Standing in the Trader Joe's check-out line, with a mind full of bills to pay and tasks to complete, a silver-haired woman smiled down at the sleeping baby strapped to my chest and said, "Don't blink. It all goes by so fast." As parents, we've all heard these sentiments and we've marveled in our own disbelief at how quickly time passes with children. A decade has passed since I first began hearing the "revel every parenting moment" remarks, and although I have savored my fair share of sweet moments, I have also crafted plenty of escape plans for the moments I felt were only marginally bearable.
If you are a parent, then you know the moments I'm talking about. There's the "it's time to get out the door and 'Mommy, I can't find my shoes!'" moment, or the, "It's bedtime and "No, I won't brush my teeth!" moment, or how about the "dinner needs to get on the table and "Daddy, I was playing with it first!" moment. In all these parenting moments, only one thing is for certain, life's clock continues ticking no matter how sweet or unsavory the present moment presents itself.
Years ago, I joined ACT for Families (formerly Saturday Circus) in an attempt to prolong the alarming emergence of grey hair I was sure parenting three young children was responsible for. As I learned to structure our mornings and encourage the children, our "getting out the door" parenting hassles were replaced with an abundance of moments I deemed revel-worthy, and a mindfulness tool we practiced in class, Notice 5 Things, helped me see, hear and feel all that sweetness. Notice 5 Things has also helped me to "see the possibilities" when I am stressed, and this practice has come in handy time and time again.
Recently, I was sharing with my family around the dinner table how overwhelmed I had been that morning. I was late teaching my childbirth class and a critical component of the class, my laptop, was seemingly nowhere to be found. I told them how I searched high and low while my mind berated itself for not being prepared earlier. I told them how my mind even said, "maybe one of these small children hid it somewhere." Our minds do and say wacky things when we're stressed, I told them. "But just then", I said, "I remembered, 'Notice 5 Things!'" "I stopped everything and began noticing five things I could see, 1) The clock on the wall, 2) the pumpkins on the counter, 3) my laptop...MY LAPTOP, right in front of me!!!" I had been so stressed and was so caught up in my thoughts that I could not see it sitting in plain view. Shoveling forkfuls of enchiladas, we all had a good laugh as I recounted how I hadn't even made it to five things before the mystery had been solved.
Then, the next day, those years of easy, sweet getting-to-school mornings dissolved when the ten-year old's first band practice began at an hour the children found unjust, and this mother was admittedly unprepared for the pièce de résistance that ensued. Stressed and overwhelmed, I found myself nagging and cajoling, two parenting behaviors that had never proven useful in these situations, yet here they were cropping up again and only serving to fan the flames. As the sense of urgency to "just get out the door" boiled, I angrily demanded, "put on your jacket, grab your lunch, and GO!" Then, instantly I said, "Wait, I'm sorry. I feel so angry and stressed out right now and I don't like the way I'm acting." My seven-year old said, excitedly, "Mommy! Notice 5 Things!" "Oh yeah! Okay," I said out loud, "I see, one...the clock, two...the pumpkins." Then, after pausing to admire puffy toddler cheeks, I continued, "three...Stella," and two big brown eyes, "four...Miles", and finally, a prideful grin, "five...Julian." I dropped to the living room floor and as they climbed on and wrapped me in hugs, I said, "I'm not feeling angry anymore. I feel worried I won't get you to school on time, but you are more important to me than getting to school on time."
Three bright-smiled children prepared to head out to the minivan, and I continued noticing; wet kisses lingering on my cheeks, the black velvet interior of a trumpet case, a small voice saying "I help carry that, Juwean," a blue monster backpack, a woosh of chill morning air, falling red maple leaves, a grey door sliding open, and finally, a sweet, sweet sound, "Mommy, are you coming?"
If you miss being close to your teenager; if you miss the way her face lit up when you came home from work; the way that he’d hug you at bedtime like he’d never let go, you are not alone: your child misses you too. Adolescence marks a time of loss for both parents and kids. As teens establish their own sense of identity and move through the natural process of separation from their parents, their interests shift from home to the outside world of school and friends.
Your teen may become more critical of you. You may be surprised by your teen’s emotional outbursts. It is normal for parents to feel hurt and confused amidst of these changes and to react with anger. Unfortunately reacting with anger will only succeed in pushing your teen further away. On the other hand, if you stop to appreciate all your teen is going through, the new behaviors might even begin to make sense to you.
Recent research reveals that teens experience major reorganization within the frontal regions of the brain, affecting how they manage their behavior and emotions. Charles Nelson, director of the Center for Neurobehavioral Development at the University of Minnesota, says, “[Teens] themselves are sometimes surprised at what flies out of their mouth. The reason for these things is that they're feeling things before they can regulate and even articulate what it is they're feeling.” Changes underlying the control of emotions and behavior are particularly strong in early adolescence and tend to become less pronounced as teens reach adulthood.
What does this mean for you as the parent of a teen? Although your child may seem annoyed by your mere presence, he needs your guidance. The brain is receptive to experience throughout the teen years. There's enormous capacity for change – and tremendous opportunity. How can you stay connected and be your child’s friendly guide during the teen years?
(1) Have fun together. Let your teen know that you want to spend time together. Schedule time s/he can count on, doing activities you both enjoy together.
(2) Express faith in your child’s abilities. Ask yourself: What’s an area in my teen’s life where I need to give up some control and give over some responsibility? Consider how you will approach your teen about this change. Often it’s helpful to begin by describing how you have contributed to the problem: “I’ve noticed that every time you get behind in school, I tend to take over. Do you have some ideas about how you’d like to organize things differently?
(3) Be accessible. Your teen does care about what you think, even if it’s not apparent. Show your child that you care. Set firm limits on negative emotions and behavior, but be careful to manage your own negative emotions in the process. This is easier to do when you realize that such negative behavior reflects vulnerability. If you take a deep dive, you will find the feeling behind the presenting misbehavior is just the opposite of what it appears. Just as the Halloween cat seems so fierce and strong with its fur standing on end, your teen’s show of power and defiance reflects someone who feels scared, criticized, unsure, hurt, or discouraged. When you respond with calm understanding rather than anger, your child will feel safer about opening up to you, and more receptive to considering your point of view.
Laura Backen Jones, Ph.D.
Laura Backen Jones