“Let me do it. I can do it! Let me try…. I want to try!” is both a familiar and endearing toddler refrain. Young children are wired to ask questions and explore their world. As kids grow older and social expectations set in, the stakes become higher. And often we, as adults, are not as comfortable “letting” children do, try and get curious about solving problems on their own. Once they seem hesitant, we are all too ready to leap in, fix and give advice. But should we?
Parents play a vital role in coaching their children through life’s ups and downs. A recent Yale University study found that how parents react to their children’s stress can have a huge impact on creating or diminishing anxiety. By adopting a coaching mentality and asking guiding questions, parents can help their teens develop the life compass they need to confidently navigate the challenges that lie ahead.
Of course, when it is YOUR child who comes home upset, it can be hard to think clearly and respond calmly in the moment. I’ve spent the last thirty years working with middle, high school and college students. When a young person comes to me upset, I still have to remind myself to pause, take a deep breathe, and let their “glitter settle” before engaging in any coaching. Here are two pieces of practical wisdom that help me as I work with teens and young adults -- and that might help you as you parent them.
Be Mindful of Your First Reactions
“I have no friends.” Your daughter was happy when you dropped her off in the morning, but at pick up she slumps into the front seat. You ask how her day was, and she mumbles “fine.” As you round the corner, out of sight from school, her true feelings tumble out. She missed an end of summer party while you were on family vacation, and now she feels out of the loop. Her best friend isn’t in any of her classes. To top it off, a teacher put her in a group with all new students and asked her to show them the ropes -- but it’s not fair that she is expected to help other people when she feels so out of touch herself. Doesn’t anyone care about her feelings?
Her complaints are crushing, especially since you know how much she was looking forward to returning to school. You can’t help but feel a little upset too; after all, you know from experience how important friendships are in middle school and high school. Or, maybe you feel a little impatient that she has been let down so easily. It’s only the first month of school. And why wouldn’t she want to help the new students? You have all kinds of ideas and advice bubbling up inside of you, but when you offer your wisdom, she yells, “You just don’t understand!”
It’s only human for parents to have strong emotional reactions when their child is in distress. We may be tempted to commiserate, but getting too emotionally involved can make an issue feel bigger than it actually is. Likewise, offering what we see as a quick solution can inadvertently disempower your children, depriving them of the practice they need to resolve issues independently and grow in confidence.
Experts remind us--and my own experience confirms this--that the most effective response is one that validates your children’s feelings and experiences while coaching them from the sidelines. Many times, parents need not say much. A simple, sympathetic “I hear you. That must be tough” is often all the help they need to begin to resolve a problem on their own. Psychologist Lisa Damour offers this wonderful phrase to use when you don’t know what else to say: “That stinks. How do you want to handle it?” Then give them the space to respond--even if it takes a few days.
Keep Your Eye on the Why
“The class is just too hard. There is a lot of reading, three papers, a project with classmates I don’t know. And my teacher doesn’t like me.”
History was your daughter’s favorite subject. For years, she has talked about becoming an anthropologist. But this year the assignments overwhelm her, and she has been assigned a major group project with students she doesn’t know well. To make matters worse, she seems to have started off on the wrong foot with her teacher. Not only is your daughter’s enthusiasm for history taking a turn, her attitude toward school in general seems to be waning. And she takes out all of her frustrations on the family.
Parents can’t help but feel discouraged when their daughter appears stuck in a losing game. While it may be tempting to jump in and intervene -- calling the teacher to complain or becoming overly involved in her homework -- keep your coach’s hat on.
Instead of proposing solutions, ask questions:
- What bothers you most about this situation?
- What are you aiming at? What would you like to see happen?
- This is a big/exciting/difficult challenge. How do you break this down? What’s one step you can take right away?
- What support do you need from me (or someone else)?
When teens feel heard and are encouraged to tackle problems independently, they grow in confidence. And that’s what we, as adults, are aiming at: helping children use their freedom well, so they can mature into responsible, flourishing adults who have the courage and tools they need to navigate life’s challenges.