“Mom, Dad, there’s something I need to tell you . . .”
When it comes to parenting, very few phrases strike terror at the heart of a parent. Its right up there with the question, “Are you sitting down?”
Both phrases typically follow not-so-good news and imply that the receiver of the news should be immediately prepared for the unexpected. Finding out something that you did not expect from your kids can be anxiety provoking and yes, could even trigger a physiological response such as fainting or difficulty catching one’s breath—hence the importance of having a seat close by.
While rewarding, the arena of pre-teen and teen parenting is fraught with difficult and sometimes disappointing situations. Children get injured, suffer minor illnesses, get heart broken, or even worse, engage in potentially addictive or sexual behaviors that could adversely impact their future.
The number one job of a parent is to protect. But the fact remains that you cannot protect your child from everything. In today’s fast-paced world, it is likely that your child will be faced with increased pressures and even more challenging situations than we adults could ever have imagined being a part of when we were at that age.
No parent was born knowing exactly how to respond to such situations. The best shield is being as prepared as you can possibly be. Consider this response strategy:
1. Know the signs.
While it would be nice if young people were upfront with their secretive or deceptive behaviors, inherent in the very nature of deceit is the need to hide. Consequently, it is likely that your child will not be the one self-disclosing incriminating information. Often, parents receive such information by another concerned parent, a neighbor or even their child’s closest friend. Thus, it’s important to recognize the signs that indicate that your child may be in trouble.
Fluctuations in mood, personal appearance, or friend groups, as well as the sudden loss of interest in typically enjoyable activities are just a few signs. Excessive fatigue, fear, and prolonged sadness can also be indications that something may be affecting your child.
But just one word of caution, many of these symptoms also coincide with normal adolescent development. However, trust your instincts. If you sense that something is off, then it probably is.
2. Curb your anger.
Once the cat is out of the bag, take a moment to rein in feelings of intense anger or frustration. You may find yourself yelling, crying or wondering how you failed to prevent this awful thing from happening. Perfectly understandable reactions, but not necessarily helpful.
During crisis situations, children take their cues from their parents. So, don’t forget to breathe. A common saying amongst family therapists is, “Freak out on the inside, not on the outside . . .”
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Yes, they may have messed up. And, maybe even big time. However, now is not the time to overreact. That reaction may trigger an automatic shutdown. If you don’t know what to say, say nothing. It’s actually okay to say, “I have no words right now.” You can reserve the right to (and should) revisit the conversation when you’ve had some time to process and are feeling calmer.
3. Listen for understanding.
Respond like a friend and not a parent . . . at least initially. This is hard. And what does it really mean? Respond with curiosity and listen with empathy. This is the opportunity to listen carefully in order to gain not only a full understanding of the situation, but how your child feels about the situation, and what they believe is the best course of action.
Of course, there are certain situations that require a shorter listening period and a quicker response time. If your teen discloses drug use, self-harming behaviors, or sexual activity, it is best to intervene quickly and even seek a professional for guidance.
However, the initial response should be a response, not a reaction. Listen empathically to what your child is facing. Ask for clarification if you don’t understand something. A simple strategy is: the less you talk, the more your child will talk.
4. Avoid Excessive Criticism.
Parenting is one of those unique relationships where your role is to not only love and protect, but also to constantly correct. Part of our role as parents is to help our children to develop good character traits: Be kind and respectful to others and to yourself, mind your manners, always tell the truth no matter what. Discovering information that goes against what you’ve worked so hard to instill can be disappointing and very upsetting.
While the desire to point out faults or compare one child to the other may be tempting, expressions of disapproval and displeasure should be displayed sparingly. It’s hard for many of us adults to handle an onslaught of criticism, but even more difficult for an adolescent. If your child is coping with a difficult situation, they are probably already feeling hyper-sensitive and vulnerable to any perceived slight.
5. Express Empathy.
Being a teen right now is by no means easy. Young people encounter complex situations that would be difficult for anyone to navigate, much less someone who’s identity is still developing. The pressures are real and mounting. There’s probably nothing that a parent can say or do that will immediately relieve all the pressures that pre-teens and teens face, so it is important to begin by simply acknowledging your child’s reality.
As shocked or upset as you may be, remind your child that he or she is not alone. Do as much research as possible on whatever your child is facing to get a better idea of what they may be dealing with and how best to respond. Reinforce the positive qualities that you see in them that will enable them to progress from this current situation.
Avoid saying, “I warned you something like this would happen,” or “You’ve probably ruined your life.” Instead, test out one of these phrases:
- “I’m so sorry you are going through this.”
- “This must be really hard for you, it’s tough for me too.”
- Nod as they are talking and say, “Uh, huh,” until you feel it’s appropriate to add something like “I know this feels big right now but there are options.”
- “What can we do to help?”
6. Find out their plan.
Once you’ve researched what they are facing and before you offer to rescue them from the situation, find out how they plan to address the problem. Chances are that your child has analyzed and reanalyzed the issue prior to you even suspecting there was an issue! They may even have discovered a resolution.
As you dialogue about the situation and find out what your teen views as potential solutions, you will be supporting and equipping your youth with necessary skills as they journey towards adulthood. It is through struggle and adversity that teens learn how capable they really are!
However, there is a distinction between risky behavior and healthy exploration. It is important to emphasize that the difference between the two can come down to one poor decision.
Parents, you don’t have to do this alone. Seek professional guidance from a therapist or a minister to learn how to recognize early signs of a mental health issue so that you can take steps to prevent mild symptoms from tuning into larger problems.
Bad things can happen to any kid, and any family. Good kids make bad decisions. Your child’s poor choice is not necessarily a reflection of poor parenting. The strongest family can one day find themselves facing unexpected or distressful news. No one can predict the outcome of any situation. Remember, failing is a part of success—and a part of growing up.
If you recognize an error that you’ve made from this list, please know that you are in excellent company. The good news is that children are very forgiving of parental missteps and there’s always hope that with appropriate interventions, the outcome can result in strengthened family relationships.
Moreover, a good parent-child relationship, centered around effective communication and expressions of love, can eventually help to resolve even what initially appears to be distressful news.