When parents ask me how to handle a son who is aggressively pushing back against his dad, or a daughter who is screaming the house down determined to get her own way, I have two golden words of advice – SOFT and CLOSE. It goes against the innate instinct of most parents who may be tempted to use harsh authority in order to control the situation. However, when young people meet harsh authority, the clash is tangible.
When the volume goes up in your home, no one wins. You can win an argument at work or on the rugby field with a little push and shove (and possibly get away with it), but when you do it at home, no one walks away a winner. You might temporarily get your own way, but in the end you lose the relationship. Each conflict you have with your teen is actually pulling you closer together or further apart.
A foolproof way of getting a bad reaction out of a teen is to use harsh words, name calling or judgements. Words like, “I can’t believe you have been so stupid”, or “You listen to me kid…” is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Harsh words press every insecurity and seldom bring out the best in our teens.
A better method is SOFT and CLOSE, which simply means making sure your tone and body language is disarmed and connected.
Try standing or sitting next to them side by side when you talk. Use a calm tone. Using manners doesn’t diminish your authority as a parent. For the best results, speak to your teenager in the same way that you would like your teenager to speak to you, regardless of their behaviour.
I wonder what would happen if we addressed an angry teen by saying, “Sounds like this is important to you” or “You have put a lot of thought into this, tell me more about what you are thinking.” What would happen to their sense of self if we stopped and affirmed their voice in those moments where they desperately wanted to be heard.
If we are going to raise strong sons and daughters, strong enough to embrace their struggles, we have to be prepared to hear their ‘voice’ which says, “This is who I am, right now, in all my mistakes and immaturity. This is what I believe…” The most important thing we can do is recognise the signs that our children are growing up into adults.
Our teens are demanding to be heard and respected in their own right. That’s actually wonderful if we think of it in these terms. They want to be validated for their voice, regardless how immature we feel that voice is. They are starting to see themselves as leaders of their own destiny.
One mum asked me, where does the word ‘no’ come into play with my soft and close strategy? I answered, “It is actually the secret ingredient for saying “no” well.” You can either say ‘no’ as a harsh authority figure, lording it over a young person, or you can say ‘no’, soft and close, sitting next to a child. A soft and close way of saying no is, “I know this is going to disappoint you, and I will totally understand if you feel angry about it, but I am going to have to say no to you going to that party on Friday night. I don’t feel that there is enough supervision.”
I would like to suggest that our teenager’s relationship with authority can either make them or break them. In fact, I will say it another way, a teens relationship with authority DEFINES how they enter adulthood.
You can’t bully a teen into becoming an adult. You also can’t befriend a teen into becoming an adult. I believe it takes open hearted, deliberate parenting that is prepared to walk softly and closely next to a child. You have to mentor a teen towards adulthood and surround them with healthy, mature relationships.
This is the results of soft and close for one mum who wrote to me and said, “I really focussed on this strategy today Michelle. My relationship with my daughter has been really tense over the last year or so. She is angry all the time and up and down constantly with friends. She’s over-sensitive at home and nothing I do or so say is ever taken the right way. I find myself impatient and snappy, often in anticipation of her snapping at me. I have tended to bark instructions at her. I know my tone isn’t always great. Today I went into her room and I just spent a moment with her before I asked her to come out and help me with the dinner. I need to make a habit of slowing down and being in the moment with her. I’m taking this one on board.”
Teenage ego is an interesting soul to work with. As it develops it cries out really loudly to be respected. Our responses at those times are quite critical to how our teenagers see themselves. When we squash them, we squash a part of them which is crying out to be firstly heard and then nurtured. Please be the parent and address the issue but remember it is HOW you address it which will determine its effectiveness. Sometimes it is in the tough times that they need us to stand beside them not over the top of them.
RECOMMENDED READING: You can find more on this topic in Michelle’s book ‘Parenting Teenage Girls in the Age of a New Normal‘.