This past Thursday we kicked off our Middle School Parent Survival meeting and a wonderful group of parents came to listen and share. While we all agreed that middle school can be some of the best years of parenting, they can also come with unique challenges. We focused on tools to manage anxiety and reactivity. Here are a few
- Find the key that unlocks your child’s mind and heart. Every kid has a time of day or a situation where they are comfortable opening the flood gates and sharing what is on their heart. The challenge is that each kid is different and sometimes they change the locks as they grow! Some kids open up on a long road trip, some open up when it is time for bed and you are ready for ‘me time.’ Some pick an inopportune moment like when you are trying to rush them out the door for school. But most kids have a key and as a parent, you can study your child and try to discern when they are ready to talk and then jump on it. This can be quite a challenge, for example, if when you are tucking a kid in, his or her mouth starts running while your brain starts snoozing, but it is worth the effort to connect with your child. It will likely involve inconveniencing yourself, or even planning an excuse to be in a car for a few hours. It is worth the extra effort.
- The Important Question. When adolescents are bent out of shape and tangled in their emotions, the immediate response from parents is usually to “fix it”. However, as teens are trying to strengthen their own sense of self, the most powerful question you can ask is simple. “What do you want to do about it?” This simple question may take more time, but communicates to the adolescent that he or she has what it takes to navigate this obstacle. The role of a parent is to help process and sort rather than solve and this can take some discipline if you tend toward being a ‘fixer’ or if your own anxiety about your child’s situation infects your ability to coach rather than solve.
- The Power of Debrief and Repair. Often times things can escalate quickly and as you reflect on your encounter, you either regret how you dealt with your child or your child dealt with you in a way that violates your family values. The moment of escalation is often the worst time to address it, but once you have calmed down and allowed your child to calm down (which could be literally days later, not minutes) you can revisit the encounter with your child. One simple approach is to not focus on content, but on process, so you don’t so much debrief the topic but the way you relate to each other. If you come in as a fellow culprit, and not a victim, and if you are able to remain non anxious as your child gets defensive, you can gain a lot of ground together. Especially if your pattern is recurring, you can say, “I have noticed that we have this same recurring pattern and I’m interested in us both changing it.” As in most of these situations, this takes some practice, but the absolute magic sauce of this working is to remove the heat and anxiety from your own self before beginning this conversation. As the flight attendants remind us, “first place the oxygen mask on your own face before helping others.”
- Move past the behavior to discern what your child needs, or thinks they need. One of the biggest challenges in parenting is not reacting to behavior and accusation and being able to look past it to what your child needs or thinks they need. This, like the examples above, takes some practice! You can connect with your child by helping name the emotion he or she is experiencing. This helps the child feel seen in the moment and can be a step in de-escalating the situation. Then, you can move to conversations around next steps.
These tools are of course the ‘long game’ in that they are all designed for slowly turning the wheel of development, rather than expecting immediate change in behavior or attitude. Sometimes your child will simply act in a way that it unacceptable to you, but even then, you will generally get further if you manage your own reactivity before responding.
Most of us listen to content, but react to process, so if you can take note of when you are anxious and what triggers your own anxiety, and if you can manage that and then engage your child, you will generally get further.