Consider this scene
After many moves and years of hanging onto “keepsakes”, the Smiths are cleaning the basement in preparation for a garage sale. The two kids have been told that they can keep part of the profits if they help with both the preparation and sale of the items. The day before the garage sale, mom approaches her teen. “I have a couple important meetings at work today and I could really use your help finishing up the pricing of the things in the garage. When your sister wakes up, can the two of you please try to finish that up so that we are ready for this weekend?” Keep in mind that even though the kids have helped, mom has really done about 80% of what it has taken to get ready for the garage sale. Her teenage daughter responds with, “Can’t we just work on it together when you get home? I am really tired and I haven’t seen my boyfriend for a week. I was planning on sleeping a little longer, catching up with some friends for lunch, and then hanging out at the pool with John for a couple hours. As you can imagine, this doesn’t go over very well. Mom is instantly annoyed, frustrated, and overwhelmed with all the responsibilities she has that day. At this point, mom looses it a little. She replies with, “All I am asking you to do is price a few things. With both of you working, it shouldn’t take more than an hour out of your day. I am glad to see you taking care of yourself, but it would be nice if you could contribute to the family a little more.” The teen responds with, “Maybe you should take care of yourself a little more. If you took time to get some rest and have lunch with friends, you would be a lot happier and more fun to be around!” Mom decides not want to engage in what was quickly becoming an argument. She walks away, telling her daughter she will check in with her again before she goes to work.
What comes up for you when you read this? This mom may be asking herself things like: When did my teen stop asking if she could do something and start telling me what she is doing? How can she say such hurtful things to me? Doesn’t she understand what would happen if I just decided to take the day off every time I needed to “take care of myself”? Why can’t she see all the things I do for her?
Teens like the one above can be very egocentric. To be egocentric is to think only of oneself, without regard for the feelings or desires of others. This explains why teens see the world through their own eyes, basing choices on their personal priorities and limited experience. As challenging as it can be for those around them, being egocentric is a necessary characteristic of identity development. Typically, teens will move in and out of being able to see another person’s perspective, and they will practice this new skill on you! Often times, it is not they they are trying to be mean or hurtful. Rather, they simply are not focused on how they are making you feel.
Parenting challenges us to look at situations for what they are and not take things personally. It is in the very moments when we are tempted to lecture, ground, or holler at our teens that they need us to disengage emotionally, get grounded, and respond with thoughtfulness. This following strategy may help:
- Disengage: Engaging in an emotional dialogue with a teen is like being in an arena with a matador. The matador tries to wear out the bull and the bull runs around chasing a red cape. Meanwhile, the bull gets more and more upset and exhausted. If you are inclined to react, walk away and come back to the conversation when YOU are ready.
- When you are ready, restate your expectation. Keep it simple and direct.
- Describe, specifically, what needs to be done to meet that expectation.
- Share how their contribution benefits their family or community.
- Explain the consequences.
When you resist the temptation to get in the arena with the matador, you can be more skillful in your interactions. Using situations like the one above as coachable moments allows you to make a positive contribution to both their sense of self and their growing understanding of who they are becoming. Sharing how their efforts make a larger contribution can help build positive self-esteem in teens. The word ‘esteem’ comes from a Latin word that means ‘to estimate’. So, self-esteem is related to how teens estimate, or regard, themselves. Experts suggest that it is through their contributions that teens develop skills and regard themselves as capable. They begin to recognize that they play an important role in reaching a larger goal. It also helps them to be less egocentric as they begin to see how their actions impact people outside of themselves.