Four ways to be an Approachable Parent
What do you imagine when I say “approachable”? A smiling grandma, a welcoming front door, a big cuddly dog? Maybe it’s a calm lake or a steaming cup of tea. For one of my clients, what came to mind was a late night campfire.
Maybe you know that feeling. The sky is full of stars and there’s a good bed of ashes from the past few hours. The embers are hot but starting to burn down now. And you feel the invitation to sit down, relax in the warmth and gaze into the glow. It draws you in. Welcomes you. Calms you.
The truth is that what makes us feel comfortable to step toward something is formed to a large extent by our experiences. This woman had many memories of sitting peacefully by the fire, mulling her thoughts or engaging in good conversation. And the sight of a late night fire “always feels like somewhere I want to go”.
Approachable. It’s something every parent I’ve worked with wants to be.
They say things like, I want him to come to me when he’s having trouble. I want to be a safe place for her. I want them to know they can tell me anything.
After all these years of raising them, your nurturing instinct is strong. You still want to be able to help them work through their struggles. You still want to keep them safe.
And it gets trickier when they’re teen or have moved out on their own. You can’t easily see the changing moods or behaviors. You don’t know whether they went out with their girlfriend last night or not. But in the depths of your heart, you want to be supportive.
So how can you be the one they think of when something is troubling them?
When kids in their teens and twenties have something to share, they first assess if their parent is approachable. And they’re pretty good at it. They have assimilated a raft of experiences and conversations that help them decide if it’s a good idea to come to you with what’s on their mind. Their brain is busy scanning everything you’ve said on the topic they want to bring up, and checking for warning signs. IS the campfire warm and receptive? Their memories are informing them if they can expect to be heard and receive the kind of support they need. Or if they’re going to get burned.
What does approachable mean?
People describe it in many ways: open-minded, welcoming, available, accessible, calm, helpful, user-friendly, flexible, tolerant, pleasant, kindly, gracious, warm, open-hearted, composed, accepting, appreciating, thoughtful, patient, receptive, embracing, reachable, open, easy going.
As you read through this list of adjectives, which ones sound like you?
And which ones would your kid probably not use to describe you? It’s ok. Take a few gentle breaths and just allow yourself to feel the measure of your approachability. There’s no need for blame or shame here, just a recognition of what’s true right now and the opportunity to learn and grow.
Four key skills in being approachable to your teens and 20-something kids.
1. Being non-reactive
If your kid is pretty sure you’re going to blow up or break down, they’re not going to come to you. It’s that simple. You already know that.
And let’s acknowledge that not blowing up or breaking down is hard. Of course you set your intention to be calm and open-hearted. But then you hear something that triggers your anger. They drove the car when you told them not to. They trusted that guy they hardly even knew. They didn’t pay their rent. Your anger rises and your heart beat quickens. And before you know it, you’re yelling and criticizing them. Your intention for equanimity is out the window.
Or maybe their words make you scared. Fear clenches your belly or throbs in your head. Oh no, they failed algebra, quit their job, did drugs… You panic and your auto-pilot takes over. In the next second, you start crying and beseeching them to take a different course of action.
An emotional reaction is completely understandable. But when our emotions spill over into our child’s attempt to get support, it makes you unapproachable, at least from your child’s perspective. And especially when they are experiencing all their own emotions – upset about the thing that’s troubling them and tension about telling you – piling your emotional reaction on top of that is often too much. They’ve come for help, not another burden.
What they need is for you to recognize and experience your own emotion without projecting it. How do you do that?
· Breathe. As your child speaks, pay attention to the rise and fall of your chest or the breath entering and leaving your nostril. Keep it nice and easy.
· Name the emotion. “I feel anger/ fear/ grief rising up in me.”
· Open to the emotion and let it flow through you, like a cresting wave. It really only takes 10 seconds if you don’t clench it. Feel it rising and intensifying. Take a few more gentle breaths and feel it subsiding.
· Ask for a few moments if you need them. “I’m aware of some anger/ fear/ grief percolating. Just give me a minute to let that go so I can be fully present for you.”
The goal of being non-reactive is to truly witness your child. Not just the topic they’re sharing with you but also how they’re working it through. Take in the language they use, their emotional landscape, whose opinions they are considering, how they see their responsibility and the way they are rationalizing and analysing.
When you practice being non-reactive, your child gathers experiences of being able to bring things to you. They confirm that you are, indeed, approachable.
2. Giving what you’re asked for
It’s important not to make assumptions here; you need to ask. Do they want you to show solidarity or challenge their logic? Do they want you to be silent? Do they want your suggestions?
If you don’t ask, you’ll end up doing what you habitually do to make it better for them. And that might have been the right thing when your child was 5 or 10, but not when they’re 15, 20 or 25.
Instead, encourage them to say what kind of support they need. It may take a few minutes to figure it out so give them the chance to clarify and express it. And they might change their mind as the conversation proceeds so keep checking. “Would you like to hear what I’m wondering? Is my silence still working for you?” These are golden opportunities to demonstrate your approachability and dependability by just meeting their request.
Of course, it may be challenging for you to show solidarity when you see the situation from a different perspective. It may be damn hard to stay silent when forty arguments are running through your head.
But, trust me on this, honouring your kid’s request for support is going to be worth it in your overall relationship. That kind of respect is never forgotten. It’s saved in their brains and nervous systems – a memory of a warm, reliable campfire.
3. Being wiling to hear anything
You don’t know when you’re watching them on the soccer field what they might get into later. You stay tuned to the world. You see what the teen and twenties hold for many families. But you’re really not prepared when it’s your kid standing in front of you saying they’re moving to a friend’s house, in trouble with the police, depressed or pregnant.
When you hear those words, they hit your heart pretty hard. And, it’s only natural that part of you says, Quick. Fix this. Get him away from those people. Forbid her. Say they’re making a huge mistake…
You are at the edge of new territory and there are lots of unknowns.
Step in, I say. Be willing to go into it this new territory with your child, even if you’re scared and uncertain, warnings signs blaring in your head. Be brave, my dear. If they want to talk about the guy they punched, their curiosity about suicide or their drug experimentation, engage in the conversation.
“I want my kids to know they can tell me anything” is a well-used phrase. And to be that kind of parent, you need to be willing to hear anything. Heart-breaking, shocking, aggravating, terrifying things. Things you never expected to deal with.
To be able to do this is to be courageous and leaning into your heart’s knowing that you are held by something within and beyond yourself. To trust that you are the perfect parent for this kid. To be open to learning. To believe that you will find a way through.
This is being approachable: when they feel your presence like a safe place they can come and sit and talk for a while. When they know that they can really tell you anything.
4. Being available
When I became a parent, I was given a piece of wisdom that has served me well for twenty years: close relationships with your kids requires proximity. This became particularly important when my kids transitioned from homeschooling into public school. As often as I could, I would bring work home and position myself quietly on the couch at 3:15pm. And without fail, one of them would plunk themselves down and tell me something that happened during their day. You can imagine how these moments of connection added up.
So I encourage you to be around, to the extent that you can. Close your lap top when they enter the room. Answer their texts promptly. Drive them to practice. Putter silently in the kitchen when they’re snacking. Do things together. You get the idea. How might you increase your ‘proximity’ this week?
This is an important part of being approachable – your child’s repeated experience of your availability when they want to connect. Their knowing that you’ll be around and accessible.
Parenting older children requires us to work on expanding our ability to hold that warm, welcoming space for all of who our child is and all that they are experiencing.
So we practice breathing and calming our nervous systems. We practice observing where we are triggered and how we process our emotions. We develop new skills, perspectives and responses.
We work to become approachable, not just in words but in our kids’ hearts.
So that they can come to us when they need to.
So that their struggles can be witnessed.
So that their ideas can be shared and considered.
So that our hearts stay connected.
We keep the fire going.
With you on the journey,