By Janet A. Bertelli, MSW, LCSW, Clinical Director
The holiday decorations are put away and the hope of the New Year bringing a fresh start still hangs optimistically in the air. Laura and her parents, however, sit in my office, arms crossed and teeth clenched. Before the holidays they promised each other to try to communicate better. Each shared that the first few days after their last session brought a surge of hope as they shared buying and decorating their Christmas tree, and doing holiday baking. Then Christmas Eve Laura’s mother asked Laura to change out of what she was wearing before Church. The peace of the holiday season quickly morphed into old patterns of communicating – name calling, cursing and threats from Laura and yelling, threats and criticism from her mother and a silent retreat from dad that lasted days.
When I asked Laura and her parents what they wanted from each other; I heard what I have heard from adolescents and their parents for many decades. Laura said that she wants to be heard and understood and her parents wanted to be listened to and for their child to share more with them.
Laura told me that when she tries to tell her parents what she is feeling, they become defensive and dismiss what she is saying. An example emerged right in front of me, when Laura said “my mother never tells me that she is proud of me.” Before her words even left her mouth, Laura’s mother stated in a very emotion-ridden voice “that’s not true”, and started to give several examples of how often she has told her daughter that she is proud of things that she has accomplished. What Laura needed at that moment was just to be heard. Listening and affirming what Laura had to say would have made Laura feel that her mother heard and valued what she had to say. Her mother might have responded by saying that she was sorry that Laura felt that way and that she would try to work on expressing her pride in her daughter’s accomplishments in ways that Laura could hear.
It is difficult for parents to listen to their child say things that they feel are not true, an over exaggeration or that their words are just meant to be hurtful. When your child is choosing to talk to you, becoming defensive and attempting to debate with them will just lead to a disappointing ending. There is a wonderful clip from the movie, “Martian Child.” The child, who believes he is from Mars, is doing a Martian dance. His foster father, who is frustrated with trying to connect with this wonderful, but strange child, decides to join him in the dance and mimics his moves. Neither says a word. At the end of the dance the child looks up and says, “Nice talk.”
When trying to build a better relationship with your teenager, doing more listening and less talking is often the key to a smoother path. “So!” Laura’s mother shouted at me when we were alone, “Am I supposed to sit there and listen to things that are just not true, and not set her straight.” I responded, “Yes. It’s about listening to her and trying to find the kernel of truth in what she is saying so that you can make her feel that what she is saying is more important to you than being right.”
Let me be clear here, if your child is becoming verbally abusive or threatening, then you need to state that the way he or she speaking is unacceptable. At this juncture, it will be far better for you both take some time to cool down before continuing than to match your child’s tone and abusive language.
When your child steps into adolescence it may feel like he has morphed into a Martian Child, but what I know is that he also feels the same way. The answer to the question about why your child seems to be taking it out on you is simple. Someplace inside of him, in that space we call the unconscious, he knows that you love him and can bear what he has to say.
So what changes can parents make for 2014? Be strong, listen more than you talk and do your best to learn the Martian Dance.