We all wonder how to connect to our kids when they go through changes, face obstacles, or find new (and perhaps worrisome) friends. We all wonder how to discuss issues at school, behavior at home, and the usual teen and preteen angst. And we may find it even harder to discuss behavior that’s beyond the usual angst.
The first thing every parent needs to remember is that none of us is perfect. These questions are hard and none of us is always spot on. But I think that there are a few critical ground rules to bear in mind that can help us with these difficult conversations. Why these rules? Well, they are the same principles I apply every time I meet someone really in need, and, after decades of practice, I’ve found them to be pretty effective.
One: Sorry folks, kids don’t have an absolute right to privacy.
I meet a lot of parents who are hesitant to look into their kids’ digital lives. They’re scared to violate their children’s privacy and independence, and maybe they’re afraid their kids will hate them. There’s just one problem: the world is dangerous. And just as we are obliged to feed and shelter our kids, it’s our duty to protect them online too. Kids may not always get that. But that’s ok—that’s why we’re the parents.
We live in an era of sexting, app-based marijuana delivery, and on social media, almost constant online contact with strangers. But just because they’re out there doesn’t mean your child can effectively handle these issues. And you’ll be the only person on the outside: apps, social media networks, friends and contacts, and others can all see what your child does online. Why shouldn’t you? For parenting resources to help your kids manage technology in health ways, visit the SBFC Technology and Social Media page.
Two: Your kids may be hiding from you—be open to who they really are.
Nothing is more life-affirming than to be seen just as you are—and nothing will connect you to your kids more than accepting them for who they really are. In my experience, a critical protective factor for kids is an accepting parent-child relationship. And almost every case I see involves a breakdown in communication somewhere within the family. But restoring that connection, even if it seems hard at first, yields real results.
Have dinner together or talk one-on-one before bed—just carve out time to listen, appreciate, and show love. It’s that connection that will allow you both to learn who your child really is and to effectively discipline your children when it’s needed.
Three: We adults are overwhelmed. But your child is more overwhelmed.
Teenagers are surging with hormones. The brain functions that allow adults to think clearly, to control our emotional responses, and to plan for the future are all going haywire in a teenage brain. Add to that the endless anxiety of grades, sports, APs, tutors, friend groups, social media, and sexual pressure...
We know that in our community there’s a lot of pressure for kids to perform well and get into the “right” college. But it’s essential for us to listen when a child just needs to opt out. Your child could be overwhelmed, or it could be a sign that something else is wrong. Listen, understand, and try to get to the bottom of it. Even if it’s just too much on their plate, your child will be healthier and happier taking things down a notch, finding time to approach what they most love and to do it mindfully and intentionally. For related resources, visit SBFC’s Mindful Parenting page.
Four: Work effectively to change bad behaviors before things go wrong.
When kids break the rules, our goal should be correcting the behavior rather than mere punishment. This includes truly accepting responsibility, understanding the impact of the actions, and getting to the heart of the problem. I’ve found that discipline that makes the child take responsibility and make amends is more successful in altering behavior for the better and avoiding repeat offenses.
Here’s what NOT to do when you want to correct your teen’s behavior: don’t share your own stories of teenage misadventures to try to seem relevant. You think you’re helping by telling your kid you also smoked pot or looked at porn or had sex as a teen? Well, the pot you smoked was one-twentieth as potent, it was inconceivable that it could be laced with opiates, and it never looked like gummy bears. Checking out your dad’s old magazines is just not equivalent to watching hardcore online porn. And that teenage romance? Probably wasn’t caught on film by a cell phone camera and texted throughout the school.
And remember, sometimes the heart of the problem isn’t something kids can solve on their own. Bullying is real, and in the digital age, it’s not just about standing up for yourself on the schoolyard. It can be seriously challenging to deal with. Then our kids really need our understanding and our help. Do not stop until the conditions cease. Understand that kids who are bullied mercilessly can be driven towards illegal or self-harming behavior.
So, what’s the takeaway? The key to helping our kids is to understand them, even when their underlying goodness and sweetness is not apparent, and insecurities and traumas are overwhelming their good sense. We achieve understanding through seeing our kids as they are, listening to what they say, spending time with them, talking honestly and openly, and respecting them while remembering it’s still our job to protect them—both on and offline.
Only then can we differentiate when bad behavior is a blip or a mishap or a trend. Then, we can truly help our kids to fulfill their potential, be secure, and thrive.
by Joan Stein Jenkins, Esq.
About Joan and this blog: Joan wrote this blog for SBFC shortly after she spoke to a Los Angeles-area audience on her restorative justice-based approach to juvenile prosecution and her philosophy of effective justice, which to her means getting to the heart of the problem. After her talk, a parent asked, “I really appreciate your approach, but what can I do to help my kids before they get into enough trouble to see you?” Joan was inspired by the question because it’s something we all face as parents today. According to Joan, “Ultimately, it’s about finding out what’s happening with a young person, solving that problem, healing those wounds, and forging a new path.” - Laura Short McIntire, Founder, the Families Connected Project