that we can handle whatever they’re thinking or feeling, even if we disagree. Arguments are a sign that everyone is getting their say, even if the final answer isn’t one they want. When kids and teens argue, they’re communicating. The need won’t always be obvious, but it will always be valid.

When littles argue because it’s spaghetti for dinner and ‘I hate spaghetti so much’ (even though last week and the 5 years before last week, spaghetti was their favourite), they might be expressing a need for sleep, power and influence, or independence. All are valid.

When your teen argues because they want to do something you’ve said ‘no’ to, the need might be to preserve their felt sense of inclusion with their tribe or their independence from you. Again, all valid. Of course, a valid need doesn’t mean it will always be met. What’s important is letting them know we hear them, and we get it. Our response to those arguments will teach them whether we’re open to listening or not. If we demand agreement, we inadvertently teach them that their voice doesn’t matter and that they can’t trust their judgement. This is a dangerous game. As they get older, there will always be someone who will try to make them question their judgement or their boundaries. We want them to know their own mind and be brave enough to use it, but they’ll test this with us first. The more space we give them to do this, the more they’ll be able to access their strong, brave, beautiful minds when they need to and when we aren’t there.

5. It’s not what they say, but how they say it.

The challenge for them is to learn to use their voice respectfully. It’s going to take time for kids to learn this. In the meantime, the words might be clumsy, loud, angry, or swollen with big feelings. This is when we need to hold on to ourselves, meet them where they are, let them know we hear them, and step into our leadership presence. ‘I want to understand what you need, and I can’t hear you when you’re speaking to me like that. Let me know when you’re ready to talk about it without shouting. I’ll be right here. There’s no hurry.’

6. When their needs and your needs seem incompatible, let them own the problem with you.

If they’re asking for something, there will be a valid need behind it. If you’re saying ‘no’, there will also be a valid need behind that. We risk driving secrecy or more resistance than we need to if we say ‘no’ without letting them know we hear them. We can soften this by inviting them to own the problem. This might sound like, ‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends, but I need to know you’re safe. How can we both get what we need?’ After listening to them, you might change your mind, or you might not. Ultimately the decision is yours, but making sure they feel heard will show them that their needs, feelings, and opinions matter to you. The best way to be heard is to let them know that you’re listening. ‘I know how important it is for you to be with your friends, and that’s important to me too, but being with them at this party doesn’t feel safe to me. We’ve both tried hard to find a way around this, but we haven’t found one. My decision is ‘no’.’

7. Rather than telling them that they’re wrong, be curious about why they think they’re right.

It can be so tempting, and it can feel so ‘right’ sometimes to tell our kiddos that they’re wrong. Sometimes they will be exactly and entirely that – wrong. Here’s the rub though. Telling people they are wrong tends to drive defensiveness. Nobody wants to feel like an idiot. Conversations around right and wrong often widen the distance between two people, at least for a while, as each person stands their ground and argues harder to be heard and understood.

On the other hand, working to understand why our kiddos think they might be right fattens the context and story and drives understanding and connection. It also gives the crucial message that their views and opinions matter. This will become more important as they become more vulnerable to being steered off track by peers. We want to raise our young humans into big ones who know their own minds, even if this can make parenting them wildly tough at times. None of this means you’ll agree with them. Often you won’t, and that’s okay. They won’t agree with you either, and modelling tolerance for other points of view is important. They will be more likely to open up to our ideas and influence when they feel our willingness to understand their point of view. Whatever the rightness or wrongness of something is, our capacity to influence and guide them is magnified when they can trust that we can see what they see. Whether or not we agree is irrelevant. First though, we’ll need them to show us that view through that lens of theirs: ‘What is it that makes you think that?’ ‘Where did that idea come from?’ ‘What did you tell yourself to make it seem like a good idea?’ ‘What do you think will happen if you do that?’ ‘Can you help me understand why that was important to you?’ Curiosity has a lovely way of keeping hearts, mouths, and minds open.

8. Don’t punish honesty – even if it’s messy.

There will be times they get things terribly wrong. The way we respond to these things will teach them whether they’re safe coming to us no matter what or whether they’re safer finding their own way out of trouble. Even when things are a mess, if they’ve been honest and open with you, let them know that matters. ‘I love that you’ve told me the truth. That’s really brave. What have you learned?’ This is a hard conversation for them. As long as they’ve owned their behaviour and learned from it, this might be the only consequence needed. The behaviour is one problem, the lie is a bigger one. Let there be consequences for lies, not for being honest about bad decisions. Let the message be, ‘There’s nothing you do or say that I can’t handle. But just don’t lie to me.’

9. Start by trusting them, and let it be theirs to lose.

Start from the assumption that they are trustworthy and want to do the right thing. Children who feel as though they have nothing to lose will act as though they have nothing to lose. For sure, there needs to also be boundaries, and there will be times when our trust needs to be re-earned, but let this be when the reasons make sense – when the trust has been given, then broken. When our trust feels impossible or too conditional, they will let go of the chase. Chasing something that never comes closer is exhausting and maddening.

So what do we do when they get it wrong?

If your child has disappointed you, they know it. If you can be a warm, steady presence, they’re more likely to open up to your influence, your wisdom, and exploring their behaviour. Discipline isn’t about what we force upon them but about what we nurture within them. For this, we need influence, and we can only have this when they have a felt sense of calm and safety. If consequences are about encouraging better behaviour, then the best consequence is a conversation where they can explore what’s happened and learn from that.

And finally ...

We will always have more influence when we go for connection over control. By adolescence, we have no control anyway. We have the illusion of control, but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and were human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like liquid smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.

About Karen Young

Karen Young is a psychologist and creator of the online resource, Hey Sigmund. She has worked extensively with children teens and families, and in educational and organisation settings. She has lectured and has a Masters in Gestalt Therapy. Through her work with children, teens and families,  she has ‘learned the power of solid information when it is placed in the solid, loving hands of parents or any important person in the life of a child.’

This article is reproduced with permission, and you can read the original on Hey Sigmund.

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