As parents of teens, there is an awareness that grows as our teens do. The awareness will be delicious and exciting and frightening all at once and it’s this: their job as teens is to let us go, and our job is to let them. This isn’t easy, which is why adolescence will often come with conflict and confusion for everyone.
The world is opening up to them with newness, opportunities and experiences they haven’t known before. We want to keep protecting them from the sharp edges of the world, but they need the space and permission to fall, and to discover the world and their place in it. No wonder adolescence can be a struggle!
We want them to explore and experiment – but if only they could do it ‘our way’, adolescence would be so much easier for everyone! Easier maybe, but not as rich, and not as able to grow them into the wonderful, healthy, independent adult humans they are all capable of being.
When our teens reach adolescence, the push against us can feel like a tidal wave. This is normal and healthy, and it’s how it’s meant to happen. One of the most important developmental goals of adolescence is the move towards independence. Letting this happen, while at the same time preserving our relationship with them will be one of the most important things we do for them and for us. It requires a depth of love and selflessness that parents are so capable of, but which can be difficult sometimes.
Keeping the connection with our teens is key. It’s everything. During adolescence they’ll need our guidance more than ever, but we can’t influence them if we aren’t connected to them. Our words become like a little bit of magic. The capacity to connect through conversation is in all of us, but sometimes knowing what to say, and having the emotional presence to say it can feel as easy as growing feathers.
As parents the temptation to fix their hurts, and stand between them and the world can be wildly intense. Sometimes this is important. Sometimes we need to be their voice and to fight for them, even if just so they can see how it’s done when the time is right for them to fight for themselves. Sometimes though, we need to let go of fixing or controlling or understanding, and instead be a gentle witness to their experiences.
We can do this by acknowledging. It’s as simple and as challenging as that. We do it by resisting the urge to fix, chastise, redirect, punish, fight for or fight with. Instead, when we acknowledge what we see – their feelings, their needs, their wants – we give them the gentle space to discover their own answers. We spark their capacity to tap into their own resourcefulness, courage and resilience. It is so profoundly simple, yet so powerful in its impact.
But sometimes their behaviour is so – how to put it nicely – APPALLING – won’t acknowledging them seem like a green light?
Acknowledging doesn’t mean condoning, and it doesn’t mean letting our boundaries melt away. It means validating the feelings that are driving our teens’ behaviour, in a reflective, present, non-judgemental way. All feelings are valid and it’s okay for them to be there. What isn’t okay is the behaviour that’s driven by those feelings.
If we want to influence our teens and connect with them, we first have to find the space in them that is open to us. It won’t be in the yelling, defiance or stony silence, which is why engaging with that behaviour won’t work. It will be in the need or the feeling that is driving the behaviour. Whatever it is, it will be valid, important and deserving of our attention, however wild the behaviour it’s driving seems to be. This is where acknowledgement can be powerful. Some examples …
- Anger means there’s something in the way of something I want. (Try, ‘You seem angry that it hasn’t worked out the way you thought. I get that.’)
- Sadness means I’ve lost something important to me. (Try, ‘I understand how much [it] meant to you. It’s okay for you to be upset.’)
- Jealousy means I want something somebody else has. (This isn’t always material. It might seem like it is, but there will be a need underlying that. Most likely a need for love, praise, attention, status, recognition – something that feels important for them. (Try, ‘It can be hard when other people get something we’ve really been wanting can’t it.’)
- Anxiety means I might be in danger. (This doesn’t always mean physical danger – it could mean the threat of humiliation, embarrassment, loss. Try, ‘You seem worried that … Is there anything you’d like from me?’)
The goal isn’t to fix anything, but to make the way safe and open enough for your teen to explore their own experience. Whether this happens with you or without you is up to them. The most important thing is that they know you’re there. All teens have a wonderfully rich capacity to be their own heroes. Our role as parents is to step aside enough to give them the space and security to discover this for themselves.
Why acknowledgement is like a little bit of magic.
Emotions happen for a very good reason – to evoke a response that will move towards meeting a need. The need is always valid, but sometimes the way it is expressed makes it seem otherwise. Let me explain … When your teen says, ‘I NEED to go to the party,’ the need isn’t the party. The party is the behaviour that will meet the need, but it’s not the need. The need is pushing somewhere from the shadows. It will likely be something along the lines of, ‘I need to feel connected with my friends,’ or ‘I need to feel included,’ or perhaps, ‘I need you to see that I’m capable of making my own decisions.’
‘If you can name it, you can tame it.’ This has become a mantra in modern psychology. Naming an emotion calms the nervous system. When we acknowledge their experience, the emotion that’s driving the behaviour can start to ease. It’s done its job. We’ve heard them and understood them. The more we fight whatever it is our teens are feeling, or deny it, minimise it, or act like it doesn’t matter, the harder that emotion will work to do its job – which is to evoke a response – from them, from us.
‘Acknowledging’ speaks to the feeling behind the response to bring calm: ‘I can see how upset you are with me. I understand how much you want to go to the party. It’s really important to you to be with your friends, and you feel as though I’m getting in the way of that.’
This doesn’t mean your teen will instantly calm and see things your way, but when they feel seen, the process towards calm and a rational conversation can begin. As long as there are big feelings swamping your teen (or any of us for that matter), the capacity for to make informed, rational, logical choices will be limited. The part of the brain that is able to receive information and use it in a healthy way gets overwhelmed by big feelings. It’s still there and able to function, but it will be stifled until the high emotion has eased back a little.
This also doesn’t mean that we have to give in to everything our teens want, but it’s important to let them know that we understand what’s important to them. We all need to feel heard by the people we care about. Our teens are no different.
They’re not always open books. And by ‘not always’, I mean ‘hardly ever’. What if I don’t know what’s driving their behaviour?
Sometimes the need driving their behaviour won’t always be obvious. There will just be big feelings and behaviour that’s way down on the ‘adorable’ scale. If there is confusion about the driving need, explore what will happen if ‘what they want’ doesn’t happen. ‘What will it mean to you if you don’t go to the party?’ Sometimes this will have to wait until things calm down. Otherwise you might get a not-so-insightful response along the lines of, ‘it will mean that you hate me’ – or something like that.
Why acknowledgement is so much more powerful than criticism.
Criticism rarely feels constructive. It feels like criticism. Too much criticism teaches kids to find fault with themselves and with others. It builds resentment, anger, and a feeling of not being ‘enough’. We all make mistakes, and we have a right to make those mistakes. It’s how we learn. What our teens need is the direction and safety to explore a better option. When our teens mess up, they generally know they’ve messed up. This doesn’t mean we hand them the keys to the castle and let them get on with it – not at all. By acknowledging rather than criticising, we make it safe for them to explore and to be open to the lessons they need to learn to move forward.
How to use acknowledgement to increase your influence and connection, and as a powerful emotional first aid.
Acknowledging is like emotional first aid for anything teens go through – the big things, the little things, the anythings. Here’s how it can be used:
• When they feel wronged.
There will be times our teens will feel (rightly or wrongly) as though they have been wronged by someone around them – a teacher, a friend, the soccer coach – anyone. The temptation can be to ask them what they might have done to contribute to the problem. Though it’s important for them to see their contribution to a problem, there will be time for this later. In the meantime, it’s not up to us to look for the motives or reasons other people might do the things they do that have hurt them. Our job as the important adults in our teens’ lives is to give them the space and direction to make sense of things themselves, when they’re ready – and nobody is ready to see another side when they’re hurt or angry.
When your teen feels a little bruised by the world, they need an advocate. This doesn’t mean condoning misbehaviour or agreeing with their view of the world. It means creating the space for them to find their own answers and letting them know that we’re on their team while they do that. It’s important that they don’t see us trying to explain somebody else’s confusing behaviour, before we try to understand theirs. If it feels important to have them reflect on their own behaviour, wait until things settle down. They’ll be much more open to any insights then.
Instead of: ‘The teacher must have had a reason for doing that,’ or ‘What did you do to make him so upset with you?’
Try: ‘That sounds as though it was really embarrassing for you. I can see how angry you are about what’s happened.’
• When they need that one person.
We all need that one person we can fold into when the world feels too big. When something has happened that has pushed against them, acknowledging how they feel can bypass any shame or defensiveness, and speak directly to their heart. There are plenty of people in their lives who can speak to their rational mind, but we all need someone who can see through the mess to speak to the core of us.
Instead of: ‘You shouldn’t worry about it. What does it matter which team you get into?’
Try: ‘You’re really disappointed you didn’t make the team aren’t you. And you were so ready for it too.’
This isn’t about letting them become self-centred, but about soothing the emotion that might be stifling their ability to think rationally or from another point of view.
• When the world doesn’t live up to their expectations.
Our teens need to know that the world can be a pity sometimes, but they don’t need it pointed out when they’re feeling raw. What they need is a soft landing. Hold back on the urge to reason with them and instead, acknowledge what might be going on for them.
Instead of: ‘What did you expect? It’s the first time you’ve played soccer since September.’
Try: ‘You really wanted to play on that team didn’t you.’
• When the problem feels bigger on the inside than it seems on the outside.
It’s probably not the end of the world when they miss out on the part they wanted in the class play, but that’s not for us to decide. How they feel is how they feel and whatever it is, it’s valid. The only way through a feeling is straight through the middle. The more room we give them to feel, the quicker they’ll move through. That doesn’t mean we let them ‘wallow’. We don’t want them to learn that self-pity is a handy go-to, but we do want them to take some time to honour whatever it is that feels important. They’ll realise for themselves that it’s not the end of the world, when they get to the edge and realise it’s not the end.
• When they are anxious.
Telling someone who is feeling anxious that there’s nothing to worry about can have the effect of feeling the breeze on your skin while you’re wearing a wetsuit. Kind of … a whole lot of nothing. Anxiety comes from a brain that’s working hard to keep us safe. The purpose of anxiety is to warn of danger. Whether there is any real threat is irrelevant – it just wants to make sure we’re ready to fight or flee any danger that might be there. The more we fight that, the harder the brain will work to make us ‘get it’. Acknowledging anxiety doesn’t make it worse – it gives it permission to ease. It’s like saying to that overprotective brain, ‘It’s okay – I hear you. And I’ve got this. You can relax now.’
Instead of: ‘There’s nothing to worry about. You’ll have a great time.’
Try: ‘You seem nervous about going. I really understand that. It can be difficult walking into somewhere when you don’t know what to expect.’
Remember, you don’t need to fix anything. Your teen has everything he or she needs to deal with the tough stuff. When you tell them not to worry, the pressure is on them to feel ‘okay’. If only ‘not worrying’ was as easy as following an instruction! The important thing isn’t ‘not worrying’, but not letting the worrying hold them back.
• When we want them to see things from our side.
The more we let them know that we understand what it’s like for them in their world, the more we expand their willingness to listen to what it’s like in ours.
‘You didn’t tell me where you were going because you were worried I would stop you. I understand that. I know how important it is for you to be able to do things with your friends. You want to be able to make decisions for yourself. I get that. You’re growing up and you should be able to make your own decisions about certain things. What I need is to know that you’re going to be safe, and I can’t know that if I don’t know where you are. You need freedom – and I want you to have that – but in return I need to know that you’re safe. We need to work together on this. The more I can trust that you’re safe and being honest with me, the more freedom you’ll start to have.’
• When we want to know more.
Sometimes we aren’t sure of what they’re feeling. They might not be so sure themselves. They might be withdrawn into themselves, they might erupt unexpectedly or out of proportion to the situation. Acknowledging let’s them know that it’s safe, and that whatever they are feeling, even they think it’s ridiculous, self-centred, confusing, big, or trivial – it okay.
Try: ‘I’ve noticed you didn’t really talk much at dinner. You seem distracted/ upset/ angry. I’m wondering if you’d like to talk. And it’s completely okay if you don’t want to.’
This gives them a safe opening to speak, without feeling as though they have to.
• When they need encouragement to keep going.
Being a teen can be tough work. There will be plenty of times they just need something, without knowing what. Something they’ll always want is our approval (even if they don’t always show it!) Let them know that you notice their efforts,
Try: ‘I know you really wanted to go to the beach today. It couldn’t have been easy to stay home and study instead. I can see how hard you’re working.’
And finally …
Teens have everything inside them they need to meet their challenges. They are resourceful, resilient and they have wonderfully creative minds. They are powerful, wise and brave and they have the answers they need inside them – but sometimes they’ll need our guidance. When we acknowledge them – their feelings, needs, experiences – we expand their openness to us and give them the space for them to explore their own truths. We can’t love the lessons into them, but we can lovingly lay the ground for them to discover the lessons themselves.
Acknowledgement gives teens the message that we see them, and that we’re safe for them to ‘be’ in front of, whatever might be going on inside them. They need our guidance, we need their trust. When we acknowledge, we nurture our connection with them and increase our influence in a way that is gentle, powerful and important.