We are the parents, we should know best – or do we? When it comes to adolescent romance, it can be hard for parents not to interfere. We are understandably protective of our children’s feelings – no matter how old they are. We want to make sure that they end up with someone fabulous. We want to stop them from getting hurt and making bad decisions. But not only is it unrealistic to think that we can shield them from any pain, we may actually be causing some of that pain if we meddle in their relationships.
Adolescence is a time of insecurity and self-doubt. Rejection is keenly felt and acceptance and popularity are so important. Our job is to be their greatest fans and their strongest supporters. We may not be the best relationship counsellors. That’s because we take our years of wisdom and experience and try to put their issues through our baggage-laden filters. If we have been cheated on, we risk teaching them that boys or girls can’t be trusted. If we have been crushed by rejection or abandonment, we risk teaching them to take control of things by dumping someone before they get dumped themselves. If we have been blissfully happy in our relationships, we risk teaching them that any conflict should be a deal-breaker.
If your child is happy in a relationship, be happy for them. If your child is having relationship issues, be a non-judgmental sounding board and allow your teenager to come to his or her own conclusions. If you don’t like your adolescent’s boyfriend or girlfriend, try to see more of them. By having them spend time with your family, they might start to grow on you as you get to know them, or your child might come to see what you see.
It’s just as important that we don’t attach too strongly to our teens’ partners because that may make it difficult for everyone if the relationship breaks down. Our children shouldn’t stay in a relationship to keep us happy. And herein lies the tricky path we must negotiate – staying neutral, yet supportive. Unless of course you see anything worrying. If your child is being treated really badly or you are worried about the negative impact the relationship is having on them (they are more withdrawn, losing confidence, or becoming insecure), then gently express your concerns and encourage them to talk about how they’re coping in this relationship. Tell them how much they are loved and how they deserve to be treated. Then sit back and hope that they make a good decision.
The benefits of incidental exercise have been drummed into us for years – get off the bus early and walk the rest of the way; take the stairs instead of the lift; get out of your chair and walk to chat to a colleague instead of sending an email. Incidental couple time is just as easy.
Most relationship counsellors push the idea of couple time where the relationship can be nurtured and intimacy restored. But many couples are too busy with work or children to spare an evening or a weekend to be together without interruption. It’s also expensive to routinely use babysitters and eat out. So while I will join the chorus of counsellors recommending spending a regular night together or a weekend away, here are some ways to enjoy some incidental couple time:
- If the children are all out, don’t do chores – do something together, anything!
- It can be difficult to find time for romance so enjoy a “quickie” every now and then
- Meeting for a 15 minute coffee is an easy way to reconnect – it doesn’t have to be a meal
- Have a conversation over SMS or email – keep it light-hearted or sexy
- If your partner has an errand to run, go along for the chance to talk in the car
- If you’re meeting friends at 7.30pm, leave half an hour earlier and stop and have a chat over a glass on wine beforehand
- Finding 10 minutes to have a cup of tea together on the weekend should be doable – it’s good for the kids to see you talking and laughing instead of always being busy
Most of us can remember snatching any time to be together in the early days of our relationship. Sharing incidental couple time can take you back to those fun days of lust and freedom.
A woman recently told me that she was shocked to learn that her adult daughter was still upset about a minor incident that happened 30 years ago. The daughter had actually made frequent references to the fact that her brother had been taken on a weekend away and she hadn’t. Each time it was brought up, the mother had pointed out how long ago this had happened and had explained why she had not been taken on the trip. What’s wrong with my daughter?; this woman asked me. Why can’t she move on?
Put simply, if a person is having trouble letting something go, it’s because they don’t think that their feelings have been acknowledged or validated. I encouraged this woman to resist the urge to defend her decision all those years ago and to simply tell her daughter that she can imagine how upset she must have been to have been left behind. In this woman’s case, the mum had to say it twice before the daughter said: Thanks Mum, that means a lot. It’s amazing how easy it can be to release a long term hurt if it’s acknowledged.
Couples often come into counselling with a bucketful of resentment. These hurts can feel insurmountable because the couple has argued about the same issues time and time again. But often, true validation has never been given. Instead, I hear people apologising and defending their behaviour, which although important, doesn’t quite cut it. For any apology or defence to be heard, there needs to be some acknowledgement of the pain that was caused. If you want to help your partner move on, try saying things like;
I can only imagine how upset you were that I went to work instead of picking you up from the hospital.
You must have been so angry and hurt that I invited the person who had hurt you to my 30th.
It must have been so distressing when I didn’t go to your mum’s funeral.
You must have felt betrayed when you saw those text messages on my phone.
Once your partner (or child or friend) has heard you truly validate their feelings, they are far more likely to hear the reasons for your behaviour and you would have gone a long way towards helping them move on.
We all have triggers – those people or situations that constantly spark feelings of frustration or anger. We can avoid some of our triggers, but if you’re easily frustrated by other drivers, your sister, or a colleague, avoidance is difficult (and not healthy). A helpful way to build tolerance for bad drivers or challenging people is to make a series of predictions.
Getting easily frustrated by other drivers is probably the easiest place to start making predictions. Defensive driving is all about assuming that others will make mistakes and being prepared for all eventualities. If you’ve ever taught a teenager to drive, you’ll know how often you have to point out that other drivers may not indicate, may not stop at a stop sign or a red light, or may suddenly do a U-turn in the middle of the road. Experienced drivers can often predict when someone wants to turn right without indicating or when someone is looking for a parking spot without any consideration of who’s behind them. In other words, if you put your mind to it, you can predict a lot of the behaviour that frustrates you. To increase tolerance when driving, see how many times your predictions come true. Celebrate successful guesses and feel your frustration decrease and your tolerance increase.
If your child is consistently irritable when they’re tired or hungry, no doubt you’ve already created strategies for keeping your own anger at bay at danger times, which are all based on the idea that you know when they’re not at their best. And if a colleague, extended family member or friend pushes your buttons, you can also prepare yourself by making a prediction about what they will say or do that would usually annoy you. Smile inwardly when your prediction comes true. See how others’ actions hurt less when we stay in observation mode – just observing other people in a non-judgmental way.
To some extent, how well siblings get on with one another is just luck of the draw, but personality traits, level of hardship experienced, age gaps, and the number of children all play a role. All parents dream of creating a family in which their adult children remain close and support each other through life. Sadly, but not surprisingly, sibling rivalry is very common and the competitiveness and resentment can last way into adulthood. Although there is no guaranteed formula for preventing family feuds, there are some ways to promote sibling harmony:
- Give children the chance to sort out their own squabbles. As long as it’s not getting too rough or abusive in any way, kids can be fighting one minute and giggling the next. When we jump in too quickly, we risk dividing them rather than allowing them to come together.
- Try not to reward disloyalty. Call it dobbing or telling tales – but if we act on the word of one child over the other, we reinforce this behaviour and another opportunity for them to sort it out for themselves goes begging. If one child tells you that they have been hurt in some way, encourage them to stand up for themselves. If a child is dobbing on a sibling for some wrong doing, remind them that you’re the parent and they needn’t worry about policing their brother or sister’s behaviour.
- Don’t give one power over the other. Unless there’s a large age gap, giving an older child the responsibility of looking after the younger children can lead to resentment. Instead, it’s good to give them all age-appropriate responsibilities.
- Encourage siblings to advise each other. Family dinners provide the perfect opportunity to workshop various dilemmas. If one child is having problems with a teacher or a friend, encourage the other children to offer their advice on what to do. They often have far better ideas on what works in the classroom or in the playground than we do.
- Be proud when they are united against you. Whenever you hear one child sticking up for another, know that you’re doing a good job. When you hear them say Don’t listen to Mum or Dad – that won’t work, try this …., be pleased. You might still overrule any class action your children attempt to take against you, but at least you know that their relationship with each other is getting stronger and stronger.
- Never divide and conquer. If you complain to one child about another, then you can unconsciously be aligning them to you by making them feel special. Instead, model empathy and compassion by expressing concern about a child who is acting out and vent to your partner or close friends instead.
There’s been a lot of discussion on the dangers of over-praising children and on creating adults with a sense of entitlement. But just because we shouldn’t tell our children that they are simply brilliant at everything they do doesn’t mean that we can’t support their dreams. Perhaps they want to represent their country in some way or maybe they want to be the Prime Minister or a Nobel Prize winning scientist. Younger kids dream of being in the police force or on stage. Whatever their dream, what’s the best way to support them?
For really young children, it’s easy to respond with something like: Wow – a fireman, that would be great or I can see you in green and gold. Parents know that little kids change their mind from week to week, so support is often in the simple form of an encouraging smile.
When they are in Primary School, their dreams can stay fixed for a period. They can be really focused on the idea of being a ballet dancer or a Hollywood star. We need to resist the urge to warn them that stardom is not all it’s cracked up to be or that their genetic makeup may limit their future as a dancer. Instead, talking about their dreams is a wonderful opportunity to bond. Questions such as: Why do you love ballet? What do you think life in Hollywood would be like? Who do you look up to? allow us to get to know our children who are growing up so quickly. At the same time they get the message that we care about them and we love hearing about their dreams.
Adolescence is the time when we want to really start teaching important life lessons. But again, we want to be careful not to crush their dreams and their confidence as a result. When they express that they want to swim in an Olympics or write a prize winning novel, we don’t need to point out how hard those goals are to achieve. If they say they want to be a doctor and their grades don’t seem to be heading in the right direction, it’s tempting to try to manage their expectations. When a teenager chats about what they want to do with their life, we can grab the chance to talk about setting smaller goals on the way to achieving dreams. Asking them what they think they need to do to make their dream a reality is a fabulous way to show support without over-praising.
The goal for most parents is to shield children from arguments. New parents often reassure me that they aim to never fight in front of the children. They are often surprised to hear my response, which is: There is much to learn from seeing parents occasionally argue. Obviously violence or abuse of any kind is not okay, but witnessing a heated discussion lets children see that two people can love each other and be committed to the relationship, but that doesn’t stop them disagreeing and getting angry or upset at times. The benefit is only gained if the kids see that the issue has been resolved. They don’t have to witness the resolution process, only that it’s happened. Telling children: We have sorted all that out now and we’re feeling much better really helps. Then they learn that relationships don’t have to end if there is the occasional fight. If they never see an argument, they can grow into adults who are fearful of any confrontation or anger because it is all so new.
Here are some simple rules to think about:
- Really young children should be shielded from arguments because they can get distressed and they won’t learn anything beneficial
- Constant arguing is stressful for everyone
- Kids should never hear personal attacks (and adults should try never to make it personal anyway)
- Children should never be asked to take sides
- If the argument is getting heated, it’s a good idea to take a time out and move the discussion to somewhere private
- Tell the children when you have sorted things out
- Reassure them that everything’s okay if they are concerned and apologise for upsetting them
In an ideal world, couples would agree on everything. In Utopia, compatibility and commitment would mean that decisions about how many children to have, where to live, or what to spend money on would be so simple because your thinking would be completely aligned with one another. But that’s totally unrealistic because a healthy relationship is made up of two individuals with their own opinions. So how do these big decisions get made? The aim might be to make joint decisions, but a joint decision doesn’t necessarily mean that both parties fully agree.
Relationships are full of compromises, but compromising doesn’t mean you have to meet half way. Often a compromise is based on the fact that one person feels more strongly about an issue than the other, and so that person makes the decision. There are many times when our love and commitment to our partner makes us want to grant them their wish or support their dream, even when the decision might impact negatively on us.
Giving up the idea of always having to think the same way in order to make a decision can be liberating. One person can lead the decision and the other person can support it. And when you support your partner’s decision and commit to never throwing it back in their face down the track, it starts to feel like a joint decision.
Intimacy means sharing. The more you share with your partner, the closer you’ll be. If you are feeling disconnected from one another, think about how much you’re sharing. When something good happens in your day, who do you tell? If you’re worried or stressed about something, who do you call? If you’re embarrassed about something you’ve said or done, who do you open up to? If you’re in a relationship and the answers to these questions are: my mum, my mates, my best friend, or my adult children, it wouldn’t be surprising if your relationship is lacking intimacy.
Couples stop sharing when they don’t feel it’s safe to do so. Perhaps they haven’t felt heard or validated when they have spoken up. Maybe their words have been thrown back at them in an argument or used to humiliate them amongst friends. It could be as simple as not spending enough time together or not caring enough about the relationship to work on staying close.
If you feel a chasm has opened up between you and your partner, try slowly building some intimacy by:
- Letting your partner be the first person to know any good news
- Not airing all your dirty laundry about your relationship to your friends
- Having secrets that only you and your partner know
- Sharing your hopes and dreams with each other, no matter how far fetched they seem
- Allowing your partner to feel safe enough to talk about something embarrassing
- Not throwing anything back at each other down the track
- Thanking your partner for letting you into their private world
Everybody makes mistakes and we should be forgiven for making mistakes, especially when heartfelt apologies are made. One of the lessons that needs to be learned from the racist comments made against Adam Goodes in the past week is that just because you don’t think that another race is inferior in any way does not mean that your comments are not racist. Non-racists can still cause tremendous hurt and great offense with their words.
A racist comment is one that causes offense, no matter what the intention was. What’s relevant is how the other person feels, not what your views and beliefs are. It certainly seems that Eddie McQuire now understands the impact of his gaffe on Adam Goodes and realises that the fact that he is not a racist is irrelevant.
This is a great opportunity to teach our children about the damage that is caused by unintended racist jokes and comments. Those who are calling this episode a storm in a teacup are failing to see things through Goodes’ eyes and how he feels is the only measure that counts.