Parenting From Fear Can Be Crippling

Years ago I attended a Tony Robbins conference. It was a pretty intense three days and over the years, one of the biggest things that stuck with me was the idea that fear is crippling. Imagine walking into a room with about 350 other people, and hearing someone say, “You are going to walk on fire tonight!” I waited for the metaphor, but quickly realized that this really was the plan. Even though I immediately turned to my husband and said, “I’m not going to walk on fire tonight”, I actually did.

Some would say  that success has everything to do with the scientific fact that our bodies have a relatively high heat capacity, and coals and hardwoods are very good insulators. From this point of view, a person with “normal” soles won’t get burned as long as the coals are the right temperature and he or she can walk quickly across. Others would say that a person has to be in the right state of mind to produce enough energy to deflect the fire.  They have to believe they are mentally prepared and capable. Regardless of one’s belief, our instincts tell us, “Don’t walk on fire or you will get burned“.   Putting that fear aside required avoiding negative self-talk, and breaking through limiting beliefs about my ability do it.  It required trusting that what seems true in theory was also true in practice.

If you are interested, here is a little clip on the controversy and intended effect of fire walking.

How does this relate to parenting teens?  Being the parent of a teenager, you have probably noticed that your teenager is more independent.  Both in how they act and what they think, they are searching to better understand themselves and their place in this world.  Letting them do this can be very scary for parents. They may try on different styles, music, or friendship groups. They may explore different classes or job opportunities. They may even scare you at times because they say or do things that seem contradictory to the teen you believe you know so well.   As alarming as all this can seem,  parenting from this place of fear can backfire on you! This is because fear often prompts parents to respond with anger, hostility, frustration or shameful undertones. This type of reaction from parents can develop into fear in the teenagers themselves.  In other words, teens that feel as though they are going to be yelled at or shamed may choose to exclude their parents from the circle of influence all together. They may lie, withhold information, or even act out to  show they have control.

The fire walking activity is done to teach people to put fears aside.  As hard as a may feel to put aside fears of getting burned, I think it pails in comparison to putting aside fears of things that can compromise the health, well-being, and safety of our teens. We know that our teens will increasingly make decisions on their own, but we fear:  Will they make a bad decision?  How will bad decisions effect their future? Will they be safe? Will their actions hurt someone else? One of the ways parents try to manage this fear is to  control the situation as much as possible by setting rules and boundaries that protect teens.  If we fear our son will drink at a party, we may forbid him from going. If we fear our daughter is falling in with a “bad” peer group, we may restrict her from spending time with certain friends.  While the intentions are good, let’s look at a couple ways this could backfire on the parents.  A teen may say,  “My parents won’t let me go to the party, so I will just sneak out at 10:30 and you can pick me up around the corner” or “My mom won’t let me spend time with you, so we will have to make sure we see each other at lunch and meet up at the mall as often as we can.”

Does this mean that we simply condone behaviors or allow our teens to do things we don’t want them to do because they may do them anyway?  No. Parents still need to do what they can to protect, teach, model, care for, and love their children. The real question is: If parenting from a place of fear backfires, what do we do instead? Forbes and Post, authors of the book “Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control” suggest using love instead of fear to maintain influence.  What does this look like? Let’s look at the drinking party. Forbes and Post offer this type of response:

Honey, you are 15 years old and probably feel as though you are perfectly capable of making your own decisions. I can imagine that no matter what I say you are going to make the decision that you feel is best for you. I would like for you to stay home because I don’t feel that the environment will be safe and I will worry about you tremendously. That being said, I know that you are going to do what you feel is best. I do love you though.”

This response connects the teen with the parent at an emotional level and communicates love and concern for his/her safety.  The teen feels less defensive and less compelled to argue with the parent.   This puts the teen in a better position to listen, and consider what the parent is saying.  Parenting involves constant reevaluation of what is working and what is not.  While this approach may not work for every parent or in every situation, it gives you an alternative way to attack the rebellion, lying, or acting out that can happen in the teen years. Start by looking inward and identifying your own fears. Then, see what kind of loving conversations you can have with your teen about issues that are important to you.

Happy Parenting,


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