Why are so many parents today asking, ‘What have I done wrong?’

Your teen directs a stream of vitriol towards you that would have earned your own kid-self a month’s grounding. The constant Jekyll-Hyde fluctuation between civil and hostile raises questions in you like “what have I done wrong?” and “why is this happening?”

I was a far-from-perfect child, but I never spoke to my parents the way I hear children (mine included) speak to their parents today. 

As a person who is driven by the question ‘why?’, this thought has been a stone in my shoe for years. At times my brain has been such a whirl of theories I’ve had to manually reboot -- usually with exercise or meditation. 

In my quest, I have often compared my parenting skills with those of my parents. Nothing drastically different there. In both cases, love and hard work was the main driver, with some personal weaknesses and foibles thrown in. But, over the years, the answer has become clearer to me. And while I have had to accept that some parts will always remain unfocussed, two reasons for the difference in the behaviour of today’s children have emerged.

Uncivil discourse

First of all, society has changed in significant ways as dialogue becomes a lost art.

There is remarkably more anger, fear, and self-righteousness on the news and internet than even a generation ago. Mainstream media dominate the narrative while believing themselves to be intellectually superior and the purveyor of truth.

The reasons are beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that the majority of ideas put forward disallow calm, reasoned discussion between opposing viewpoints. Next time you read or watch mainstream media, notice how polarising almost every story is. One side oppresses another. “Shame on them,” they seem to say, as if it’s not worth hearing another’s point of view. 

Insidious internet

Secondly, negative influences have permeated every aspect of our lives. Let me illustrate with a metaphor.

About a year ago we bought a package of store breadcrumbs. They contained some pesky stowaways -- food moths -- that began invading different parts of our home without our knowledge.

At first, we randomly swatted the moths, killing them, or put them outside (my kids felt bad for them), but we had no idea of the extent to which they made our home their own. Unsurprisingly, they infested a number of foodstuffs. We cleaned, threw out and organised. More moths. Deeper digging revealed moth webs deep inside drawer tracks, on the surface of non-food plastic, on the outside of glass jars, and inside furnace vents. We are still battling. 

The internet is a little like that. It seeps into every crack. Even elementary school Google Classroom can’t screen out webtoons with characters who are into porn. Social media for high-schoolers revolves around a story in which everything is oppression and the patriarchy is mostly to blame. Kids learn that most people are biased and that most of us have mental issues. These ideas deeply affect our youth. 

Society, via various channels, is communicating with our children. Like the moths, mainstream ideas seep into every available crack when our backs are turned. 

Reclaiming ground

But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. If communication is the cause of the disease, it is also the antidote. Parents must be the dominant communicator in their children’s life. This takes time. Research and brushing up on our parenting skills are a must, as is connecting with other like-minded parents.

It took me a while to realise that there is no quick fix. This process won’t truly end until we do.

Many of us can remember a time when one of our kids wouldn’t settle at bedtime. We soon realised that the solution was spending a bit more time, cuddling or singing or reading -- communicating. The wind of connection blew away the stresses and peace returned. We can do this at any point in our child’s life, although the method will be different at different stages. 

Five basic points stand out in good parent-child communication:

1. Know your child well

We can always know our children better. Books on discovering your child’s temperament can be helpful (Art and Laraine Bennett have written books for different ages). Also, taking a moment to think about our children, especially during times of meditation, produces ideas that may not occur to us in the busyness of our everyday life.


2. Find time for them

We’ve all heard of quality time, but quantity time is just as important. Regular occasions to chat -- doing dishes or other chores, while driving or making breakfast. This is especially important for recalcitrant teens. In that case our conversation windows may be very narrow, so a heightened awareness of every possible 30-second dialogue is necessary.

In the words of Pope Francis, time is needed to talk things over, to embrace leisurely, to share plans, to listen to one another and gaze in each other’s eyes, to appreciate one another, and to build a stronger relationship. (Amoris Laetitia, 224)

3. Be their friend

A parent who is willing to listen to their child’s problems will be better able to help them in an effective way. Children want this closeness with their parents. One of my teens recently reflected on how our relationship has changed and happily reported what she perceived as the evolution of a friendship. 

For this, we need to find the difficult balance between trust and freedom. Without freedom, children tend towards deception. Better to let ourselves “be fooled” once in a while than to damage our relationship through lack of trust. 

In being their friend, we can then broach sensitive topics and help each child to understand the world, while having a sense of mission and service to others through developing their own talents.

 4. Spousal unity

Making time for each other strengthens the bond of the entire family. Each spouse offers a unique perspective on how to help each child. Brainstorming together produces great results. 

5. Fun is important

Regular movie or game nights (we like to eat an easy dinner of finger food while playing The Game of Things), nature walks, and volunteering as a family all foster unity. Regular family meals and lighthearted times with good conversation topics are also a game-changer.

Lastly, a few words about how to communicate when the child does not want to. An idea is to find new ways to communicate -- different ways of saying things.

One child therapist suggests asking strategic questions, such as, “what is the worst part about…?”

Emotion-Focussed Family Therapy teaches that the job of the parent is to be “bigger, stronger, wiser, kinder”, and that our perspective on their behaviour informs our response. 

Seeing a young person as changing and changeable helps us to be receptive and compassionate rather than reactive. When the big emotions come, as they will, the first step is to validate their emotions. Say, “I get how you are angry because ___ and ___”

Reassuring them is the next step, but validating lays the groundwork. It’s like we are holding a big container and allowing our children to dump all of their emotions into it. They can then learn to go beyond the emotion into the realm of reason and logic. 

Another helpful trick is to match the child’s tone and volume.

Pope Francis himself has spoken about the difficult teen years. Parents, he says, should be aware of the trends of thought taking place in society, so that we can speak to our children about them without being alarmist or careless. 

We, too, were rebellious teens at one point and gradually came to see how our parents were right about many things. That, he says, is why it is up to parents to make the first move. Many conflicts can be avoided or minimised through a parent’s good humour, flexibility, affection, and farsightedness.

This article has been republished from The B.C. Catholic with permission.


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