This article was first published on KSL.com
I have a teenager who I love but I am struggling to connect with. He has been in trouble and broken my trust and there is now quite a divide between us. I want to feel closer to him, but my constant questioning just makes him angry at me, and I can’t stop questioning because I don’t trust him. He is almost 18, so I don’t have much more time with him in my home. I really want to repair our relationship and get him to like me again. Do you have any advice on how?
Your question has a lot of dimensions and I can’t cover all of them in this article. There is a great article on risky teen behavior and trusting your child again, by Janet Lehman, that I highly recommend you read.
In this article, I want to focus on helping you build a strong, loving and more respectful relationship with your teen, who is almost an adult and out of your house.
The biggest factor affecting the quality of your relationship is not whether you can’t trust your child, but can your child trust you? Have you created a relationship of trust where your child can talk to you about anything and get guidance, love, validation and encouragement? Or have you unintentionally become the enemy?
Teresa Graham Brett, author of the book "Parenting for Social Change," said, “Parenting is about building a relationship of trust and love between you and a child — it is not about making them turn out the way you want. It can’t be about control more than it’s about love, trust, mutual respect and caring for each other.”
I think this is where many of us get off track. We are more worried about them turning out the way we want than we are about loving them and respecting them as individuals. We have so many fears about failing as a parent we forget to ask, “What does my child need?”
If you are worried about looking bad, which we all are at times, your parenting behavior will be more selfish and controlling than loving and supporting. And your child will resent it. You must create a relationship where love and support come before control and expectations. This may mean being more flexible about some of your rules and standards. When you are too rigid about the way you want your child to turn out, you will come from a place of disapproval and judgment a lot of the time. This can say that you care more about your expectations being met than you do about them. Too many lectures and not enough listening and validating can make them feel you are against them.
I’m not telling you to be a pushover, drop your standards and let your child run wild, though. I’m saying if you were more open, more loving and more accepting of your teen’s ideas, opinions and choices, he would also be more open to hearing, understanding and accepting yours and in this place you will have more influence on him.
Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed., says, “Children resist with all their might when they think we are against them — when we criticize, blame, threaten, lecture — when they don’t trust that we understand and accept them.” She says, “We often parent with the misconception that our job is to teach our children how to act and perform in the world, and if they don’t do it right then they must be forced with some kind of manipulative, punitive tactic to get them on track.” (You might want to read her article, too.)
Harris says this leads to power struggles, punishing, grounding and making them miserable, hoping this will motivate them to change. The problem is these tactics aren’t very motivating and they are more likely to push your child further away, where you have less influence on them. This type of parenting makes you the enemy and pushes your child toward friends for support.
Think about your relationship with your spouse or your friends. If you showed up in these relationships mostly focused on control and getting these people to be the way you want them to be, these people wouldn’t like you either. Of course parenting is different and requires some stewardship, teaching and guiding, but this can be done from a place of trust and love. It really can.
You will actually have more influence on your child when you have a relationship based on mutual respect, listening, validating and unconditional love — the same factors that build good relationships with business associates, soul mates and friends.
I believe building a relationship of trust, where people can trust you, requires three things: respect, the ability to focus on others and a close emotional connection. Let me explain how each of these works in a parent/child relationship:
You must have their respect: In the business world, no one respects you or comes to you for advice until you have achieved some level of success or have a proven track record of good performance. To build a good, respectful, trust-based relationship with your teen, you must first work on yourself and have your act together. If you have insecurities, emotional over-reactions to problems, or are prone to immature behavior, your child is not going to respect you or listen to you. I get a lot of calls from parents interested in life coaching for their teens, which we can do, but we won’t coach a teen until we have first coached the parents.
You must stop being afraid of failure and loss. You must stop worrying about what others think of you. You must gain confidence and start modeling happy, healthy, adult behavior. Teens are smart enough to know when you aren’t happy or balanced, and if your lifestyle isn’t making you happy, no teen is going to listen to you or follow you.
You may need some professional help to improve your self-esteem, see situations clearly and respond with more maturity, confidence and love. I highly recommend getting some.
You must be able to focus on them: This is more complicated than you think. Are you worried about how his choices make you look? Are you worried about losing him? Are you worried about failing as a parent? Are you worried about what the neighbors think? Are you overly concerned with how his actions make you feel and put you out? Are YOUR standards, opinions and ideas the ones that matter? All of these fears are selfishness and show your focus is on you. (I know you believe your truth is THE TRUTH, but that is still all about YOU). If you want to build a relationship of trust with your child, you must be able to set your stuff aside and focus on what he needs most.
You must have a close emotional connection: There is only one way to create this kind of connection with another human being — good communication and lots of it. This means communication that is open, honest, validating and encouraging. It means asking more questions and listening, than you do talking. It means honoring and respecting their right to think and feel the way they do. It means valuing them as a person and validating their ideas. It means being respectful and asking for permission before giving advice, like “Would you be open to a suggestion from Dad?” and not giving it if they say no. There is a communication formula worksheet on my website that teaches how to do this. It may take practice and patience, though, to rebuild trust if you have talked more than you’ve listened in the past.
You must also be very careful NOT to use shame or fear in your parenting. Imposing shame on anyone makes you an unsafe place and severs the emotional connection.
Remember that every situation in your life is there to teach you to love at a deeper level. This situation is no exception. If you will focus less on changing your child and more on changing and improving yourself, you can improve this relationship.
You can do this.
Kimberly Giles is the founder and president of claritypointcoaching.com. She is also the author of the new book "Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness" and a coach and speaker.
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Kimberly Giles is the president and founder of Claritypoint Life Coaching and 12 SHAPES INC. She is an author and professional speaker. She was named one of the top 20 advice gurus in the country by Good Morning America in 2010. She appears regularly on local and national TV and Radio.