How to Bring Mindfulness into your Relationship with your Tween or Teen
Guest post by Dr. Matt Hersh
As your child gets older, it goes without saying that many things change. Although you can’t stop your kids from getting bigger, craving more autonomy, and experimenting with different identities, there are a few things that you can actually have some powerful and healthy influence over. How you think about, communicate, and emotionally connect with your teen are more within your control than you might think.
But how do you do this when you might be bracing yourself for the tumultuous times to come?
Mindfulness to the rescue.
What’s All the Mindfulness Hype?
Mindfulness is one of those hot topics that’s unfortunately either been over-stated or under-appreciated for what it really is and does.
Mindfulness is both art and skill. And it’s neither a cure-all nor a fad.
But the thousands of research studies now demonstrate that mindfulness helps us (and our teens) to be happier, have better attention, feel less stressed, have deeper and more meaningful relationships, be more patient, experience less anxiety and depression, build greater resilience, entertain more flexible perspectives on life, be less emotionally reactive, have a stronger immune system, be more self-compassionate, and the list goes on and on.
So what’s this treasure of mindfulness really all about and how could it help you relate better with your teen?
Mindfulness, which all of us already have within us, is essentially the repeated practice of:
- purposefully guiding your attention
- to connect with your present moment experience (inside and outside of yourself)
- with the qualities of: curiosity, kindness and acceptance
Out of this practice comes an increased capacity to be aware of yourself and your surroundings with greater wisdom, compassion, and patience–qualities that would come in quite handy for interacting peacefully and productively with your teen.
Let’s turn now to unpack the definition of mindfulness and see how each component contributes powerfully to help you cultivate a healthy and supportive relationship with your teen.
Purposefully guiding your attention means that you are consciously and intentionally directing where your mind goes, as best you can in any given moment. Our minds (and bodies) often have a mind of their own, so with this mindfulness element you are basically practicing keeping your “hand on steering wheel of your mind” rather than letting it be on autopilot doing whatever it feels compelled to do or is influenced to do by things happening around you.
Example: As you’re having a somewhat tense discussion with your teen about getting a summer job, you start to daydream about having your own free time during the summer to do some things you’ve put off for a few years. Without the intentional corralling of your mind back to the topic at hand and to your child in front of you, you might not listen to what he really has to say, be able to authentically express your true feelings, and be as understanding and helpful as you could be.
Connecting with your present moment experience (inside and outside of yourself) is all about coaching your mind to tune in to the here-and-now rather than getting caught up in the past or future.
Inside yourself refers to your thoughts, feelings, urges, desires, hopes, wishes, expectations, assumptions, etc.
Outside of yourself is everything else happening in the world, from daily interactions you have with your teen to wars in the Middle East.
How this element of mindfulness can help you and your teen is evident in this next example.
Example: One day your teen comes home from school and announces quite dramatically that everyone hates her and is against her. Before we move forward, let’s pause and mindfully tune in to what you might be experiencing right now.
As world renown child and adolescent psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Siegel, suggests, you can S.I.F.T. through your internal experience to become aware of the Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts that might be arising within you from the experience of your teen around you.
Would you be feeling furious at other kids in her school, feeling heartache and sadness for your child’s hurt, getting frustrated that your teen apparently keeps alienating people, feeling overwhelmed from your teen’s intense emotions, experiencing powerlessness and vulnerability from your teen’s feelings of helplessness and hopelessness? Perhaps you’re feeling fed up and exasperated with yet another incident you have to deal with involving your teen and her friends.
Your mind-body could even be catapulted to the future where you imagine your teen as a young adult with no friends and experiencing a great deal of suffering. Or perhaps you time travel to the past and start blaming yourself for not getting your child the social assistance you suspected she needed at the time.
In either case, it’s a challenging but important exercise to become gently aware of what’s happening inside yourself in those moments so that you can respond in purposefully supportive ways rather than accidentally reacting based on the places your mind-body might impulsively go.
Let’s explore the last elements of the definition of mindfulness to truly bring it to life and to discover even more practical value for your relationship with your teen.
With the qualities of curiosity, kindness, and acceptance is perhaps what makes mindfulness so special and useful to you and your teen. Without these “wholesome” qualities, the definition of mindfulness is a bit bare and lacks heart.
Curiosity Didn’t Actually Kill the Cat
Curiosity is essentially the opposite of being closed off or making assumptions as if you already know what’s happening. You might think you already know something about your teen or your relationship with your teen, and yet when you approach them with curiosity, interest, and openness, you may find over time that they’re more likely to trust you and their relationship with you. And when you approach your own internal experiences (ex., fears, wishes, worries, regrets, etc.) with this same curiosity, then you may find that it’s easier and even more pleasant to be with yourself. This can positively feed back to how you feel and think about your teen.
Kindness Is Connecting with Our Common Humanity
When you practice intentionally guiding your attention to your present moment experience with kindness, what you’re actually doing is offering yourself a soft cushion to sit on rather than a hard wooden chair with splinters. When we treat our own internal experiences with gentleness, softness, and a sense of humanity, then we can more easily turn that same kind-hearted quality around when we’re thinking about or actually in the presence of our teen. This compassionate way of being and relating to our child will always win out over harshness, even if (or especially if) we’re feeling frustrated, angry, impatient, or hopeless.
Acceptance Is Seeing Reality for What It Is
Finally, the quality of acceptance is one of the most misunderstood aspects of what mindfulness has to offer. Acceptance simply refers to “coming to terms with” something inside yourself or between you and your world. It doesn’t mean that you have to like or love that particular thing, nor does it mean that you give up or give in. Acceptance is essentially “seeing clearly your (or another’s) reality and making relative peace in your own mind and body with what’s actually happening. The opposite of this would be denial, avoidance, blame, or distortion of reality.
Let’s walk through a final example to put the whole definition back together:
Example: Your daughter is really mad at you for yelling at her. Although she admits that she handled a situation with her younger brother poorly, you feel like she was being incredibly irresponsible and you’ve let her know this. A few hours have pased, and your daughter asks you for a favor. Instead of continuing to lay into her (because you’re still feeling angry), you have begun to S.I.F.T. through your internal experience and take stock of what’s really going on inside you. You’re angry, but as you relate to yourself in the present moments with curiosity, kindness, and acceptance, you begin to wonder if you’re actually worried about your daughter’s competence in the world as she gets older. You realize, however, that this worry is out of proportion to what actually happened or the skills your daughter is developing. Over the course of the evening you start relating to your daughter with more “softness” which leads her to soften her stance with you as well. Eventually you both are able to reconcile your perspectives and move on more peacefully.
Mindfulness Helps You Ride Your Relationship Waves
As we’ve seen from unpacking the definition of mindfulness through our various examples, when parents tend to their own mindfulness skills they’re more likely to ride out uncomfortable or tense waves of emotion in themselves, in their teens, and within the relationship itself.
Parents who practice mindfulness don’t get as caught up in the waves of stress generated by having a teenage child. Rather, they stay on top of the waves, surfing however big the wave is at that moment.
Ultimately, the beauty and power of mindfulness is found within each and every moment of your life. And if this moment seems unworkable, then you’re always able to start again in the very next moment.
Moment by moment, you and your teen will make your way through with greater peace and deeper connection.
Dr. Matt Hersh is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Arlington, MA. Having trained at Boston Children’s Hospital and BU’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, Matt now specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders and in helping his clients to build resilience and stress-hardiness. He incorporates mindfulness, acceptance, and energy psychology based principles and practices into his therapeutic work. Matt is co-founder of VitalMind, a personal growth and well-being company offering programs in mindful parenting, individual mindful living, and vitality-boosting life skills. https://drmatthersh.com/ and https://vitalminded.com/
PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.