A volcano doesn’t choose where and when to erupt, nor upon whom. It is a force of nature, a built-up pressure that the earth can no longer contain. Deep below the surface, there are movements and frictions that we cannot see. Great plates of the earth’s crust scraping against each other and rupturing what was calm and established. Heated fluid with so much power that it moves upward against Gravity and cracks open solid rock. A volcano doesn’t direct its energy toward any particular forest, stream or village. And while it certainly feels like your kid is directing their anger at you, part of you knows that it’s not entirely true. No doubt you’ve heard that, when your kid lashes out at you, it’s because you are the safest place for them to erupt. While that may be true, it sure doesn’t make it feel ok when it happens. They yell that you’re embarrassing to be seen with, an unreasonable lunatic, or worse…Even when we’re being as compassionate and rational as possible, we will become defensive in one way or another. What’s your first internal reaction?
Don't you dare talk to me like that.
It’s ok I know you’ve had a hard day.
I’m out of here. You’re on your own.
Maybe they're right.
That little jerk, I’ll show him.
I’m a terrible parent. This is my fault.
Oh ya? Well, you’re a…
Now you’ve pissed me off and you’re going to hear about it.
It’s not that bad. Let’s move on to something more positive.
It can be difficult to admit these thoughts, even though they are natural responses to an attack. What are you noticing right now? What's your automatic reaction? Does it tend to be flight, fight, freeze or appease? In your day to day interactions with your child, this is what you are responsible for – your own reaction. It is the parent’s job to anchor and regulate themselves first. And this is often one of a parent's greatest and most challenging areas of growth – bringing ourselves out of our limbic brains and overstimulated vagus nerves and back into our center, so we can offer our kids our calm presence. Whether you do this through yoga, therapy, tapping, breathing or praying, the goal is cultivating a pathway, day after day, so that you can access it and draw from it when you need to not be triggered. In what ways are you building a pathway to your calm centered self? How do you access it in moments of need? This isn’t about telling your teenager to calm down (we all know how well that works); it’s about being calm yourself and allowing your stability and serenity to radiate outward into the room. Then, you stay because you can. Even when your teen is flailing and lashing out. Even when it hurts. The calm of your grounding permeates to the fissures beneath your kids’ surface. Her pain and frustration are soothed and she is more able to move out of her limbic brain and overstimulated vagus nerve. In effect, she “borrows” some of your grounding.
Another way to "stay" in these fiery situations is take the perspective of a translator. What your kid is saying isn’t their true feelings, just the words they can access in the moment. Words that spring to their tongues to convey that they are experiencing big sadness, anger, loneliness, frustration, etc., or that their body chemistry is undergoing some renovation that they don’t understand, or that their brain is firing too fast and in too many directions.
It's tough to feel like this, for any of us. Like something is breaking inside of us that we can't control. And let’s remember that many adults cannot name their emotions or physical sensations right when they’re experiencing them, so let’s not be expecting so much composure and grace from our teenagers.
When a teenager screams that you’re such an asshole or mutters an insult not quite under their breath, what forces are at work beneath the surface? What was solid that's now fracturing?
You are the one with the fully developed brain and the ever-expansive parent’s heart. You are the translator. What are you picking up in your mind, heart and gut?
I remember being at the playground with my toddler when he was exploring his independence. He would stride off confidently to the monkey bars and climb and swing. Every so often, he would come back to touch me and hear my voice. Once he knew I was “still there”, off he’d go again.
Sometimes, when a teenager does something unkind to their parent, they are actually seeking reassurance. “Will you still love me if I…?”
They may be feeling unsafe in some other area of their life and looking for confirmation of their attachment to you. When you get caught up in your own hurt feelings, you can miss seeing this behavior for what it is – a confused adolescent looking for safe, welcoming harbor.
Please take a moment here to explore. Take a deep breath. Where does being a "safe harbor" live inside you? Feel for it in the depth of your belly, the length of your spine, the breadth of your chest or elsewhere.
And what is the subtle energy of the attachment between you two? How do you access your "Yes, I'll still love you"? How do you radiate that outward so they know they can come in and anchor for a while?
WAYS OF LOVING WHAT IS When they were small and their emotions exploded, we sat beside them and said in a soft voice, “I’m here with you. It’s ok. I know this is hard. The big feelings will pass.” Not always, but on our good days, we focused on our exhales and staying close enough to touch. And then we felt whatever was beneath the surface being released and saw their bodies relax as they crumpled into our arms and lay their heart against ours. How do we do this when they’re 17 or 24, big and gangly and not wanting to need us? My colleague, Erin, described a period when her teenage son thought she was the worst person on earth and let her know it very, very clearly. “Why are you even looking at me? I can’t stand it. I don’t want to even be around you.” She admitted that she had a powerful urge to take revenge and spew her own insults and accusations, but knew to hold her tongue. Long story short, she developed a way of loosening her spine and imagining herself as a buoy on the waves, moving with his ups and downs, surges and tsunamis, and knowing she wouldn’t be pulled under the water. “Sometimes, I still flipped out,” she said, and we shared a smile about our parenting imperfections. Then, last winter, I had a conversation with a mother who was verbally assaulted by her 19-year-old daughter every week. When I asked her how she managed, she said, “I’m ok bearing the brunt of it. I draw the line if she is too cruel but, mostly, I don’t take it personally because I know it’s her anxiety speaking. I hear the words but I don’t let them set up house inside me. They blow by like wind storm and don't really need my attention. I focus on loving her, all of her, sharp edges and all.” Another parent told me that they see their relationship with their teen like a dance on a bridge. “When they jump up and down and make the bridge shudder, it scares me and my instinct is to withdraw from them. I have to deal with my fear first. Breathe, close my eyes for two seconds and feel for my feet. Then I can stand solidly and keep the bridge stable for both of us.” ~ We stay. Even when the lava is flying. We hold our center and hold the relationship steady. We stay. On behalf of your teenager’s future children, partners, colleagues, neighbours, teammates and friends, thankyou for the way you stay and love this kid, the way you raise yourself alongside them, the way you work to accept all of who they are so they learn to do the same. Thankyou for shining this Love.
What response to a ‘mean’ teenager would be most aligned with your truest values and highest self?
What habits or stories seem to stand between you and that kind of response?
What’s your next step toward cultivating that ability in yourself?
With you on the journey,
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