All parents struggle with fears and worries about their children and many end up just getting in their own way. When you take your children’s behavior personally and use your authority to control them to do what you want, you may wind up creating the scenario you most fear.
The problem comes when we think it’s our children who need to change when indeed it is us. Whatever you need to do to get to acceptance is the answer.
The following is a story from one of my clients that I find truly inspiring. Her struggles to understand her son and ultimately herself have led to a wonderful relationship. I hope it motivates you to trust your children and let go of a small bit of your fears. You will always have fears and doubts — you wouldn’t be a conscientious parent without them. But in the moment, when your child needs your connection, you must be able to at least temporarily put those fears aside.
Reflections on my journey with my son – Mother of three
I am enjoying a playful moment in the kitchen with my 6’6, 17 year old son. He likes to get in my space and see if he can startle me with his big teenage energy. I get flustered and cry out, “You make me feel anxious when you do that!” He smiles with this gentle warmth and looking right in my eyes he says lovingly, “Mum, it’s not what I do that makes you feel anxious. It’s what you think about what I do.”
The wisdom of his insight seems far beyond his years and the truth of it shimmers in the moment. It has been a lot of inner and outer work for me to get here. I remember hearing years ago that I couldn’t worry and love at the same time. Given that choice I wanted to choose love as the energy that I was offering my children — also to myself as the worry felt utterly agonizing to live with. However, so often things happening on the outside seemed to justify worry and that “thought slide” became easy to glide down with ever repeated use.
We found Bonnie Harris when our child was in middle school. My husband and I consulted her, driven by our deep concerns that our son was developing a gaming addiction. Having been an incredibly active, outdoor-loving child, all of a sudden, he seemed willing to forego what we thought of as his “healthy” choices for spending hours on end in his room in front of a screen. We had entered into a pattern of trying to curb his screen time followed by endless arguing. We had majorly lost connection with our son.
I will not forget that late afternoon meeting in Bonnie’s office, me tearful, my husband and I feeling distant from each other because of our own fighting over how to parent our son, and both of us worried about him. After hearing what we had to say and a long, thoughtful pause, Bonnie gestured to the empty chair in our circle and asked gently, “What do you imagine your son would say if he were sitting here with us and could speak for himself?” Immediately I was drawn to my heart space that felt full of compassion and love for him and I said, “I think he would say, “You don’t understand me.’”
It was an instant, dramatic and powerful paradigm shift. I got out of my head which was very much about me and into my heart where I could truly be with him without my thoughts. And he really had spoken to me. At the end of that meeting, Bonnie suggested we make the shift to tell our son we trusted his inner guidance that would help him regulate his gaming. She prepared us that he might really go wild with this freedom for a time, but she suspected things would work out.
I wrote him a letter to express what we had learned and how we were shifting to a place of trust in him. It was greeted with a huge smile and relief. It was so clear that he wanted connection with us too and to feel that we had faith in him to make his own choices.
What a journey it has been in the last 7 years. I cannot count the number of times I have gotten buried in worry while my son smiled at me and said with his eyes, “Trust me.” The title of one of Bonnie’s books is, “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons”. I always used to focus on “When Your Kids Push…” but I had an Aha! moment recently and saw “Your Buttons” seemingly for the first time. These are not our kids buttons, they are ours. And we can certainly do something about our own buttons.
Here is an example of how I have come to discover my own issue and address it. I have often fretted about seeing my son have an interest and then not have the discipline to develop it. He loved playing basketball in middle school, and I imagined he would play in high school but to my surprise he didn’t play any sports for the first three years. To get into a place of trust, I took a good hard look at the button that was being pushed. Where did I have an interest and no discipline? My contemplation led me to start taking voice lessons and practicing daily. It took enormous effort at first, but I felt so fulfilled when I honored my commitment! I saw how it also took my attention away from worrying about my son and it set an example of discipline that he could notice… or not!
To my absolute utter surprise, my son is now on the Varsity Basketball team in his senior year because he said he realized he missed it and wanted to play with his friends. When he tried out, the coach said, “Well son, this is unusual to be trying out in your senior year, but you don’t know what you can do if you don’t try!” He mostly doesn’t play in games but loves practicing, being on a great team and is often getting his teammates cups of water during a timeout. He’s happy and he did it his way. He also has even said that he can see how far he could have come if he had kept playing. And he feels comfortable saying that to us because he feels his parent’s detachment. I know I didn’t cause any of this but because I focused on myself, I feel so fulfilled with my own pursuits and I bring a more joyful, independent me to enjoy going to the team’s games.
In short, I’ve learned when someone pushes my buttons, the only thing I have control over is what I do with the opportunity to see and address my own stuff. That’s so empowering.
I have gotten very creative about my buttons too! I’ve looked for many ways to bring my attention back to myself and not wandering around into my son’s business. When my son got his license and I saw my mind going wild about the potential scenarios that might result from my thrill-seeking teen, I created an imaginary warm, loving and burly bodyguard that I would mentally see by my son’s side to look out for him. I would send them off in my mind with love. It puts my mind at rest in an outer situation where I had no control. It lessons my stress. The button was my own tendency toward anxiety.
After our first meeting with Bonnie, my husband and I jumped fully on the same page to make connection with our son the priority. Over the years we’ve consulted Bonnie when we felt we were parenting in a way that seemed so outside the “norm” of a “top down” approach that is so advocated in our culture. We were checking in with our intuition and having discussions with our son and arriving at solutions and compromises. It was so helpful to have a third party look at all of it and confirm that we were on the right track for our family because our connection and open communication was there. I remember during one of our discussions with our son, he said, “Mum, I know you really care about me, but I think what you don’t understand is that I really care about me too!”
I heard years ago that something so important to a human being is the ability to make choices. That a teen, when confronted with control from parents will do everything in their power to demonstrate that they have choice, even if it means that the way to do it is by doing something that may appear self-destructive. Whatever we resist persists, especially with regards to teens.
I have witnessed parents fighting to control their teenagers, and it appears that what they are really doing is teaching their teens to cultivate a habit of being really good at lying. What else are the children going to do when faced with a punishment if they tell the truth? And I have seen the heartache of a parent feeling disconnected from their child and at a loss for how to ever get that back with sincerely no understanding that perhaps the way to do it is to let go of their expectations of how things should be and sink into acceptance of what is with an open heart.
Byron Katie, in her book “A Thousand Names for Joy”, page 186, says it so exquisitely:
“It’s painful to think you know what’s best for your children. It’s hopeless. When you think that you need to protect them, you’re teaching anxiety and dependence. But when you question your mind and learn how not to be mentally in your children’s business, finally there’s an example in the house: someone who knows how to live a happy life. They notice that you have your act together and that you’re happy, so they start to follow. You have taught them everything they know about anxiety and dependence, and now they begin to learn something else, something about what freedom looks like…. If your happiness depends on your children being happy, that makes them your hostages. I think I’ll just skip them and be happy from here. That’s a lot saner. It’s called unconditional love…. If what they do brings them happiness, that’s what I want; if it brings them unhappiness, that’s what I want, because they learn from that what I could never teach them.”
So here I find myself, a woman and a mother who is continually growing and learning and living into new subtleties that are revealed on this journey with my son. There is part of me that wishes I could go back and tell my younger self that all that energy of worrying was for naught, but I had to learn it for myself just as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz couldn’t know about her ruby red slippers and their power from the very beginning.
My son is in a wonderful place in his life, applying to colleges on his own terms, exploring all sorts of new hobbies, one of them being a passion for wall climbing. This young man who I wondered years ago if he would ever even stick it out through high school scored in the 98th percentile of the SAT. When I asked him how he got such a high verbal score he told me about how he is usually reading articles when he is on his phone. I never thought of that! He never had a book in his hand, so I thought…
And all those hours of gaming? He still loves to game with his friends, and I imagine it will always be a hobby, but it doesn’t dominate his life. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that he has a real knack for computer programming and plans to major in Computer Science. When I watch him program, I see that all those skills he was learning with his fingers in gaming are what he puts to use in programming.
I so look forward to having more of my assumptions dismantled. In fact, I find he has taught me that making assumptions about him, or anyone else for that matter, and judgement of any kind is a huge waste of energy and time. He has been and continues to be my greatest teacher and I am so grateful for it. After all, it is my immense love for my son that has been the force to guide me to continually choose connection with him and set aside my ego when required — to settle into the place of simply not knowing the answer of what is “right”. As I see it, that’s a win-win!