By Jessica Peterson
September 20, 2022
Every year as the school year begins, I feel a mix of excitement and dread. We are usually ready for some additional structure, but it can be daunting to face the demands of teachers, activities, and peers. What are some things we can do as parents to prepare teens for the school year?
Normalize challenges and find balance in optimism and realism.
When my oldest started middle school he was worried. Remembering my own experiences, I worried what he might face. My good friend told him and her son as they were trying their locker codes for the 15th time, “Don’t worry you are going to have a great time.” I called her bluff. “No way”, I said, “It’s going to be terrible. We’ll be here for you, and you’ll get through it.” It turns out we were both right. It went better than I had imagined, there were rocky moments for both our sons, and we were both imperfectly available for our kids. Talking to your teen about the hard parts of school and being honest about the “good, the bad, and the ugly” can be helpful in preparing them to come to you when hard things happen.
Today I took my daughter to lunch for a book club of sorts. We have a deal that if I read a book she wanted me to read, we would go out for a drink to talk about it (hers are pretty short and fun). If she read a book that I wanted her to read, we would go out to lunch and a chat. While we were at the restaurant some pre-teens came in with drinks from a nearby gas station. One boy poured something into a drink until it turned green.
The owner of the drink was visibly upset. “Why would you do that to me?”, he said. I mentioned to my daughter that I had watched the interaction. When they left and were unlocking their bikes, you could see the young man was still deflated. I talked to her about it and pointed out his body language. “Uff,” I said. “I remember how it felt to have kids not understand how their actions affected me. He might have saved up money for the drink or only had a limited amount of access to funds and that would have made losing it feel even worse.” I further talked about the school year starting and how navigating relationships like that can be tough.
I had hoped to connect with her about being a recipient of hard interactions. Instead, she shared that some friends had also participated in doing that to each other, and that she had previously pranked drinks. It became an opportunity to discuss empathy, reading peers’ body language, and avoiding things that could be perceived as bullying. As we look for opportunities to normalize the hard parts about being a student, peer relationships, and managing expectations we can prepare our children.
Help your children set up good routines to prepare them for emotional and academic success. Consider setting up routines that make the morning and the week smoother. Perfect doesn’t exist in my home or anyone’s home but consistent efforts to create routines can decrease chaos. It’s good to remember that new habits can take time and effort. Some claim that 21 days is a magic number for how long it takes to form a habit while others claim it takes much longer. An article in psychology today by neuroscientist, Brian King states that it depends on motivation and the feedback we receive in forming the habit.
When families are trying to implement changes and new habits it’s good to be flexible and creative. Strict schedules for young children can feel supportive and reassuring but teens, while needing a degree of structure, may need more flexibility. Deciding which habits to form as a family should be a group effort. Talking about your routines and finding time to work together on household chores, play together, and finding ways to connect to your community through service can bond you together. When teens having input into the development of the work, service, and play you engage in, your efforts will more likely to lead to success.
If sleep is an issue, work on it.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends between 8.5 and 9.5 hours of sleep a night for teens. They report that 89% of high schoolers get less than that on a nightly basis and that the average is closer to 7 hours of sleep.
Sometimes teens struggle with falling asleep, staying asleep, or finding time to sleep amidst activities, screen time, and homework. If your teen is struggling with falling asleep you can try weighted blankets, nighttime routines, and yoga before bed. Be creative and find what works for your child. Be empathetic and talk to their pediatrician if they aren’t responsive to efforts for healthier sleep. If screen time is an issue, decide together what you think is reasonable. Sleep experts recommend having at least an hour free of blue light before bed. If homework is the culprit for sleep deprivation, consider talking to the guidance counselor or teachers together to find a manageable plan of action.
Allow your teen to make different choices for themselves than you would make.
One of the normal developmental stages of teenage years goal is differentiation. Your teen is deciding who they are, what they think about a million different things, and who they want to be around. Those choices may be influenced by peers, media, and you.
Maybe they have been nurturing a talent for years, and you have enjoyed watching that talent, but they choose something else. If, while they push away from ideas and activities, you maintain a relationship with them, you will build connection well into adulthood. Repairing rejection is difficult. Work on accepting your child’s choices, realize they may change direction throughout the teen years and young adulthood, and focus on building and maintaining your relationship with them.
Be careful when you parent from a place of nostalgia for your own teen experiences. Brené Brown said “Nostalgia is also a dangerous form of comparison. Think about how often we compare our lives to a memory that nostalgia has so completely edited that it never really existed.” Sometimes we look back on our teen years and remember loving school, relationships, and activities without remembering the hard parts of them. Be careful to not compare children to each other or to your own experiences and realize that sense of nostalgia could be affecting your memory.
Show an increase of compassion, connection, and empathy at the start of the school year.
Transitions are tough for all of us, but our teens can be especially susceptible to feeling anxiety and stress. From hormones and biological changes, to social media, demanding teachers, and shifting friendships your teen may feel burdens they may not always express. Parenting teens through challenges can leave you feeling like a cheerleader, guidance counselor, and jailor all in the same moment. As you set needed limits, show kindness. As you offer advice, do so sparingly and provide healthy options versus mandates on things that are negotiable. As you cheerlead for their success, check in with your teen individually about your faith in them as a human. If you are concerned about your child’s resilience you may want to consider having them talk to a school counselor or therapist. Assisting them in asking for help as a teen can provide a lifelong pattern of health.
Work on your self-compassion.
Anyone reading articles on how to help their child is probably doing better as a parent than they think they are. It can be challenging to navigate parenting. Connect with people who show you compassion and provide advice you can trust. Sometimes that can mean finding a therapist for yourself, joining an online community that offers support and insight, and reading books and articles from professionals. Finding joy and passion outside of parenting can be helpful too. Showing teens that being a grown up can be fun in addition to being real about the struggles of adulthood can give teens hope about their future. Developing yourself can help you in your relationship with your teen. Perspective can be hard to come by when you are in the middle of a struggle but finding things you enjoy can provide a balanced view of life.
Choosing one thing to work on as a parent can encourage health for your child. Every child is unique and every home is different, thankfully. What worked for one child may not work for another. Consistent efforts to practice being a better parent and human will help your family. When you keep hitting barriers in parenting reach out for support. Whatever you are facing this school year, hang in there!
By Jessica Peterson
June 13, 2022
Recently, I drove past a slow moving vehicle that had a bumper sticker that said, “Be Patient—Student Driver.” If you have ever taught a teen to drive, you know that note is also a caution to give the driver plenty of room! I wonder what would happen if we all had bumper stickers, maybe on our foreheads, proclaiming what we are struggling with and what we need:
“Recent health diagnosis—provide extra empathy”
“Recently lost a loved one—needs lots of hugs”
“Had a rough morning with her teen—tell her you see her efforts”.
This blog post addresses something we all deal with: stress in ourselves and those around us.
First, the stress of those around us: I love the quote from President Henry B. Eyring “Hal, when you meet someone, treat them as if they were in serious trouble, and you will be right more than half the time.” We have the power to help those around us. We also have the power to teach teens to do the same. If we are navigating interactions and noticing someone struggling, we need to show empathy and compassion, and remind ourselves that everyone struggles with something. When your teen talks to you about people who are struggling, offer empathy and teach them the skill of “perspective taking.” Teens who can provide empathy and learn to understand the perspective of others develop closer relationships. Being a better friend and having close relationships helps us as parents as well.
Next, how are you dealing with your own stress? Strengthening our own self-awareness and coping can help our relationships as well. When we are struggling and need support, we need to remember that people around us are terrible mind readers. The best way to get support is to ask those around us for what we need. Provide people around you insight into your struggles and let them know what would be helpful. For example, do you need to ask a friend to listen without judgment or advice? Are you looking for advice? Would it help you if a friend went on a walk with you or did something fun to distract you? Ask for what you need when you are struggling and teach your teens to also ask for what they need.
In addition to asking for help, it is important to tune into our bodies and patterns of coping. This is another needed skill for teens. Some examples of stress reactions are: struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep, sleeping more than is usually needed, forgetting to eat or eating too much, headaches, stomach aches, isolating, or procrastinating.
As you notice the symptoms of struggling with stress in yourself and your teen you can better address it. If the above symptoms are happening frequently, talking to a doctor can be helpful to rule out any medical conditions that could be contributing to the problems you or your teen is facing. Ask for help when you need it and teach your teen to do the same. Support the people around you. You deserve support! The efforts you are making to be a better parent and a better human are worth it. You are doing a better job parenting than you think. Until next time, hang in there!
Lessons in Buoyancy
By Jessica Peterson
May 1, 2022
Last summer I sat on a shore by a Minnesota lake and commented on a group of scuba divers. “I’ve always wanted to do that” I said. The lady next to me said, “Don’t wait. I wanted to, and now I’ll never be able to do it.” Not one to pass up a challenge, I found myself last weekend in a recently thawed lake in Minnesota trying to pass the scuba test in a dry suit. Spoiler alert, I learned some awesome things…but failed.
One of the painful lessons was about positive and negative buoyancy. Negative buoyancy is the amount of weight needed to pull you down, and positive buoyancy brings you up enough that you don’t drag along the bottom of the lake. The dive shop didn’t plan for enough weight to pull me below the surface, and this left the instructors slipping weights into the pockets of my vest to help me with negative buoyancy. So picture my face on the top of a lake kicking like crazy while instructors are trying to pull me down into negative 40 degree water…not fun and so scary.
Relating this to interacting with my kids, I reflected on times when my teens have struggled, and if I’ve offered positive or negative buoyancy. Sometimes when my kids have struggled, I have added weight by offering feedback. For example: I know you are struggling with [insert name] have you thought about [insert idea]. When my teen asks for advice, I’ve got plenty! When they are looking for empathy, and I offer advice, I’m providing negative buoyancy or weighing them down rather than lifting them.
On the flip side, my suit had positive buoyancy built in. So, if I pushed a button, air from the heavy tank on my back filled the suit. I looked like the red Teletubby and rose to the top. What are you doing to raise up the teens in your life? They need positive messages so badly! They face harsh words from peers, teachers, coaches and so many others. Teens need our positive time, energy, thoughts, and words. Even if your teen is struggling and making choices you wish they hadn’t, you can believe in them and provide buoyancy.
Unfortunately, buoyancy wasn’t the only issue that day at the lake. The scuba joint brought the wrong shoes to the freezing party, and they didn’t fit over the Teletubby dry suit. So when I found buoyancy in the ice water, I kicked and the fin that was attached to the shoe and not my foot, tumbled to the weeds and debris at the bottom. The 50 pounds plus worth of gear and one fin were impossible to navigate. Relating that to parenting: What gear do our teens have to navigate the struggles of school, relationships, activities, and work? If they continue to struggle and the gear you put on them (skills, support, and network) is not fitting properly, get them some help. There are many good counselors that can help your child learn problem solving, relationship skills, and communication. Sometimes it can take a couple of sessions to see if it’s a good fit. Tapping into resources at school and in the community is also essential.
To end on a positive note, I passed! I went to the ocean, and with the proper gear, 80 degree water, a good divemaster, and amazing things to see, I passed easily…okay, not at all easily. It was still tough. Big waves, heavy equipment, sea sickness and breathing underwater were all a bit of a challenge. But I did it! Parenting can be really tough at times, but you are the divemaster your child needs. You can help them find the proper gear to navigate by tapping into resources and people who want to support you and your child. When you feel like you don’t have the right equipment to handle the challenges in front of you, ask for support, lean into self-compassion, find sources of positive buoyancy, and equip yourself with hope and knowledge. Until next time, hang in there. You are amazing and you are exactly who your child needs.
Finding Your Tribe
By Jessica Peterson
April 1, 2022
What do you do when you feel alone? How can you protect your teenager’s privacy while still getting the support you need? How do you make connections as an adult? If you Google suggestions on decreasing isolation in parenting, you’ll find things like, go to your local playground or host a playgroup. You can even turn to an app that will help you connect. Clearly Google is talking to the parents of younger children. When children are small, finding people who are in a similar stage of life and even having time to connect is different than when your children hit the teenage years. The race to get them where they need to go, your own responsibilities, and the needs of others compete for your energy and attention. In some ways, as your children age, you need more support than ever. Some of us find connection in our church congregations, and some of us feel lost trying to connect to other parents with teenagers. It can be especially difficult when your teen is struggling and you see the highlight reels of others. If you think everyone around you has teens that are doing well, you may be missing some details, or they may be protecting their teens’ privacy. The sense of failure comparison can create will inhibit your desire to connect with other parents. So what are some tips for connection to other adults?
Don’t limit yourself to connecting to similar aged people. I have found great connections in people who have a few years of seniority. Going to lunch, starting a book club, going to a sporting event, concert, or playing games with people who aren’t at your stage of life can provide lasting connections.
Do things you love and invite others to join you. As you connect about something other than parenting, it can help provide perspective to your current challenges. This can happen at a gym, a club, a service opportunity, a sport, or in creative arts..
When you talk about your teen, be respectful and real. Saying “Sandy is struggling, and it’s creating a strain in the family” to a friend you trust protects your child’s privacy and lets others know you are struggling. It is especially important to protect your child’s privacy online. If your teen is struggling and you post details online, it could impact their relationships with others and influence how those around them talk to and about them. A good litmus test to decide whether to post something can be imagining someone Googling your child in the future as an adult. Would you want them to find what you wrote (even if you don’t put their name, they may be linked to you) or see a picture you posted?
Get professional help for yourself and/or your family. Talking to a therapist who specializes in parenting or teens can help provide you perspective and suggestions. Because a therapist is ethically bound to keep things confidential, you can share things with them about your relationship with your child that you can’t always share with other people.
There are no perfect ways to make friends as an adult. There are no perfect friends either. It’s good to give the people around you grace as they support you imperfectly. One occasion I was speaking with someone who was struggling with connection. She talked about going to a playground with her children. There was another mother there that kept trying to talk to her. She told them something like, “I really don’t want to talk to anyone right now, I came here for some peace and quiet, please leave me alone.” It had nothing to do with how the other mother approached her or anything about the person trying to connect. I’ve often wondered how the mom took the incoming information. If it were me, I’d probably have thought maybe that I did something wrong. Sometimes when others are rejecting me or my family, I can preserve my sense of peace when I avoid mind reading and overthinking intention. I can instead think, “They must be really struggling” or “I wonder what is going on for them”.
I love The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. The book encourages us to recognize other human suffering to decrease our own pain. Desmond Tutu said, “I have sometimes said to people, when you are stuck in a traffic jam, you can deal with it in one of two ways. You can let the frustration eat you up. Or you can look around at the other drivers and see that one might have a wife who has pancreatic cancer. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know exactly what they might have, but you know they are all suffering with worries and fears because they are human. And you can lift them up and bless them. You can say, Please, God, give each one of them what they need.” Applying this to finding your tribe, if you face rejection or are struggling to connect, avoid personalizing the rejection, keep in mind that others are struggling too, and keep trying to find people you trust and enjoy. You deserve connection. You are AMAZING! You are on this earth to make a difference, and you are the person your child needs.
Escape, Yell or Lean In
By Jessica Peterson
March 1, 2022
Our brain has this way of protecting us when we feel threatened by deciding if we should “fight or flight”. Relating this phenomenon to parenting, when there is tension in the home it is tempting to yell at those causing tension (fight) or get engrossed in social media, our phones, work, or entertainment (flight). I teach an MSW class called “Human Behavior in the Social Environment.” One of my students stated that sometimes our phones are “adult pacifiers.” It’s easy to see in teens when they are getting out of things by turning to their phones or video gaming, but we do it as adults too. Of the two choices, I lean more toward flight when my teens are pushing away or being cranky. I’ve been experimenting with what Brene’ Brown calls “leaning in” and “embracing vulnerability.”
My children give me opportunities to be challenged and do better consistently. My daughter recently came home from a great experience with her youth group. She was tired, grumpy and rejecting. I was working on avoiding fight or flight. I offered empathy and understanding. I stated “It’s hard to come down from a high of having a good time to home and real life”. After several hours of showing empathy and compassion when confronted with her struggling, she was able to offer details of the experience and connect with me. If I had met her anger with anger or avoidance, I would have missed out on the opportunity to bond with her.
There are consistently opportunities to practice patience. When I try to provide corrections or suggestions, no one can reject quite like my teenagers and the feelings of vulnerability that can create are painful. “Leaning in” to those feelings means that I need to recognize the emotion and cope with it versus escaping. For example, if I ask my child to do homework, a chore or another undesired activity and they become angry, I have several options. I can get angry back, I can escape, or I can lean in. “Leaning in” while parenting happens when I identify the emotion causing distress. Maybe I say something like “I can tell I’m getting hot under the collar, and it isn’t helping the situation, so I’m going to take a quick break so I can support you better.” When I come back a short 5 to 10 minutes later saying, “Let’s try again”. Taking a quick break versus escaping can be helpful. Recognizing emotions and breaking patterns of conflict can help you draw closer to your children.
Identifying patterns of conflict that happen in your home can help you parent better. I have noticed in myself that when my child and I are under stress, we are poor problem solvers. Discuss disruptive patterns with your child during a calm moment and prepare you and your child to do something else. For example, “I can tell you get tired of [homework, chores, etc] and then we start to have conflict. I want to work on it together, I wondered if I [turned on music, gave you a snack before you got started, or talked about what we do when you get home], would it help you?” Problem solving how you can help vs. how they can change their attitude or emotion will be more productive. Problem solving together can help you feel closer.
We have watched Encanto a few times in our home. One of the themes of the movie is that when the main characters keep their pain and discomfort to themselves, their home has cracks and breaks apart. When they share the pressure they are under, they support each other. You and your children are the experts on how best to move forward. As mentioned in my last Jess’s Corner blog post, your children don’t need you to be perfect. Seeing you get it right when you can, getting it kinda right sometimes and messing up is all a part of teaching them. Start noticing your own emotions and leaning in to them. Teach your children to do the same. Until next time, hang in there. You are amazing and you are exactly who your child needs.
In the Bleak Minnesota Winter
By Jessica Peterson
February 1, 2022
The Hymn “In the Bleak mid-winter” was written in 1872 as a poem in England but it runs through my head when I’m slipping down the sidewalks in Minnesota. It is very cold here. There is little sunlight during the day. Today it was negative 32 degrees with the windchill. In order to cancel school in our district the temperature needs to be negative 35 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. In case you are sitting on a beach in Florida, that is very cold. Earlier this month, I was walking my dog on a blustery day. We had a light snowfall that covered the ice just enough that it was hard to see the safe spots to walk. I noticed that if I paid attention to where I was stepping and my “penguin form” (it’s a thing, they hand out fliers about it at work, and I even found a Youtube video about it), I was safe. If I started thinking ahead to the day or about anything else, I was toast and would start slipping around. Minnesota has “Bleak Midwinter” mastered.
Relating this to parenting, I notice that there are times when I tune in to my children wholeheartedly and times when I fall short. Children would not do well if they had one hundred percent of our attention, but they do benefit from consistent efforts. I noticed several things that can help me tune in more:
1. Making goals to with each child
2. Evaluating distractions that don’t fill my cup
3. Sharing interests, service, and hobbies with my children
First, making goals about connection. I find it helpful to write down goals. Sometimes weekly and sometimes less frequently. I try to make a connection goal with each of my children. Sometimes it’s as simple as sending a text of support or gratitude (to my adult children). Sometimes it’s to play a game with a child, watch a movie, or hang out in an activity they or I enjoy (hopefully both).
Second, evaluating distractions that take me away from being the Mom I want to be helps me stay grounded. Several years ago I uninstalled Facebook from my phone and only login if I am being intentional. I noticed a need to do that with Instagram recently as well. Someone recently said, “I notice when I start watching reels it feels important, but then an hour or more later, I don’t remember any of it and don’t feel the benefit”. When I thought about it, I realized that was true for me and the break has been refreshing. Trying to use my time in a way that matches my priorities and values helps me feel congruent.
Third, finding things that I can do with my children helps with connection. Sometimes they enjoy something more than I do. My daughter loves ice skating and sledding…outside…in Minnesota. Going together and enjoying the outdoors has been fun, although I’d probably prefer the beach. Today I had been listening to a book called A Thousand Thanks by A.J. Jacobs. I realized that every time I got in the car with my teen as I ran him to the orthodontist, band, school, and an appointment that I turned it off thinking my son would have no interest. I realized I could instead share what I was learning about gratitude and some funny stories. It wasn’t an earth shattering connection but fun to share thoughts. I have found service is the easiest connection with my kids. They care about the environment, people, and animals that suffer (they have two social work parents). So they have made and collected sandwiches for the homeless, helped build bunk beds for kids that don’t have a place to sleep, helped rescued horses, created baskets for group homes, tied blankets, made food for people near us, and served in soup kitchens. The service was important but spending time together and helping them see what is important to me was perhaps just as valuable.
Whatever you choose to do this February, be gentle with yourself. This season of uncertainty with COVID continuing to rage, cold (if you live in the frozen tundra), and winter stress is hard on everyone. Any efforts you make to tune in and pay attention can make a difference in your child’s life. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Your child does not need a perfect parent. In our book I mention one thing I firmly believe. A perfect parent would mess up your child. They would be unable to embrace their own imperfections and couldn’t handle the pressure of having a perfect parent. They need someone who loves them and keeps trying. The fact that you are reading a newsletter on parenting and looking at resources shows you are that kind of person. So keep it up! You are making more of a difference than you realize. Until next time, hang in there!
By Jessica Peterson
Jan. 1, 2022
New Years is often a time of reflection on current and past goals. I have resolutions and hope for a better year in 2022. I can always do better in relationships, and every year I resolve to do better with parenting. Many of the goals I have: healthy lifestyle, education, finances, social activities, increased service are measurable. The effort I give these types of goals often directly correlates with the outcome. With parenting the measure of success is messier. Sometimes, no matter how much effort I attempt, my child continues to struggle. I may be trying to teach a child self-regulation, patience, or kindness but because children have independence and many more influences than just my parenting—change is not consistant with my efforts alone.
Sometimes we all need to remind ourselves that efforts with parenting are not in vain. Teens need parents who believe in them, support their interests, are available, and encouraging. Unfortunately, if we blame ourselves when our children struggle or conversely, take credit when teens succeed, it can interfere with connection. Biology, trauma, life experiences, leaders, siblings, teachers, coaches, and peers also influence teen’s success and struggles. While we should always be striving to do better, we should avoid putting the onus of our “parenting success” on our children as it is not their responsibility to shoulder the burden of our emotions and hopes.
So, if watching outcomes in our teens isn’t a good measure of success, what is? Our own growth!
For example, if I want to connect more with my child, I can make goals around trying to understand their interests, attend activities that are important to them, and spend time with them. I can hope connection attempts will be reciprocated and that we will have a stronger relationship, but the only person I can change is myself. Sometimes when we are working on connection, our child is working on the important task of differentiation. In other words, they are trying to become their own person and separate from their parents.
Here’s another example. If I want to be more patient with my teen and teach them self-regulation, I might plan on the following strategy. In the next week, when my teen (insert behavior that is troubling like coming home late, saying something rude to a sibling, etc.), I will:
- Take 5 minutes to myself in my room prior to responding (especially if I notice I am not regulated).
- I will either meditate, pray, or replace negative thinking with balanced thinking when I am faced with negative thoughts about my child
- I will intentionally choose to express love and kindness to my child instead of anger or resentment
- If I make a mistake in the next week in the way I respond I will apologize and attempt to repair the mistake
Measuring that success could mean that I effectively regulated my emotions 75% of the time this week while last week it was 65% of the time. Naturally, I hope that if I am reaching parenting goals and doing better as a parent that my child will respond but I can’t use my teen’s change as a yardstick of success for my goals. I can hope that an example of self-regulation will encourage my child to also regulate. If your child doesn’t respond to your parenting efforts it might be time to do something different or you may need to give it more time. Also, it’s helpful to talk about and understand their goals for the coming year and discuss family goals.
The following are some goals for parenting in the new year:
- Read 4 parenting books
- Serve as a family once a month
- Do something alone with each child once a quarter that they would enjoy
- Express love often and look for ways to speak positively about my child to other and to them (especially watching the way you think about them)
Whatever you choose to make a goal in the coming year I hope that you will be gentle with yourself and choose to use opportunities to connect with your teen and community. A long-term goal I would encourage for all is to create a connection that is healthy into adulthood. Your teen is closer to adulthood than it seems. As you parent, keep in mind the relationship you hope for in the future. Good luck with your New Year’s resolutions.
Horse Sense & Teens
By Jessica Peterson
Dec. 1, 2021
We are excited to share our journey with you and hope you will find nuggets that will help you find hope and connection. We decided to create a newsletter to share ongoing information and to create a better sense of community with our hang-in-there crowd.
In my journey as a mother, I have found connection and learning in some wonderful places. Last week, when I was at the barn, I made a mistake. At the place I volunteer with horses, I’m a bit of a rookie, but it fills my cup. I was trying to keep a horse from entering a stall where another horse was already waiting to be fed. I hadn’t been fast enough to keep her out. Yelling didn’t stop her from pushing against me and the partially open stall door until I relented. She went immediately to the water and drank for several minutes, clearly parched. She was led to the aisle by the stable hand to find another stall and stood still. The horse then allowed me a second chance to connect as she let me pet her and coax her with my voice to an empty stall. It felt like a therapeutic moment for me. I’d felt shame in my failure to keep her from the first stall, shame that I’d misread her cues in the need to enter immediately after coming in from the field, and shame that I’d raised my voice in an unhelpful manner. Having her listen and respond prior to entering the second stall and then following her in was a balm.
I experience the same thing with my children. Sometimes, trying to connect and understand a teen who is struggling is a bit like trying to connect with a horse that is out of sorts. We don’t always know when they are tired, hungry, thirsty, or having a hard day with their teachers, peers, or coaches. Sometimes, even if I ask, I come up painfully short. In addition to the external factors that make it difficult to connect, the messages we feed ourselves following failure can also impede our ability to connect. If I say to myself, “This kid is [fill in with any negative label]” or “I am [fill in with any negative label],” my focus becomes something other than the moment we are having. I am stymied into ineffectiveness and immobility. I have found there have been seasons in each of my teens’ lives where they have struggled with a desire to connect with me. It’s a natural part of development for a teen to want to differentiate from me as a parent.
In contrast, it feels like a win to me as a Mom if I watch carefully for the times when I can connect and take advantage of opportunities. When labels about my child or myself come into my head, recognizing them as being the brain block that they are can help me to combat the labels with balanced thinking. When a child is trying to differentiate from me, recognizing it as a normal part of development can help me not take it so personally (although that is way easier said than done). Trying to understand my children’s world while driving to activities, during meals, taking walks together or finding service opportunities we both enjoy gives me time to connect with my children. Continued efforts and a sincere desire to know and appreciate my children’s strengths have been helpful. The lesson for me in the experience was that when I fail as a Mom, I need to be ready to re-connect as soon as possible. I also need to work on providing quick forgiveness for myself and my teen.