I’ve always prided myself on being a good listener. I feel it is very important to hold space for people, listen without giving advice, and to withhold judgment. It’s something I consciously work on in the important adult relationships in my life.
I did not, however, practice this at home with my kids. Why would I? I am the mom. I know my kids better than they know themselves. They don’t know what is best for them, I do. I know how they should act and how their attitudes should be. And when I didn’t feel they had particularly good attitudes, I let them know it. Which led to a lot of yelling. So. Much. Yelling.
I assumed this was working. I assumed this was as good as my relationship could get with my teen because she was a teenager. She was distant. She spent a lot of time in her room. She was annoyed when I tried to talk to her or asked her questions about her life. She cried and slammed her door a lot. But weren’t all teenagers like this?
When I tried to force her to talk to me it just ended in this typical conversation:
Me: What’s wrong?
Me (impatient tone): Tell me what’s wrong.
Me: Did something happen at school? Are you mad at someone? Did practice not go well today? Just TELL me.
Her: No. Mooooom. Stop.
Me (angry now): Fine. Just sit in your room and sulk all day. I don’t care. (Slam door.)
I meant well, or at least that is what I told myself.
If she would just tell me what’s wrong, what was bothering her I could fix it. I could talk to the coach, or the teacher, or the friend’s mom. Right? I could fix it. I could control it. The harder I tried, the more she pushed me away. Until, due to circumstances out of my control, our relationship got better.
Fast forward to the COVID-19 pandemic causing us to quarantine and slow down. Life wasn’t moving so fast, it wasn’t so frantic and neither was I. We spent more time together as a family, but my teenager, in particular, seemed to want to hang out more. We would just sit and talk for hours as we worked on puzzles or colored in adult color books on whatever subject came up. I would listen as she would prattle on about sports, school, friends, boys, and life in general. I thought at first this new and improved attitude and relationship were due to less stress with school or sports being on hold, but mostly, I thought she was probably just bored.
However, one day when we were talking she just blurted out, “Mom, you haven’t yelled in a long time.” I laughed and told her I was trying to do better at that.
“You also listen better,” she said.
And I had an epiphany. It struck me. I read between the lines of that comment. When I sat and thought about it, I realized what I was doing and what she was responding to. I was calmer because honestly life was calmer and everything didn’t feel so urgent. I wasn’t always trying to fix her or fix the stressors in her life.
I realized she had been retreating because she didn’t want to hear it. She already knew when she had messed up in games or at school. She already knew she felt sad about whatever situation she was dealing with. She didn’t need me to remind her, give her pointers, tell her how to fix it, or fix it for her. She didn’t need me to make her feel better, she just needed and wanted me to listen and let her feel however she was feeling. She just needed me to hold space for her just like I did with my adult friends. So, that is what I started doing.
Now, almost a year later, life has picked up again and school and sports have resumed. I am working daily on just listening and asking the right questions. Don’t get me wrong, I am still tough on her when she needs it. When or if her safety is at stake, I don’t mess around. However, for the daily, everyday stuff, I’ve started listening and asking questions. When she tells me something I can tell she is clearly upset about, I say “How do you feel about that?” Instead of picking apart her athletic performances I ask, “How do you feel about that game?” Or I simply say “Good job. I enjoyed watching you play.” When she told me she failed a math test, I said “What do you think happened? What went wrong?” I’ve started saying things like, “I understand why that would make you feel crappy. I’m sorry you feel that way. Want to talk about it?”
I have sat and listened without interjecting for long enough now to earn her trust.
And finally, she seeks me out, and wait for it . . . she asks for my advice and my opinion things. She’s not scared of my reactions anymore.
And believe me, none of this is easy. It doesn’t come naturally for me. I am a recovering control freak. Feeling out of control of a situation brings me a lot of anxiety. And if we are being honest, it probably doesn’t come easy for a lot of parents. The hardest thing we will do in life is not rescue or try to control our kids. It’s as ingrained in our parent DNA as minivans. It starts when they are tiny helpless babies who rely solely on us for survival. They cry and our instinct is to make them stop. To find out what is wrong. Fix it. Make it better. Make them happy.
And they start growing up and we just continue this pattern. It’s our mindset. It doesn’t occur to us that we don’t have to do this all the time especially when they get older and their personalities start to develop. We don’t have to rescue them all of the time. We don’t have to control their emotions or how they are feeling. We can’t. So stop trying and just start listening.
We, and this includes our kids, are humans with complicated, messy emotions that are difficult to navigate. Sometimes we just need someone to listen and to trust—and so do our kids.