Who Are You and What Have You Done With My Child?

5 Steps to Reclaim Communication and Trust During the Pre-Teen and Teen Years

By Tiffany Meyer

Let’s face it, the pre-teen and teen years have nothing on the “terrible two’s.” Somewhere between the hormones, braces, and growth spurts, my 11-year old’s casual jokes and sweet remarks had been replaced with sassy backtalk and defensiveness. With schoolwork, her attention-to-detail was exchanged for a “just get it done” approach. And housework? Well, let’s just say she’s easily distracted. Where did she come from?

It’s so easy to be reactive during these challenging growth years — to jump to labels, judgments, and criticism as I did. To reclaim the relationship we once had, it’s critical that I walk the talk with my child. Here are 5 things I’ve learned that can help you stay connected to your son or daughter when times get tough.

1. Thirteen, Going on. . . Know Where Your Child Is, Developmentally

Understanding what’s going on with my child’s physical and emotional development is a big factor in my ability to connect to her needs in the moment. And this is where I think a lot of us get a bit stumped.

The truth is, a typical pre-teen is bombarded with physical changes, matched with an almost overwhelming need for autonomy and belonging. Their social relationships — how they fit in, whether or not they feel accepted — take center stage.

It can be difficult for some pre-teens to concentrate for long periods of time, and in the quest for autonomy, they may push a bit more on seemingly trivial topics. The need for acceptance is critical to pre-teens and teens alike. Without it, they are lost in a never-ending identity crisis.

Knowing this helps me connect to the needs behind my child’s behavior, and equally important, shift to more realistic expectations, and requests that are less likely to generate tension.

2. Labels are Good for Stored Food, Not Kids

A few months into Lydia’s 6th grade year, I found myself constantly frustrated, and hypercritical when it came to the quality of her schoolwork. I kept saying, “this isn’t your best, why don’t you push yourself and work at your potential rather than just what’s expected of you?”

Before I knew it I’d labeled my daughter as “lazy,” and myself as the “nagging mom.”

Ugh. How had I morphed from a fairly compassionate, fun-loving parent to a tense, nagging mom who never seems satisfied? Time to stop and check in. These labels were not getting me want I wanted.

Try connecting to your needs instead of applying a convenient label. What I really needed was reassurance — that my daughter’s academics wouldn’t suddenly go down the tube, that she was being challenged enough, that she still enjoyed learning.

I found that reassurance by talking with other parents who had the same questions I did, and the same fear and frustration. All of us had recognized a shift in our kids’ focus on school, and together we realized how normal the behavior was.

In other words, when I connected to my needs, I was able to recognize the impact my labels had in my ability to get those needs met.

3. Don't Just Do Something — Stand There

With the help of a few dear friends (thank you Todd and Jen), I realized I could get back to the relationship with my daughter I want by bringing a different presence to our interactions.

When I came to a conversation with Lydia connected to my absolute love for her, and my total acceptance of her right now, exactly as she is, I saw a dramatic change in our interactions, and of course a huge shift in my own stress level.

Conflict fell away, and my girl was back! (At least for the length of that interaction.) I also became much more attuned to my own reactions to her behavior, and was able to connect to my needs and hers before I jumped to judgment.

When you model this presence to your child, it makes it infinitely easier for them to bring a similar presence to their own future interactions.

4. Acknowledge the Positive — In Your Child and in Yourself

No matter what our child’s age, acknowledgement is critical — be sure to acknowledge positive behavior in a way that helps them understand how it’s met your needs (and theirs!). Here’s an example:

“Lydia, last week you got along beautifully with Alex (your stepbrother). Let’s celebrate the role you had in making that happen. I can guess that because you came to him with an attitude of acceptance, patience, and love, that it had a huge impact on how well the two of you got along.

Not only did you meet his needs for acceptance and love, but you met your own. Can you guess what needs of yours were met last week?”

I’ve also found the more I model acknowledgement and celebration of my own little accomplishments with communication, the more Lydia does herself. Acknowledgement leads to self-empowerment (that “I guess I can do this” realization), and for kids it often takes just one success, duly acknowledged, to shift behavior.

5. Make Talk Time a Priority and Watch the Trust Grow

Regardless of your schedule, making regular time to just talk and connect with your kids helps nurture mutual trust, a big factor in reducing future conflicts. Schedule regular “talk time” where the TV and phone are off, and your attention is entirely on one another.

This could be over dinner, your walk to school, or even on a daily commute home. The key is to remove distractions so you can really hear each other. It isn’t the amount of time, but the quality of presence I bring to the conversation that builds trust.

Dinner time is talk time for Lydia and I, and I love to just sit back and give her the floor. These are moments when our kids toss their heart to us to see where it lands. My hope is to be there to catch it, as I recognize how critical my response is to her own budding self-awareness.

Tiffany Meyer is the past editor and a contributing writer to the NVC Quick Connect e-Newsletter, the founder of the Help Share NVC Project, past marketing director for PuddleDancer Press, founder/president of Numa Marketing, author of Writing a Results-Driven Marketing Plan: The Nonprofit’s Guide to Making Every Dollar Count, and creator of the companion online training program, Results-Driven Marketing Mastery. She has been learning and practicing NVC for more than a decade and remains committed to integrating it into her personal and professional life.