Where the hell is the manual, “How to Raise Children”? At least a Dummies Guide would be helpful. And if you’re like me, I have one child and zero previous experience from an older sibling to guide me in raising him. Yet somehow, the last three years in middle school, with the gazillion questions, hormones, and emotions raging at an all-time high, have taught me more about parenting my young teenager than the eleven years leading up to it.
One of the most helpful lessons I stumbled upon in the past few years was allowing him to see my flaws and insecurities as a parent. In a weak moment, I felt so broken down, until what happened next blew me away. My mistakes are APLENTY in our household, and recognizing them with apologies are now an integral part of my parenting. The result of my vulnerability gives him something I never knew he needed — validation of his feelings — and I swear this game-changing strategy has also encouraged honesty and fostered his trust.
I’m no dummy though, as with most kids, he doesn’t share it ALL with me — and I don’t expect him to.
Only recently I noticed when he decides to share something with me that he is struggling with, he poses the same question after he details his situation: “Has this ever happened to you?” Most of the time, he wants to work through a social issue or hiccup with a friend, and occasionally it’s an academic challenge that doesn’t go his way.
In the past, the self-righteous, fixer part of my personality — wanting to make everything better instantly — would quickly tell him what he SHOULD do in the situation. This dismissive tactic rarely ended our conversations neatly and usually created a more emotional kid who didn’t feel heard. Then, the repeated slumped posture of a defeated kid shuffling away from me unlocked memories of me sulking away exactly the same way at his age. My parents also used this (very common) tactic with me growing up. I guarantee this parenting strategy contributed to one of the defining markers of my Gen X collective. I remember feeling frustrated, defeated, and essentially unknown, many times in my early teens, which led to me bottling up my true feelings, achieving sophisticated, Oscar-worthy masking techniques, and developing a hard exterior that would take decades to soften. I don’t want my teenager to endure the same cycle.
I’ve read countless times that we parent our own children the way we needed (or wanted) to be parented. I must agree in part, but not wholly, because I implement so many of my parents’ techniques with our son while trying to incorporate what I now understand to be, the validation piece.
If anything has helped our relationship in the last few years, it’s the validation piece. It’s me answering when he asks, “Has this ever happened to you?” He wants a detailed version of my experience that was like his, whether it is from my childhood or from last week. Regardless of his questions to me, while recounting my similar experiences, they seem to all be seeking one thing: validation of his feelings in his current situation. And in order for me to help him to the other side of whatever struggle he’s shared, I must not skip the critical step of acknowledging his feelings and corroborating his emotions with my own story. I’m relieved to have discovered, completely unintentionally, how important this piece of his puzzle is, especially as we approach the high school years where he will certainly look at me with different eyes, if even at all.
While sharing experiences of my own with our teenager seems to have helped him work through his challenges, it has simultaneously healed old wounds in my heart, many I didn’t realize were there. My catharsis also lends forgiveness and grace to my parents because they did their best and exactly what other parents did raising children at that time. I can only hope, when the time comes, my son forgives my parenting ways and extends grace to me when he is raising his own teenager.