Parents Just Don't Understand!
Aside from being an 80’s wrap song by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince aka Will Smith, it’s an age-old assumption made by teens across generations. In some ways, teens may need to hold onto this notion to allow for the separation and development of individuality needed to confidently head out into the world. On the other hand, teens deep down crave acceptance and want to fundamentally feel understood by their parents and caretakers.
Across my career and experience as a parent the single most important tool I have found in managing my relationships with the teens I serve and those I am raising is validation. It is also the hardest skill to teach parents and practice consistently and the one that most communicates understanding.
Let’s explore why it is so hard to let our kids know we are trying and want to understand:
When our kids are dealing with something difficult or have done something problematic, we first feel profoundly worried, scared, anxious, embarrassed, or angry
We want them more than anything to understand what to do instead or how to fix the problem
We want them to acknowledge their responsibility and be able to hold them accountable
We fear judgment from others (family members, other parents, school, etc)
We jump to conclusions about the demise of their future (or ours if they forever live in our basement- see above emotions)
We think if we accept what they have done or how they feel or what they think that they will interpret it as approval
It is really hard to accept something we do not want to be true
It feels like we are doing something when we yell, scream or try to solve the problem (we may believe this is the way to make an impact)- in reality this usually pushes teens further away or allows them to focus on our behavior rather than their own
What can we do to communicate acceptance through validation and therefore a greater understanding of our teen children?
Recognize our own emotions, own them as ours and not theirs
Take time to allow those emotions to settle before acting
Ask questions rather than express assumptions
Listen fully and give your full attention (or balance with your attention to driving if you are in the car, which can be a conducive venue for conversation with teens)
Find SOMETHING true for them that you can express makes sense and is understandable (an emotion, thought, motivation, worry, etc)
Refrain from name calling or adjectives that insult, ie “that was really stupid” (c’mon we all have done that). Even if we are speaking to the action, the likelihood they will personalize it being about them is high.
Hold off on discussion of responses, consequences, suggestions, problem solving or any sort of fixing until efforts to understand have been tried and communicated in earnest.
There is no guarantee that your teen will thank you or express appreciation for your efforts. However, when validation is communicated consistently, teens learn to regulate their emotions, tolerate distress, and are more likely to listen to what guidance you have to offer. Most importantly, it will strengthen your relationship with your teen.