Rules of Engagement for Families (and Teachers)

As my kids got older, I began to realize that it was going to be necessary to change the way we addressed certain issues in our home. While I still encouraged lots of discussion and offered to be present and support my teens as they worked out their own differences, it became clear to me that their unique personalities meant that they approached this in very different ways. This tended to make conversations turn in to conflict, if only because one of my daughters is someone who wants to hash things out instantly, in the moment, and stay until it’s done, while the other one prefers to walk away when emotions get high, re-center herself, and decide if it’s a fight worth having. After a few ugly scenes (complete with doors slamming and tears), we sat down to create a set of ground rules that would work for everyone, and I think they’re pretty universal, so I’ve adopted them as rules for any classroom or student gathering I’m in that has a conflict of some sort. Here they are:

  1. Everyone at the table is here because they want to be (not because they are forced to be or guilted into it). Force and guilt/shame set up a power dynamic that means the discussion is doomed to fail before it even starts.
  2. Everyone has the same rights – we are all equals and we all deserve to be heard and our perspectives respected. It doesn’t matter how old someone is or what their status in the family/classroom is. There are no trump cards if we are truly interested in working through this to everyone’s satisfaction. If someone thinks that they’re bound to be over-ruled at some point, there’s no point in engaging. And if anyone else believes that they ultimately get to decide what happens, there’s no point in them listening to the others.
  3. Even if we can’t understand someone else’s point of view or feelings, we respect their right to have it and we all agree not to belittle anyone because of it. No gaslighting. Your reaction might seem disproportionate or even absurd to me, but since I’m not living in your skin, I don’t get to tell you how you should feel and I certainly don’t get to shame you for feeling the way you feel.
  4. No name-calling, ultimatums, demands, hate speech. This one might seem patently obvious, but often when we get in to a situation that seems to be going nowhere, we resort to these tactics to ratchet up the urgency. They’re not helpful at all if what we really want is to solve the problem at hand.
  5. We all agree to work our hardest to define a common goal for this situation and work toward it. Bringing up past resentments is not okay because it derails the conversation. There may well be patterns of behavior you have noticed over time, but if you want to have a conversation about this incident or issue right now, you need to stay in this moment. No fair blaming or shaming someone for something they did in the past. Period.
  6. No eye-rolling or turning away or other negative body language. This sends the clear message that you’re not listening or you’re not interested in really understanding where the other person is coming from. If you’re not, there’s no reason for you to be here.
  7. If someone decides they can’t be part of the conversation right now for any reason, they are allowed to leave, but they agree to be part of the conversation in the near future so that bad feelings won’t fester and things won’t remain unsolved. ‘Nuff said.
  8. Everyone agrees to own their part of the issue and take responsibility for their words or actions that might have caused others pain or frustration. There are multiple sides to every conflict. Nobody is ever all right or all wrong.
  9. Blaming and shaming, labeling someone, and using words like “always” and “never” will not move us forward and should be avoided. These are all shortcuts to ending a conversation and an indication that you’re making assumptions about the other person’s character or intent. You won’t get anywhere if you use these tactics.

 

New Mindful Parenting Workbook Out

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This small but mighty parenting workbook is officially available on my Amazon estore this week.

Purchase it for use on your own or with friends. It is packed with information about how your teen/tween’s brain works, what they’re experiencing when they make decisions and struggle with anxiety, and activities and tips on diffusing conflict, building strong relationships, and parenting mindfully.

Check it out and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you at kari@theselfproject.com

Mindful Parenting: Counterfeit Connection

We all want to be connected to others, to have a tribe, to feel community. This push is particularly strong during adolescence, and it is important during this time to help kids understand what true connection is and what it isn’t.

Unfortunately, we don’t generally form strong bonds with others quickly. Trust and connection require sustained interaction that is consistent over time. We all know how quickly a relationship can be called in to question with one act of betrayal, and how long it takes to restore.

Sometimes, though, we think we can create intimacy and connection quickly, and I have discovered that there are two ways teens and tweens try to do this that  create a false sense of trust and connection and end up backfiring.

  • Oversharing – It’s true that one characteristic of close relationships is personal knowledge. We tend to trust those individuals with whom we are closest with our most intimate secrets. But often, adolescents think that if they share their most personal information with someone else, that will jump start a close relationship. Unfortunately, that isn’t generally how it works. Unless that person has demonstrated that they will honor that disclosure by keeping it safe, this is almost always a bad idea. You simply can’t be sure that a person is reliable or trustworthy without being in relationship with them over a period of time. It is important for parents to talk to teens about how they know someone else can be trusted and why they are choosing to be vulnerable.
  • Gossip – There is nothing that binds people like a common adversary, and while they may not realize what they’re doing, many adolescents share other people’s secrets as a way to create intimacy with their own friends. Not only does it make us look better when we compare ourselves to someone else’s shameful mistake, but letting our friends know that we trust them enough to share a secret seems important, even if it wasn’t our secret to tell. In the long run, this tactic will not work by its very nature because in the act of gossiping, we are demonstrating that we ourselves are not trustworthy. This can feel like a powerful bond in the short term, but it does nothing to build authentic connections with others.

There are many elements of a healthy, strong relationship, and they all take time. That is not very comforting news to a lonely teenager, but the more we talk to them about what kinds of friendships they want to have and why, the more they can begin to make choices about how they interact with others. One way to do this is to talk about the people in their life that they trust the most and why. Ask them how these people have shown them, over time, that they truly care for them, and share information about your closest, most trusted relationships with them. Contrast that with people who may have betrayed their trust and yours. Ask if they have ever worked hard to regain someone else’s trust after they broke it and what that was like.

As parents, we want our kids to have good relationships, but it isn’t as easy as deciding who to hang out with. They need to understand what goes in to a good relationship, too.

Mindful Parenting Tip: Check Your Assumptions

This is one of the most impactful changes I have ever made and while it is simple, it takes practice. It also works for educators and school administrators, or anyone who is in a position of power over students or children.

Step 1: When your t(w)een is doing something you don’t like, stop and name what you’re feeling.  For example, if you’ve asked them to come do a chore and they aren’t responding, recognize what your immediate reaction is. Is it frustration? Annoyance? Anger? Maybe there is some story in your head about how often they do this particular thing, “he always ignores me when I ask him to empty the dishwasher!”

Step 2: Acknowledge that what you’re feeling is about you and your priorities, which are absolutely valid, but your child can’t be expected to know what they are right now.  Once you’ve acknowledged it, let it go.

Step 3: Ask in a neutral or inquisitive tone whether there is a good reason why your child isn’t responding to you right now. It may be that he is in the middle of a challenging assignment and he wants to focus and finish it before being interrupted. Or maybe there is some other circumstance that you can’t possibly imagine which is causing the delay. Or,  maybe, you’re just being ignored or teased. Whatever the reason, if you assume bad intent without getting all of the information, you’re painting your child into a pretty tight corner. If you remain curious about the situation and are clear about your priorities, you are more likely to get a positive response and move toward getting your needs met.

I have heard many stories from students about situations where a teacher yelled at them for not making eye contact or for doodling on their paper when the teacher wanted them to “pay attention.” Those scenarios might enforce compliance, but they don’t build trust, and in many cases, the student had what they felt was a perfectly good reason for doing what they were doing at that point. Had the teacher given the student the benefit of the doubt and stopped to ask why they weren’t “paying attention,” they might have gotten good information about that student without the risk of alienating them. This is especially helpful in cases where a student has a non-traditional learning style. Some kids need to doodle or bounce in their chair in order to comprehend what the teacher is saying. Others have a difficult time making eye contact at all, or might need a little extra time to focus before moving on.

As a parent, when I’m in a hurry, it is easy for me to forget that my children are often immersed in things that are important to them, and I sometimes revert to asserting my power to make them do things on my schedule. I can get angry if I feel as though they aren’t paying attention to me, but if I stop and remember to not take it personally, in general they are more open to helping because I took their priorities into consideration.