My parents divorced well after they should have. I can remember the way they would hold each other in a full embrace or let their hands touch while they were sitting beside each other in the car or on the couch. I remember the gentle way they talked to each other and the way they made each other laugh sometimes. I loved that. Sometimes I would interrupt a kiss – one of those long, tender kisses that are gross and unnecessary through the eyes of anyone younger and blood related.
Then I remember the silence. The awful, empty clamour of a silence that never used to be there.
Adolescence is an adventure for teens and the adults who love them – a wonderful, messy, confusing, beautiful, crazy adventure. Hormones are commonly blamed for the vast ups and downs of adolescence, but though there are hormonal changes, the changes in teens are primarily because of changes in the brain. Understanding these changes will help make the path through adolescence easier for everyone.
Raising children is wonderful – and hard, really hard. All relationships will face their own unique challenges but for parents, some of those challenges are more predictable. New research has identified the risk factors that can put the relationship between parents under pressure to the point of breakage. By being aware of these risk factors, it’s possible to work towards building the relationship against them.
I’ve been blessed with three healthy children. I appreciate and am grateful for this gift I have been given. I have aspired to parent consciously. It has not always been easy. I suffered with severe post natal depression on and off for over a decade. My daughter suffered with Anorexia during her teenage years. I divorced my husband after a 20 year marriage. The road has certainly be challenging. Yet, we, the children and I, have come through it stronger and more connected that I ever imagined possible at the time.
I have a confession to make. There’s a question that strikes fear into me like it owns me. To be fair, it’s not so much the question, but the timing of the question. Tell me if you’ve been there: It’s a school morning at 8:05am (as in, ‘we should have left 10 minutes ago’ ) and the clue that it’s coming is the hurried thumping of bare feet on the timber stairs. Oh that sound. Maybe I loved it once, but now … I digress. Right. The question. The question is paired with the thumping – they belong together, and it’s this:
I’ve done a lot of hard things. I’ve run a marathon (well, technically a ‘fun run’ but it did require running shorts, running and sweat so I stand firm on ‘marathon’); I’ve given up sugar (not gonna lie – worst 2 hours of my life) and I’ve travelled (‘Middle East, solo, broke with a backpack’ travelled, not ‘may I take your bags madam? The lift to the 34th floor is just past the atrium’ travelled).
I’m almost nearing the end of my gig parenting an adolescent. It’s been an adventure – a brilliant, trying, beautiful, confusing, crazy adventure – but we’ve made it. I would love to wave a strong goodbye to the whole adolescent phase but I have a daughter who is about to walk into its wide woolly arms. (I’m warmed up and ready beautiful girl so we’ll be fine.)
The need to feel safe is primal. We’re wired to fight or flee anything that presents itself as a threat - and shame, punishment, judgement, exclusion, humiliation all count as threat, even if they come with loads of love.
When our kids or teens mess up - which they will, because they’re humans not robots - the way we respond can open them up to our influence or shut them down to it. It can expand the fight and the disconnection, or it can shrink it. In time they will learn to be more in control of their urge for or flight, but for now, we will need to lead the way. (Of course, we are also human, and sometimes despite our biggest efforts to stay calm, we will step into the ring rather than wait for them to step out. We’re human. It’s going to happen. And that’s okay.)
If we want them to be open to our influence, we first need to calm their active amygdala (the seat of anxiety and big emotion) by sending the message that we aren’t a threat. We can do this by validating their feelings or the need behind their behaviour (if we know what that is).
Validation doesn’t mean agreeing with them, and it doesn’t mean approving of their behaviour. What it means is letting them know that we want to understand the world through their lens. ‘I can see you’re really upset about this.’ ‘It sounds as though you’re worried I’m going to get in your way. I can see this is important to you. I really want to understand. Can you talk to me about this?’
When we do this, it sends a message to the protective, powerful, emotional amygdala that it’s safe and that it can back down. This will start to switch off the need to fight us or flee (ignore) us and open them up to our influence, support, warmth and guidance.
It also doesn’t mean giving them a free pass on ‘unadorable’ behaviour. What it means is letting them know that we see them, and that we understand there is something important they need. When things are calm, they will be much more open to exploring their decisions, their behaviour, the consequences of that (including any consequences for them), and what they can do differently in the future.