The Single Most Important Tool for Parents of Teens and Young Adults
Last week my son told me he’s thinking about not finishing his university degree. Ooof! He’s been pushing through some big challenges and doubts, so I wasn’t totally caught by surprise.
But still, distress welled up inside me. My breath stopped. My stomach, neck, shoulders, everything tightened...
But, but you’re so close to the finish line. What about all the effort you’ve put in? All the money you’ve invested? What will people think? What will you do? All these thoughts steamed through my head at once. I could feel myself sticking my paddle in the water, bracing, hoping to stop the flow of the river.
If you’re a parent of a teenager, you’ve been in a similar situation. Our kids sometimes make choices we don’t agree with. They get involved in activities that look risky to us.
It’s hard to watch.
You want to protect them from hardship and disappointment. You’ve seen where these things can lead. And you feel a responsibility, right down into your bones, to point them in the right direction. Your heart beats with the desire to see them creating a fulfilling life.
And in that moment, I could also feel my heart beating - with fear. Raw cold fear. I’m very familiar with this panic response in me. I’d like to think it doesn’t occur after all these years of ceremony, meditation and self-awareness. And yet, sometimes it does.
The words rose to my lips: “Oh no, don’t do that.”
And if this had been 10 years ago, I would have blurted them out. And more. And I would have made a mess of a bright young adult trying to get perspective and find his path.
What stopped me?
The Pause: the single most important tool for parents of tween, teen and 20-something kids.
I was first introduced to the idea of the Pause decades ago when I was mentored by an indigenous hereditary chief. He told me to put a pebble in my mouth so that, when I was asked a question, I would have to pause for a moment before answering.
It was an incredibly difficult challenge. But I quickly learned how careless, half-formed and ungenuine my answers were. I made progress is being able to Pause so I could feel into my true answer and the right timing for it.
But when I became a parent, that progress seemed to be erased. I thought I had to have an answer for everything. I was the adult and I was supposed to Know. Know what to feed them. Know how to get them to stop hitting. Know how to teach the times tables. What a huge amount of pressure I put on myself.
What I’ve learned since then is that there can be a space between what triggers me and how I respond. A breath in which I can choose how I respond. A divine second to consider, to feel into my heart. A simple pause before saying or doing anything. I learned (and continue to learn) how to claim this little space for clearer self expression.
The Sacred Pause is a tenet of Buddhism. Jack Kornfield, author, Buddhist and mindfulness teacher, explains, “In this pause, we can examine our intention or check our motivation. Are we caught up, upset, angry, trying to get even, win at any cost? Or with a pause, can we take the time to act out of respect for ourself and others, to sow seeds of understanding and courage? It is in our hands.”
Let’s read that last part again: In our hands.
We can react reflexively or we can choose to respond from our grounded, compassionate, sage self.
We can add harm and division.
Or we can add love.
When you are triggered by something said or done by your tween, teen or young adult, it’s easy to be railroaded by your auto-pilot. In a split second, you can blurt out a stream of charged words that aren’t what you really mean. You might make a habitual face or a gesture that conveys something cruel. Instead, when you pause, you make a more intentional response. The way you move and what comes out of our mouth will be kinder, wiser and truer.
Victor Frankl, renowned neurologist, psychiatrist, and philosopher, put it this way: “There is a space between stimulus and response. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
Pausing puts you in a place of choice. No longer stuck on the hamster wheel of uttering the first words that come to your lips or acting upon a knee-jerk reaction. In the pause, you become able to choose how you want to behave.
Even more, that chosen response come from your higher intention and your deeper heart. As you plumb the greater depths of how you want to be in relationship with your kid, new ideas and feelings are emerging. New aspects of yourself are gradually revealing themselves.
New actions and words are becoming feasible. New possibilities are being created for you and your beloved child.
So I took a breath. And another one.
I calmly asked my son how he was feeling about the decision he’s facing. I listened without interjecting my opinion, imaginary pebbles in my mouth, lips protecting the floodgate. I let there be plenty of room for all his concerns and emotions.
And when it was the right time for me to speak, I was able to speak from my heart. Not baseless fears for his future, but my compassion for his uncertainty and desire to act wisely. I told him my perspective, what it looks like from over here. I was truer to myself and did a way better job of cultivating an environment of acceptance and support.
So how do you develop your ability to Pause?
Helping others cultivate their Pause is an important feature of my coaching programs. I’ve seen time and time again what a powerful tool it is for parents of tween, teen and 20-something kids.
1. Get to know your triggers. Get to know them really well. Even if it’s yucky, confusing, discouraging, irritating, scary...
It is basic human nature to turn away from unpleasant sensations. It takes considerable effort and intention, when you really just want to flee or fight, to lean in a take a close look at what’s happening in your body, mind and heart.
Have I enjoyed this kind of self-observation? Not. At. All. But what I’ve learned is so valuable. I learned that, when I’m triggered, my breath stops and my belly tightens. I feel alarm and instant dread and brakes are automatically applied. That means that I am better at recognizing when I’m entering that state and better at knowing I need to pause.
What about you? What do you do when you’re triggered? Do you roll your eyes, grimace or look at the floor? Puff your chest out or roll our shoulders inward? Get a headache or backache? Observe yourself and take notes. Get to know the specifics so it becomes easier and easier to recognize the onset.
2. Choose a one-second gesture to activate your way of pausing.
Maybe it’s a finger snap, a hand on your heart, straightening your spine or running your tongue over imaginary pebbles in your mouth. Keep it simple. What is a practical movement that buys you a second so you can let your body know you’re doing something different now? What feels right for you?
3. Practice using that gesture when you’re triggered.
Yes, here’s the work, dear one. You will forget and mess it up. You will feel like giving up. You will try again. This is why we call it a practice. With repetition and self-compassion, it will become easier to access your pause and, eventually, second nature. Your responses will become truer and kinder. Your relationship with your big kid will benefit.
I’d love to hear how this goes for you so please leave a comment or reach out to me. I’m always happy to have a chat with a parent.
And may you find peace within yourself as you claim the space between your trigger and your response with your beautiful, exasperating, growing kid.
With you on the journey,