Probably the biggest mistake parents make in understanding their teen is in not seeing that teenagers are just like us, only younger. Most parents that consult with me really struggle to use empathy to put themselves in their child’s shoes, which means being able to imagine or actually feel what it’s like to be them. It is easier and more comfortable to view the problems of children as strange, nonsensical, crazy, or just “bad” behaviour, yet all behaviour can be made logical and comprehensible if we use empathy and compassion to experience the world from the child’s perspective. “How would you feel in their position”? is a question I often pose to parents who are trying to understand their child’s behaviour, and it often creates a sudden and surprising awareness in the parent that their child’s behaviour may be very understandable, even necessary, from their own perspective.
Let’s try an example:
Parent: Robin has been depressed and struggling at school, and when I searched her room I found marijuana. I lost it and told her to get out of the house, and then she broke a lamp, stormed out of the house and is now staying at a friend’s. She’s only 15.
Me: Ok, let’s pretend that you are Robin and you’re depressed and failing at school. How would you feel?
Parent: Probably hopeless, like I wasn’t going anywhere. Sad…angry…
Me: And what would you do with those feelings if it was you?
Parent: If it was me I would do something healthy, like join a gym….but if I’m pretending to be Robin, in her state of mind, I guess I would need to do something, anything to feel better. I’d feel so desperate. I guess that’s why she’s getting into drugs…
Me: If we label doing drugs as “bad” and unacceptable, and throw our kid out of the house, we may be in the “right”, but then we fail to be curious and see why our child is doing the drug in the first place. If we can put ourselves in our child’s shoes, this compassion enables greater acceptance of the child’s perspective, which strengthens the relationship with the parent, and provides the space for change in the child.
Empathy for our teenaged children is sometimes impossible to feel, and yet if we are able to do it our children can learn to become empathic to us and also to themselves. Remember that children are just like us, only younger, and to help your child sometimes all you have to do is make an effort to feel what they are feeling and really be with them wherever they are.
This is one example of many parenting lessons I facilitate in my work with parents of teens and children. Please visit my website www.therapyintoronto.com for more information or to reserve a complementary phone consultation.