My teenaged daughter called me on my cell while I was out for a drink with a friend the other day. “Where are you?” she asked with a tone of irritation in her voice. It was noisy in the restaurant, so I spoke a little louder than usual so she could hear me. I told her where I was and asked what she needed. She wanted a ride to her girlfriend’s right away and when I said that I could not drive her right away, she became more irritated, “Why not?!” I then suggested
she walk or take the bus to her friend’s but she was disinterested in my suggestions. “Fine!” she said abruptly and hung up on me. Wooah! I thought to myself. What’s with her?! How dare she talk to me like that and hang up on me! Shall I call her back and tell her she has no right speaking to me like that. My parents would never have allowed me to speak to them with such disrespect! I would never have had the nerve! This couldn’t possibly be the same sweet daughter who is usually sensitive, cheerful and who just yesterday paid me a very nice compliment.
If you are (or ever have been) the parent of a teenager, this kind of situation should sound familiar. Teenagers sometimes ‘push your buttons’ and when we are spoken to with disrespect it is natural to react. I have written previously about why teenagers can behave this way in Five Things To Know About Your Teen’s Brain and How to Guide Them. It is often very tempting to react and treat them with the same disrespect that they are showing to you to give them and give them a ‘taste of their own medicine.’ Or to get angry back and tell them we won’t be spoken to like that.
When we reflect a bit, however, we know this will only make matters worse. As I wrote in How Do You Get Respect From Your Teenager? , some of the things we do that teenagers say destroys their respect for us are: when we retaliate to their attacks with insults , hurtful words, sarcasm, rolling your eyes, saying something under our breath, or when we act like a teenager ourselves when upset.
Parent Teen Relationship Ruptures
According to Dr. Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell in their book Parenting From the Inside Out, a deeper self -understanding can help you raise children who thrive. If we repeatedly react rather than reflect and respond, during these moments of frustration, we are apt to create communication breakdown, and power struggles. We can be much more effective parents when we remain collaborative with teenagers by staying engaged during difficult conversations. Being aware of our own emotional reactivity or ‘hot buttons,’ and knowing how to remain calm, we prevent what Siegel and Hartzell call “relationship ruptures”.
Parent-child relationship ruptures naturally occur in the oscillating needs for connection and autonomy. Attuned parents can deal well with this normal tension for each person’s need for connection and time for solitude. It is normal for there to be more desire for autonomy during the period of adolescence. This is when more significant relationship ruptures can occur
when setting limits and trying to stay close.
Limit setting is crucial for a child or adolescent to develop a healthy sense of inhibition and the judgement capabilities not yet fully developed in their brains. Setting limits, such as negotiating or setting curfews, deciding on what you are going to pay for, when you will drive them and when they will find their own way, often creates parent-child emotional tension. The key to staying in connection during these limit-setting conversations is to realign yourself with your teenager’s primary emotional state. In my limit-setting conversation with my daughter who wanted a drive which I could not give her, I needed to try and understand her primary worry. Did she need to be there at a certain time…..was she tired and not wanting to walk? Unfortunately, she hung up before I could fully understand her primary
Toxic rupture is the term Siegel and Hartzell give the disconnecting interaction that an emotionally-reactive parent creates when they lose control. It is when we take the low road of impulsive, repetitive responses which lack self-reflection or empathy for the teen’s point of view. When we yell, threaten, say “you always…..” or “you never……” or call our child names, we can create a toxic rupture to the relationship. Our over-reaction is usually connected to an overwhelming sense inadequacy and shame. We likely feel helpless to affect our child’s behaviour. In this cascade of frustration, humiliation and rage, we can feel our own ineffectiveness or even defectiveness. We can hear ourselves saying the things we were told as kids and promised never to do when we became parents. This over-reactivity is usually connected to our own childhood history.
Repair to the relationship can only happen when we have our temper under control, able to take the high road which involves rational, reflective, flexible thinking. We need to be emotionally calm and centred. We must take the initiative with our teenager to repair the rupture as it will not be forgotten by them. Being able to focus on both your own experience as well as that of your teenagers is critical as you apologize and acknowledge that you are sorry that you lost it and hurt them.
Almost all teenagers have greater respect for their parents when they are able to admit their own mistake and apologize. A teenager’s apology is more likely to come when their parent offers one. After this happens, you and your teen are able to collaborate, because both of you are in the same boat, trying to work together on the problem without losing it.
How to Stop Over-Reacting, Keep Your Buttons Deactivated and Take the High Road
Think of an example of a relationship rupture with your own teen. What happened? How did you feel? How did your child respond?
- Was a ‘hot button’ pushed and a leftover unresolved issue from your past activated?
- Was there any toxic (yelling, threats or insults) element in the rupture?
- If you took the low road, where did that path take you in your mind or memory?
- How did you recover from taking the low road?
- Can you recognize any patterns in ways that this old issue interferes with you having a collaborative connection with your teenager?
- What aspects of the repair process are most difficult for you? How does shame play a part for you?
- How can you make a repair within yourself? What defences of yours keep you from being aware of your feelings of shame?
- Think of ways in which your own childhood history has given you a sense of disconnection and shame. Let those images and sensations come into your awareness. Don’t censor them, observe them. When
ready, ask yourself how you will heal these old wounds.
It is not easy to be introspective and accept your part of the conflict when you feel your teenager has it pretty good compared to you as a child. By the way, I did not call my daughter who hung up on me right back. I decided to try the high road and understand why she was so irritated. I called her an hour later, told her I was sorry I was not home to drive her when she wanted and then asked how she got to her girlfriends. She said she had walked. I asked her why she sounded …..so grumpy when she called me earlier. She said she was expecting me to be home and had not planned on having to make other alternative transportation. She did not really say sorry for how she spoke to me, but the issue was discussed and resolved.