How do we connect with our teens when we barely see them because they’re so busy with their teenage social lives? We stockpile all kinds of questions, concerns and reminders, and we blurt them out whenever we have the chance, as we see our kids in passing. Gordon Neufeld and other psychologists and educators promote the idea of “connecting before directing”, suggesting that we can’t actually guide our children unless we have a relationship with them. This is also the basis of our approach in LIFE Seminars.
Dr. Yurgelun-Todd discovered a scientific reason for developing a connection with our kids. She monitored the brains of adult and teen volunteers while they were asked to discern the emotion in a series of pictures of frightened faces. While all the adults identified the emotion of fear correctly, most of the teenagers saw the faces as angry. When examining the brain scans, Todd found that the teenagers were using a different part of their brain from the adults when reading images. Adults processed these images with the prefrontal cortex, the rational part of the brain; teens processed them with the amygdala, the instinctual, emotional part of the brain that is linked to primal feelings such as fear and rage. These emotions can trigger a “fight, flight or freeze” reaction.
So imagine what goes on when there is tension in the parent/child relationship and the only windows of time together are when we pick our kids up in the car or wake them up in the morning. What is the teen’s experience? They see our face, which might look concerned or afraid, but they see anger. They hear our concerns as complaints. Now they’re in that defensive position where they don’t care what we think or say, they only want to protect themselves. This can be overwhelming for the teen, and they really can’t help this, it is immaturity of the brain combined with hormones!
When parenting my teens, I felt the need to put together this information about the brain with what I know about the need for connection. I devoted myself to something I called “The Greeting Ritual”. Whenever I made contact with one of my kids, either when they came home from work or school or when I picked them up in the car, I would refrain from asking questions, complaining or talking about anything that could be seen as negative for ten minutes. I would be positive or neutral. I lovingly unplugged from my agenda to guide, direct and reform my kids.
My first experience was picking my very social 16-year-old daughter up at a friend’s just a little later on a Friday night than I would have liked. I wasn’t sure whether I could stop myself from saying something that would be taken the wrong way because just about everything in our relationship was at that stage. I decided to stuff bubble gum in my mouth, actually two pieces of Hubba Bubba, the big stuff. I then made sure that I had something interesting playing on my car stereo, a little Frank Zappa which seemed like a good distraction. I was armed and ready for the greeting ritual.
I will always remember that look my daughter had when she’d walk toward the car, kind of sour, cold and ready to do battle. The first time was tough because Frank led her to stick her IPOD in both ears. But hey, we didn’t talk and I looked happy, that was a shift. That worked really well for her. After a few days I noticed that she looked different walking to the car. She didn’t have that look of dread and actually seemed more relaxed. I soon noticed that if I just stayed neutral and pleasant, she would start to talk about her concerns regarding school. That gave me a chance to listen and support her without taking over. If I did have something to say, it seemed to be better received once we had that initial connection.
It helped when my husband bought into this idea as well. I remember him walking through the front door late at night with my daughter. I expected a wave of negative energy but instead, they were laughing, she said goodnight and that was it. Peering over my bifocals from my book I asked him why they were so cheerful. “The greeting ritual” was his response. “I felt like lecturing her about not calling earlier but I didn’t say anything. Before I knew it she told me about her night and how she and her friend stayed with another friend until she got safely on the bus. How could I get mad about that?”
I also focused on this when my son would come home from work. I was concerned about him and knew he was struggling but my anxiety was only interfering with his confidence. I avoided the questions about his day and gave him a chance to unwind and relax. This was really about me harnessing my own anxiety and becoming less intrusive both with my son and my daughter. It was a practical way to put relationship first and it seemed to build up some trust for both of the kids. That little bit of conscious connection helped them feel calm and helped me to practice some self-restraint. It gave all of us an opportunity to have a little calmness during times that felt a little strained. This was a small, manageable shift in behavior that led to steady positive changes in our relationships.
So – the essence of the greeting ritual is greeting our teenage kids pleasantly rather than overwhelming them with questions and advice when we have a chance to see them. Try it – it can make a huge difference in our relationship with them.