By Michael Cox, CSW, Youth Services Family Counselor
“I’m at my wits end! I’ve tried EVERYTHING and my kid still does whatever they want.”
“I took away their phone and they locked it with a password. I took away their door and they punched a hole in mine. Everything I try comes back to haunt me.”
Sound familiar? Perhaps you’ve found yourself in a similar position and have tried everything you, your neighbors, your clergy, your family, your doctor and your pets have thought of dissuade your teen from negative behaviors. You’re exhausted physically and emotionally, and have sacrificed time, money, sweat and tears…for what feels like nothing. You think of your child as a baby and would gladly choose temper tantrums about cookies in the grocery store over the mess they’re in now.
Have you tried empathy?
Dr. Brené Brown, a social work researcher, says: “Rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection.” When we feel like we’re at battle with our teen, they feel it too, and it’s hard to feel connected to an enemy. Let’s face it; taking away an Xbox or an iPod may serve a purpose, but it probably doesn’t foster connection. Without that connection as a foundation, our efforts as parents fall flat. Dr. Brown gives some suggestions on stepping away from battle, and using empathy to step in to connection.
- Listen for the emotion. We practice empathy by listening to our child; both what they’re saying, and how they’re feeling. For example, your child might say: “This girl called me fat today in gym. I wanted to smack her so badly!” Pop quiz! What was she feeling? (Feel free to look again.) This teen was probably feeling embarrassed, shame, angry, and powerless. Many teens struggle to articulate their feelings, so you’ll need to listen intently.
- Tell them what you heard. Say something like: “Wow, I’m so sorry that happened. You felt really angry when she said that.” If you’ve identified an emotion he/she was feeling, you’ll look insightful and they’ll know you’re listening. If you’re wrong, they’ll correct you with what they were feeling.
- Think back. Now, maybe no one has ever called you fat in gym class, but have you ever felt embarrassed, or shame, or angry, or powerless? You’ve probably felt all of those things trying to deal with this child!
- Share. Tell your child about a time when you felt that emotion. This may require you to dig deep, and access memories you’ve stored in the “Junior High; Never to be accessed ever again” mental folder. It may be a story about something that happened in your life last week. This is a vulnerable step and it doesn’t feel safe, especially with this kid (I mean, you were just at battle right?). If your child was vulnerable in telling you their story, you meeting them in kind is a good way to foster connection. If they open up and feel judged or pushed away from you, adios connection.
- No need to fix, just connect. Remember, you don’t have to fix the emotion they felt. Honestly there isn’t much we could do to fix it. Helping your child know they’re not alone in what they’ve felt, is one of the biggest gifts we can give them.
Brown, Brene, PhD10. “Brene Brown on Empathy.” YouTube. YouTube, 10 Dec. 2013. Web. 07 July 2015.
For more information about working with your child contact Salt Lake County Division of Youth Services at 385-468-4500 or visit www.youth.slco.org.