Do you live with a teenager? Or do you have children that you get on with pretty well right now but are worried that this harmony may disappear if they morph into Kevin the teenager? Teens get a pretty bad press but it’s not a given that when puberty strikes your child will turn into an alien creature who bites your head off when you ask how was their day.
I am running a workshop on Teens and Boundaries tomorrow evening and when I was preparing for it I reflected on how the teenage years were in my own family. My three now-adult kids did not conform to the stereotype of rude, self-absorbed, risk-taking, idle adolescents. If you ask teenagers about their parents you may be surprised to find a stereotype there too. We don’t listen to them, we don’t understand them, we think we can control them (and we can’t), we think we’re funny (and apparently we’re not!) and we are SO unreasonable.
Of course adolescents are not all the same, any more than their parents. Some we have to force into the shower, some we have trouble getting out of the bathroom; some won’t do their homework while others are super diligent and work themselves into a lather about school work; many find it hard to get up in the morning but are on social media half the night; many will forget mathematical formulae but be able to recount word for word the script to their latest favourite movie; some will spend their free time lolling on the sofa while others are into every sport imaginable; some will hang out with their gang while others have just one bestie, and some have trouble making friends.
But one thing that all adolescents do have in common is great change going on in their lives. Their mission (and they can’t not accept it) is to transform from a child into an adult. This means figuring out who they are for themselves; they are no longer just a child, a member of your family. They have to work out a new adult identity, a set of beliefs and opinions, separate from parents and younger siblings, and learn to make decisions independently. And the hormones and brain changes of adolescence don’t make it easy.
Living with a teenager is much easier for our teens as well as for us if we accept the following realities:
Teens need their parents’ support to navigate through these turbulent times. They need us to be understanding and compassionate. They need us not to take it personally when they are hyper-critical of us (not easy with the sensitivities that can come with middle age) and to read every failure to do what we ask as a sign of disrespect. We have to think about other possible reasons for them not taking a shower/finishing their homework/ feeding the dog how and when we want them to. We have to support them in their mission to become responsible adults by giving them the right amount of independence. How much control we let our kids have is a judgment we make of each individual on a daily basis and it isn’t easy. We will get it wrong. Often.
Finally to parent a teenager successfully is about accepting that it is more about long term influence than short term control. Hopefully we will have laid the foundations of good communication and connection when they were younger (and if not, it isn’t too late). If there is a positive relationship between us then our teens will accept our influence, eventually, if not in the moment. That connection lies mainly in our listening to them, accepting their perspective, assuming their good intentions and acknowledging the good things they do. Even if we have to uphold a rule they don’t like if we explain our values respectfully (and they see us living by those values) then they will accept it if we empathise and acknowledge their perspective. “I know you think I’m being unreasonable about insisting you come to Granny’s on Saturday when you’d rather go to Sophie’s. I know it’s important to you. I get that. I want you to come with us because Granny hasn’t seen you for a long time and in this family we care about each other. How about I drive you around to Sophie’s after the lunch?”
I was lucky enough to discover The Parent Practice skills before my kids hit their teens and it was a lovely period for us where I really enjoyed their ideas, their sense of humour and their energy…if not their music…H
Yesterday there was a general election in Australia and the Labor party was widely predicted to win it. They had gone into the election with an unusually detailed set of policies for social and tax reform. In a shock result they were defeated and of course today analysts are poring over the loss to try to understand what happened.
You may wonder why I’m talking about an election result, particularly at a time when people across the world are expressing disenchantment with politicians. Well it’s because an election gives us a great opportunity to explore loss, defeat, and failure. In the developed world we are very focused on winning and certainly the new government and its supporters will be celebrating but if we don’t pay attention to failures not only are we likely to make the same mistakes again but we miss an opportunity to see that it’s not the wins or the losses that define us but what we do thereafter.
The leader of the ALP made a very gracious speech accepting that his party had lost, in which he acknowledged the hurt and the loss of the vision he had for his country, he congratulated the prime minister on his win and sincerely wished him and his family well and good fortune and good courage in the service of his country and he said that all had a responsibility to respect the result. He thanked many people who had helped in the campaign and he generously stood aside to make room for a new leader to lead the party to a future victory. He was very focused on the idea of success next time.
There is much to learn from this for our children. Children, like adults, experience failure on a daily basis and it is up to us as parents to teach them how to regard losses.
There are some very different approaches to failures. In one approach failure is just not an option. Success is defined by winning or high grades or scores and that is regarded as the goal, if not the only acceptable outcome. The focus is relentlessly on results. When a child comes home from school and we ask “How did the spelling test go?” we mean “what was your score?” The first question we ask after a sporting match is “Did you win?” Asking “what level are you on in the reading scheme?” rather than “did you enjoy that book?” is prioritising their place in the hierarchy over appreciation of stories and words and the truths expressed in them. This tells our children that winning matters, above all else. It prioritises results over enjoyment of the activity and whatever they may learn from participation in that activity. Coming first is more important than collaboration; your friends are your competitors; you have to do what it takes to get an edge over them. It sends the message that I am most interested in the end result. It is your performance that gets my attention and my approval. We unintentionally give the message that our regard is conditional.
When this happens not only can our children experience tremendous pressure and stress but they also do not learn to cope with failure. They do not learn that there is anything noble in defeat. They learn that it is to be avoided. And since it can’t be avoided they may learn to cover it up. They may learn to cheat so that failures can’t be seen or they may not be able to admit failures to themselves, thereby taking away any opportunity to learn from them. They develop a fixed mindset. This is the term coined by Professor Carol Dweck to refer to an attitude to learning characterised by a belief that intelligence is innate and fixed. People with fixed mindsets attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so. Students who hold a fixed mind-set, are concerned about looking smart with less regard for real learning. They have negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something is a sign of low ability. They think that a person with talent or intelligence does not need to work hard to do well.
In his book Black Box Thinking Matthew Syed explores two different approaches of industries to failures. He looks at how the aviation industry looks at any aircraft failure, especially crashes, very closely to see what can be learned to avoid future problems. He also looked at the medical profession where in surgery in many countries a culture of cover up has developed with a failure to admit mistakes. The different approaches stem from an attitude toward failure.
Sometimes people who find failures difficult don’t cover up their failures but embrace them. Since success gets so much air time they may believe that everyone else is successful, especially if they believe the carefully curated pictures of lives on social media. That makes one’s personal failures doubly difficult since we think we’re the only ones getting it wrong, when in fact failing is the norm. They believe that they are failures and their low self-confidence prevents them from trying anything new or persevering with anything difficult. They believe that they can’t do it. They may protect themselves by living within very narrow parameters and not exposing themselves to failures, whether socially, academically or in professional life. Some protect themselves further by self-criticism –we make sure that there is nothing our critics could tell us that we have not already fully taken on board.
The defeated politician I mentioned at the start modelled a different approach. This is a model of a successful life as one in which we live with purpose and we throw ourselves into projects that give our lives meaning. We do our best and if that doesn’t achieve a goal we acknowledge the hurt and we have the courage to look at it and learn from it. And then we go forward with self-compassion, hope and determination to try again. All of this depends on having a growth mindset where effort is respected and failures not feared.
We can create this model for our children in the way we approach results and talk about failures. Above all else our children need to know that making mistakes (including in day to day interactions with others) is part of being human. We need to model a failure-tolerant attitude that includes:
So go forth and fail with equanimity and with grace!