I vaguely remember what it was like being a teenager. It was a long time ago but some things stick with me. Feeling self-conscious. Overseas trips. Being taught stuff. Kissing boys. Learning how to sail and sew. Acne. Such richness of experience!
I also remember not wanting to “get into trouble” with my parents. I was scared of their judgement, anger and disapproval.
As a young child I tried to be a “good girl” and I mostly succeeded. I did my best to meet my parents’ expectations and I tried to anticipate what they wanted. Do as you are told was the basic “rule” that I perceived and internalized. I can’t remember the details of what was said or done when I was little. But I do remember flare-ups of anger, yelling and threats that scared me. Sometimes there was spanking. I have no idea how often but I don’t think it was common. My parents were blameless. We were all blameless. And inevitably, patterns of thinking and reacting were established in my mind.
I don’t know why I was so sensitive to judgement, anger and threats. I never had a thick skin. I took it all in, and it felt awful. Deep down, I believed that it was my fault; that if I said the right thing and behaved the right way I could avoid those flare-ups coming at me. Self-talk started to appear inside my head to remind me that I wasn’t good enough, that I should try harder, that I was to blame. I developed a keen sense of what would trigger my parents judgement and anger and I did my best to avoid it. This logic seemed to work for a while.
By my teens my desire to explore and have new experiences overrode my desire to play it safe. That’s when I started to hide parts of my life from my parents out of fear of their reaction. The highly charged topic of sexual relationships, with all their physical and emotional challenges, was something that I didn’t want to talk to my parents about at all. I used to sneak out of my bedroom window at night and walk through dark Sydney suburbs to meet a boy. My secret nocturnal life eventually led me to sex and fun, then to heartache and then to other relationships.
I was fortunate. I never came to any harm and I never experienced an unwanted pregnancy. I guess if it had come to that I would have talked to my parents out of necessity. As it was, I went my own way and kept quiet about my fears, questions and insecurities.
Perhaps you can relate to some of this? Did you ever react to your parents in fear and hide or pull back from them? Did you try your best to comply with their rules and expectations? Or did you rebel and fight back? Did you ever sneak or hide your explorations of food, porn, drugs, relationships, sex or something else? Did you have problems that you felt you couldn’t share with your parents?
Now I have two teenage sons and I want us to have a different experience.
I am deeply grateful that my teenage sons confide in me. I’m grateful that they trust me with their troubles, their questions and that they let me into their inner worlds.
They have sought my guidance when their relationships have felt challenging. They have shared their fears and self-doubts as well as their dreams. They tell me when they experience things, online or off, that disturb them or raises questions they want to talk about. They ask me for information on “personal matters” and they tell me how they are feeling.
It matters to me that we continue to share the trust, closeness and openness that we had when they were little. Of course, our relationships have changed as they’ve got older. They want more privacy and independence and I respect that. There will inevitably be things that they don’t want to share with me and that’s OK. But I will do what I can to stay connected to them and available to offer help if they need it.
I want them to trust that no matter what happens I will not judge, punish or disapprove of them. I want them to know that they can come to me with their problems and that I will listen without showering them with advice. I don’t imagine that I know what is best for them, but I would love to be an influence in their lives for a long time to come.
How I nurtured trust and openness.
I have nurtured trust in my relationships with my children by choosing not to exert power over them. What this means is:
- I don’t punish or threaten them,
- I don’t impose limits or consequences on them,
- I don’t make rules they have to follow,
- I don’t force them to do anything they don’t want to do.
If there is conflict in our family we use a process of creative problem solving. We look for a solution together and wait until we find one that everyone is happy with or can at least accept. Instead of me “being in control” and exercising authority, I facilitate a process that empowers the whole family to be actively involved in finding the best solution for all of us.
What happens when you exert power over your child.
How do children react to time outs, groundings, having their phone or device taken away or their screen time limited? How do they feel when they are made to do chores, get yelled at, or called lazy, rude or something worse? How we react is an individual thing, but I bet many children get scared and upset and pull away from their parents just like I did. Open communication starts to shut down. Children sneak and hide things. Some get angry and fight back too.
If you look at the list above and think “I do those things” or “I feel I have to do those things and I don’t know what else to do!”, let me assure you that there is no judgment here. We all learn certain roles, beliefs and ways of relating when we are young. Patterns of thinking get “programmed into us”. Then, when we become parents ourselves this early programming kicks in and starts running the show. It just happens. We go down the path of relating to children that is familiar – unless there is something that happens to interrupt that old way of thinking and put us on a different path.
This interruption to the old programming might come from within. You might have decided that you want to do things differently. Or the interruption could come from your children. They may react so strongly to your attempts to control them that you start looking for alternatives. It’s also possible that this article or a book that you read may remind you that following what is familiar may have unintended consequences and that there are other options.
Why are punishments, limits and control still so popular?
In my own parenting journey I’ve found it helpful to look behind the scenes of the traditional approach. Why are we stuck in this rut? What drives people to punish, threaten and try and control their children even though they have felt the painful effects in their own lives?
I think its mostly fear.
Humans have an amazing capacity to imagine scary future scenarios. We naturally want to keep our children safe. This triggers our imagination and it goes into overdrive. Our mind produces all these wild, terrifying internal movies (future imaginings) about what might happen to them. They might get bullied, abused, addicted, obese, anorexic, pregnant, antisocial, depressed, violent, anxious or even killed. The list is long!
We have been taught to respond to these scary stories with control. When we get scared about our children’s safety we attempt to control them using techniques passed down through the generations. We might even downplay the conflict and other side effects of exerting power over our children as “just normal family life”. But following the traditional path of command and control is not the only way. It’s not necessary, and in my opinion, it’s not worth the cost. This is true for threatening or shaming and it also goes for the popular practice of “setting limits”.
I’m scared! What do I do?
By far the most effective way of maintaining trust in relationships is to question your fears. I’ve learned this through long experience. I’ve got a vivid imagination too! I know what its like to feel terrified by thoughts and images of what might happen to my child in the future. I felt this fear keenly when my boys started craving sweets and “junk food” at an early age and when they took up playing “violent” video games. I’ve also been plagued by scary future imaginings about physical violence, children being “way behind” their peers, anxiety, OCD, social isolation, disease and so many other things!
Each time I’ve felt the wave of fear that comes with these “future imaginings” I know its time to stop and question.
“Can I be certain about this?” is the first thing I ask myself.
I’ve discovered that the answer is always NO. I can’t ever know with certainty what is going to happen in the future. The fact is, the future doesn’t exist. So how can I ever be certain of what will happen? I remember that I’m being frightened by the mind’s imaginings, not reality. This simple realization reduces my fear immediately.
I don’t stop there. I research and read. I look for fresh points of view. I seek out people who have experienced the same fears and NOT gone down the path of limits and control.
The most efficient way I know to question my fears is to use a form of self-inquiry called “The Work”. It’s a simple practice that I’ve used for many years and taught to many other parents. It brings true liberation from stress and worry, because it isn’t just a coping strategy. It’s a brilliant way to dissolve the stressful beliefs that underpin those waves of fear, getting right to the root cause and changing it.
This questioning is something you have to do for yourself. But as someone who has come up against their fears and not gone down the path of control, I can tell you that so far, in more than 18 years of parenting, none of my fears of terrible outcomes have yet come true.
What if I still think my child is rude, lazy or taking crazy risks?
Its not just our fears we have to deal with. There’s also our learned patterns of judgement and attack.
This is how the pattern works: If we feel scared and uncomfortable, we’ve learned to project that outside of ourselves and to judge the other person. We’ve learned to make them the problem, even if it’s our beloved child. We judge and attack them and try and get them to obey us or change. We don’t mean to hurt. It’s just the pattern of thinking that we’re used to.
To disrupt this pattern I’ve found it helpful to practice a new way of communicating and I’ve found inspiration in Nonviolent Communication. This is a way of communicating how we feel and what we want without blame, judgement or attack.
This is the gist of it:
- Make an observation: eg. When I see you spending so much time online playing games……..
- Say how you feel about it: eg. I feel worried that your health will suffer….
- Say what you want in this situation: eg. and I want to you to get enough sunshine and exercise.
- Then make a request: eg. Would you be willing to take a break and go outside for at least half and hour this afternoon?
The big change here is this:
It takes a bit of practice but it was a great way for me to disrupt my old, learned patterns of communication and build new habits. It’s open, honest and so much kinder than the old way.
I describe in detail how I use Nonviolent Communication with my children, how I use The Work to question my thinking and how we solve family conflicts with Creative Problem Solving in my book Joyful Parenting and in my Joyful Parenting Course. I break it down and give you a step-by-step guide to moving from the old patterns of authoritarian parenting to being able to relax and enjoy closeness and connection with your children, knowing that you have the tools to deal with your own stress and worry and to solve the problems that will inevitably come up.
There’s no doubt that focusing on trust and openness and learning some new skills takes more time and effort than sticking to our old conditioning. I know how daunting it can feel.
But the reality is that traditional discipline tactics are frequent failures anyway. How often are parents actually able to change their children’s behaviour or keep them safe from harm in the long term by using punishment and control?
No one can ever guarantee that your children will always be safe and always behave in a manner that you find acceptable. But if the communication between you is open and non-judgmental your children will naturally come to you for information, guidance and help when they need it. The natural influence that all parents have with their children will remain intact right through the teenage years and beyond.