I didn’t think it was possible, but the other day my daughter looked at herself in the mirror and texted her friends for exactly two hours! We were on a road trip, driving home from a weekend stay at the cabin. The weather was nice as we cruised home with windows cracked and music on. I looked over at my daughter who had gone quiet almost the second we got in the car. With the passenger side mirror down, she was meticulously brushing her hair, moving single hairs, trying up-do’s and down-do’s. She applied lip-gloss, mascara, and powder. Then, between breaks of texting her friend, she went back to moving single hairs so that they were in the exact right place. To be honest, I found myself feeling really annoyed. I found myself thinking things like, “We finally have time in the car together and you are totally self-consumed!” I went as far as to think, “Was I ever like that? Did I spend hours and hours just looking at myself?” I even found myself feeling a little angry. I thought, “When I was a teen, and went on long rides with my parents, I HAD to endure their company. I couldn’t have conversations with my friends as if my parents were not even there! If I chose not to talk to my parents, I had to sit in silence…thinking!” I immediately wanted to say “Haven’t you looked at yourself long enough! Or, “Put that phone away and talk to me!” Before I said anything, I sat quietly with my feelings. I felt irrational, rejected, and unsure of how to handle this interaction. (Jeanie, mother of a 12 year old)
What should Jeanie do? Clearly, Jeanie is feeling a lot of emotions. Her daughter may not be fully aware of what’s going on, but she can probably tell something is wrong since roughly 80% of our communication is non-verbal. While her daughter plays a role in this interaction, how Jeanie reacts can have a big influence on the outcome. Let’s think a little deeper about what it means for a parent to have “influence”. Experts point out that there is an important distinction between having influence and having control. To have influence is to have an effect the actions, behavior, and/or opinions of another. Alternatively, to have control involves exercising restraint, giving direction, dominating, or making commands. How might these look different for Jeanie? If Jeanie is trying to instill influence she might say, “I really enjoy spending time with you. I am sad that you are texting your friends instead of being present with me. I hope we get an opportunity to spend some one-on-one time together before we are home. That would help me feel important to you.” If Jeanie uses control she may say something like, “You need to put your phone away right now. You have been on that phone since we got in this car. It is really frustrating that you are so self-consumed and don’t even see how your actions are affecting me.”
Which feels better? Which do you think will have a bigger impact on the daughter’s feelings and actions? By focusing on having influence, Jeanie relates to her daughter on an emotional level. She shares her feelings and her hopes. This allows her daughter to focus on her own feelings and consider how her actions are affecting her mom. Using control can make the daughter defensive and less likely to think about how her mom is feeling. Language like “you are so self-consumed” and “you don’t even see how your actions are affecting me” can sound judgmental and blaming to the teen. She may put her phone away, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a good interaction with her mom. It is more likely that she will be angry and pull away more.
Using this technique can be challenging for parents, especially since many of our reactions come from deep, internal feelings and past experiences. Sometimes they come from things that have been eating at us for a long time. Maybe Jeanie has let her feelings about cell-phones pile up, and this car ride was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Maybe Jeanie has been feeling rejected or ignored by her daughter since her she entered middle school. Letting these negative feelings pile up can result in angry outbursts or “snapping”. In reality, Jeanie may be afraid that she is losing the close relationship she has always had with her daughter. It can be more effective to share this feeling in a compassionate way. The Dalai Lama said that anger creates havoc, manifests problems, and undermines virtues. He went on to say that compassion is the root of all relationships. It is through love, compassion, and concern for others that we find true happiness. When these are in abundance, even the most uncomfortable circumstances are manageable. With this in mind, parents can share intense feelings using influence instead of control. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Practice addressing your feelings right away. Stuffing them away for later usually results in anger, and/or fear that you have lost your ability to have influence.
- Recognize were your feelings are coming from. Is it something your teen is doing or has your teen triggered existing feelings?
- Identify the emotion that you are feeling and share it with your teen. This will help your teen connect with you instead of defending his/her point.
- Use compassion as much as possible. Compassion communicates that you love and understand your teen. It also shows your teen that you are reliable.
- Give yourself a break. Say sorry and try again if you catch yourself responding out of anger and/or fear.