I had an eye-opening experience a few weekends ago at my daughter’s 16th Birthday party.
A little history: my daughter started her “own business” in the sense that she is piercing her friends’ ears. At first I thought “There is no way this is happening!” I didn’t want to be responsible for the other children — and quite honestly, it freaked me out. But our daughter learned from a friend, and it’s actually worked out well. Now she has it down to a T, and is very skilled at piercing. It’s cute, because she is taking such pride in doing it correctly! (Obviously, we have her friends ask their parents before she pierces their ears.)
At my daughter’s slumber party, I asked the girls who were getting their ears pierced if they had permission from their parents. (This was the last thing they were going to do before bed.) Only one girl had asked her mom, but the two other girls hadn’t. I told them I didn’t think that was a good idea for them to get their ears pierced in that case, and that Madelynn, my daughter wouldn’t be able to do it. Then I asked the girls why they didn’t just ask their moms and they said it was because “We know our moms will freak out.”
They were saying that it wasn’t even the fact that they would say no that bothered them — it was the actual freaking out they dreaded. Curious, I asked some more questions like, “What do you mean she’ll freak out?” “How do you know she’ll freak out?” and “Why would she freak out?” The girls all joined in and started saying, “We don’t tell our moms things like Mady tells you. Our Moms freak out and get all worked up and don’t even let the discussion happen. They are so close-minded; they just cut us off.”
One girl said, “Gina, you asked me earlier if I had a boyfriend or if I liked a boy and I said ‘no,’ but the truth is that I do. But I’m so used to lying to my mom about stuff like that that I just lied to you. If my mom knew that, she’d freak out, and wouldn’t allow me to have a boyfriend.” (There they go again with the words “FREAK OUT.”) I asked more questions: “Why would they mind if you had a boyfriend?” “Why won’t they have a discussion with you about it?” “Why wouldn’t they just have a conversation with you about it, to look at all the options and see which is the healthiest and best for you?”
They said they thought their moms didn’t trust them and that they just wanted to control them. One of my daughter’s friends is on her way to 17 and she hasn’t even gotten her permit to drive yet. Her mom will not allow her to get her license because of her fears of teens driving.
The girls continued by saying that they wished they could talk to their moms and tell them things and be truthful and share. My heart went out to these girls. I felt so bad for all of them. And here’s why:
These girls don’t have the trust and the safety that they ought to have with their mothers. Sure, some of the girls might have done things to lose their parents’ trust and to create friction with them. But even if that is the case, open discussions should still be happening. Children need to know they can go to their parents no matter what. So even if any of these girls had messed up in the past, I think the response from their parents is huge. It builds the foundation of what your teen will share with you in the future.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things my daughter has done to lessen my trust in her — things that were inappropriate and that she was disciplined for. But my responses were respectful, calm, and fair. I tried to ask questions about the situation and never accused her. I made it more of a two-way conversation and an open discussion, because otherwise, I knew she would shut down.
As parents, we’ve got to give our kids a reason to trust us. That might sound backwards because for so long parents have been conditioned to use control tactics and power to discipline their kids. Instead, I believe we need to walk with our teens. When we think about walking with someone, we think of it as a side-by-side journey and learning experience. Don’t stand too far in front of them judging, accusing and yelling, but don’t lag too far behind using shame from their past mistakes or throwing bad behavior from their childhood in their faces. Our kids need to know that we will listen and stay open to whatever they need to share with us!
Sure, maybe a lot of what they end up sharing will scare us, and instantly put our fear into gear, but there is a way to teach, discipline, talk and share together without creating fear. So much of it starts with acceptance.
I can see how the mother of the almost 17-year-old wouldn’t want her “baby” to drive. I completely understand. My daughter just got her license last week and I’ve been a nervous wreck, (although the tension is easing). But we have to accept things that we don’t like. And like the mother whose daughter actually does like a boy but couldn’t tell her mother because she is afraid she’ll “freak out” and tell her she can’t have a boyfriend — I have valid fears and concerns when it comes to my daughter and her boyfriend. But that’s inevitable in the process of healthy letting go and building trust with open communication. The more we scare our kids off and the less trust we give them, the more we will stunt their full growth into responsible, truthful, whole people.
And it’s got to start somewhere. My sister asked a good question recently: “How did Madelynn earn your trust? It must have started somewhere, because she feels safe enough with you to share the important decisions and things going on in her life.”
My answer? It starts at a young age. Most of the issues and mishaps occurred in Middle School. One day I came home to a house full of kids when my daughter was around 12 or 13, and at that point, she wasn’t allowed to have friends over when we weren’t home. After they all left (which I made them do immediately), instead of “freaking out” I remained calm and asked her questions like, “What were they doing here if they weren’t supposed to be?” “Why do you think you’d make a choice like that?” “Can you understand where I’m coming from?” “Do you see how you made a mistake?”
By asking these questions I showed my daughter respect, but I also walked through the process of her mistakes and bad choices with her. I didn’t shame her by yelling things like “What do you think you were doing?” “What were you thinking?!” “Why would you be so stupid?” “You’re in big trouble”—things like this will get us nowhere with our kids.
After all, our kids want to know they can talk to us. They need to know that it’s okay if they make mistakes, and that they can learn from those mistakes and make better choices in the future. It’s not as if I don’t punish my daughter or discipline her, but if I’m focused on yelling and on the fact of how wrong she is and don’t let her speak, I am shutting her voice out. And I’m not giving myself a chance to be trusted in the future, either.
Each experience builds on top of another. I showed my daughter at a young age that when she does something wrong, or when she has something to share with me that I might not want to hear, she is able to trust me with it. I’ve given her a safe place to fall. Especially in the teen years when kids can be so fragile but are also becoming more independent, this is doubly important.
Your response really does matter. Try not to freak out when your child says something. Instead, remain calm and listen. You may have to discipline them and give consequences, but your response in the moment should be as objective as possible. We have to give our kids a reason to talk to us, not a reason for them to shut us out.
About Gina Norma
Gina Norma grew up in St. Paul MN, and enjoys art, reading, traveling, thrift shopping, picnics, volunteering and spending time with her 17-year-old. One day she hopes to go to Italy, attend college, and solve world hunger. Gina says, “To me, parenting is all about building relationships with our kids and walking along side them — not trying to control them or use shame.” You can read Gina’s blog at www.walkwithyourteen.blogspot.com.