Parenting Teens? Take A Deep Breath And Don’t Take It To Heart
Executive coach Wynn Burkett reveals how meditation and self-care can make you a calm and compassionate parent, who’s better equipped to navigate those teenage years.
By Dr Meghna Singhal • 13 min read
Parenting a teen is one of the most demanding tasks for any parent. From defiance and aggression to arguments and criticisms, teens can display quite a few challenging behaviours. As parents, while some of us do understand the reasons behind such behaviour, most of us find it difficult to deal with it.
Wynn Burkett, a career and executive coach and the author of ‘The Power of Mindful Parenting: A Guide to More Connection and Less Conflict with Your Teen’, tells ‘ParentCircle’ why teens seem so difficult to handle. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Here are the excerpts:
Why are teens so defiant? Why do they act the way they do?
My book ‘The Power of Mindful Parenting’ is based on a workshop that I developed with therapist Ann Arora. We’ve been teaching its principles for seven years. Also, I am a parent of three and Ann is a parent of two. So, between the two of us, I saw every iteration of teen behaviour, and we were able to try different things.
Teens act defiantly because it’s their developmental mission to push us away, and the way they do that is by being oppositional, by disagreeing with us and by asserting themselves. The thing to remember as a parent is to not take it personally. These are psychological stages that they need to go through—differentiation and individuation—to reach autonomy, which is the desirable state. Autonomy happens when they’re in their early 20s, when they are separated and connected to us at the same time.
So, a lot of their behaviour is their experimenting with their identity and opinions, and the people that it is easiest to test that out against is their parents. In some ways, you can feel grateful that they feel comfortable enough with you to act in the worst possible way(s) because they know that you’re going to continue to love and support them. Research shows that 80% of teens like and respect their parents, and enjoy spending time with them. So, even though it feels like you’re always in some kind of a conflict, know that underneath it all, they really enjoy you, respect you and want to spend time with you.
What would you say to parents who constantly feel rejected by their teens?
It’s really hard as a parent to feel that you’re always being criticised. I have a friend who said she knew her daughter was at her worst when she told her, “Mom, why do you walk so weird?” This criticism, this constant rejection of who you are can feel really personal. Part of the reason for that is, the period before the teenage years (ages 5 to 11) is called latency, and that is the least conflicted, most pleasant and easiest phase of a human being’s life.
What’s really hard is, from this stage it seems like, all of a sudden, they have turned against us. So, when you’re feeling constantly rejected, just try and remember that it’s not about you—it’s a phase they have to go through.
So, you need to take care of yourself. I emphasise in my book the importance of self-care for parents of teenagers. You have to do things that keep you feel steady and calm—everything from eating right, getting a lot of sleep, exercising, spending time with friends, and being around people who value you and show you the love that you’re not getting from your teenager.
How does mindfulness help in raising a teen?
Mindfulness can reduce our stress, keep us present and give us more insights into our own reactions so that we can slow them down. Research shows that people who practice mindfulness have lower blood pressure, better heart health and a subjective sense of well-being. Over time, it also builds up your immune system.
Meditation is the path to mindfulness because it helps you to stay present in the moment. When you’re present, you don’t worry about the past or wonder about the future—you are just in the moment, which is right now.
All of us have busy brains—Buddhists call it the monkey mind. In parenting, you can spend a lot of time worrying about things that have happened or things that might happen, rather than just being present with the child that you have now. For instance, if your child came to you with a D in a math test, you might begin judging and criticizing his behavior by thinking, “Oh I knew that he should have studied harder. I knew that he wasn’t paying attention.” Also, you might start thinking about the future: “Oh this bad math grade means he won’t get into a good high school and college, and he won’t get a good job and will end up on the streets.”
But, when you’re present, you are in a much more fair-minded, problem-solving and compassionate state, and you just realise it was a bad grade in the math test. Maybe he just had a bad day, maybe he needed more sleep, maybe he needs to revisit that particular concept. That’s a much more constructive way of being. Practising mindfulness gives you more insights into your own reactivity as a parent. If we can reduce how reactive we are, then we can stay calmer—and that will make our teens stay calmer because calmness is contagious.
How would you convince parents who find it difficult to meditate?
The hardest thing about meditating is actually sitting down and doing it. My recommendation is to make it as easy as possible. Just do it for very short periods. Say to yourself when you wake up in the morning, “OK, for 2 minutes, before I get on with my day, I am going to try and meditate” or “At the end of the day, for 1 minute, I am going to meditate.” Find out what part of the day works for you. For some people, it might be in the middle of the day when their children are off to school. But start slow, start with small amounts of time.
If you don’t know how to meditate, you can download some great free apps. On my website, there are audios of some meditations—these are free and easily accessible . Meditations that are on my site are specifically written and read for parents. Some meditations are very general, but a few are specific to parenting teens.
If you can’t meditate, just take one deep, intentional breath. Even that has the effect of getting more oxygen to your brain and soothing your nervous system, and that doesn’t take a lot of time. You could even set a timer on your phone that rings once or twice a day, and when you hear that, just stop, pause, take a breath and regroup before going on with your day.
How does taking a deep breath help?
It will help if you do it with intention, if you do it to create a pause in your busy life. It can shift your energy a little bit so that you just feel a little more grounded. One breath isn’t going to completely change your mood, but it will give you the break that allows you to get more centred again.
You talk about radical acceptance in your book. Does it mean that we should not have any expectations from our teens, or any aspirations for them? What does it really mean to really accept our teens?
Of course, as parents, we should have aspirations for our teens. We should guide them, teach them and impart values. The kind of acceptance I talk about in my book is that the Buddhists believe that suffering is caused by our wanting things to be a certain way rather than accepting what’s true right now. So, in the example I gave of the bad math test, our child may come to us with the result of a bad math test and our mind goes to the place of “Oh I wish they were better at math. Why aren’t they a better student?” We might blame the teacher for not doing a good job or we might blame the child for not having a math mind. This causes us suffering because we want things a certain way, but the reality is, maybe the child has trouble with math. So, if we look at the child and accept him for who he is, then we are in a much better position to have compassion, maybe for the fact that he isn’t good at math and he’s probably in some pain because he isn’t good at it.
So, being in that place of presence of who they are allows us to see them more realistically. Maybe we realise that math isn’t going to be their thing, and so we encourage them in creative writing or athletics because that’s where their strength lies.
It’s not about giving up and saying, “This is just the way it is and there is nothing I can do.” Instead, it’s about being more present to reality so that you can then make choices and decisions, and help support your teen.
So, it’s not about abdicating your responsibility as a parent. It’s about being realistic and compassionate, and hoping to stay connected with your child during the teen years because that can be really hard when we bring out those judgments and desires of ours that may not have anything to do with who our child is.
Teen years are really hard and they are really challenging as parents. The whole point of my book is to give parents some skills and tips to stay connected with their teens and have less conflict with them.
In a nutshell
Undesirable teen behaviour is usually related to their experimenting with their identity and with their opinions.
- Research shows that 80% of teens like their parents, respect their parents and enjoy spending time with them, even though it could seem like they wish to go against their parents.
- Being connected to the present can help us have a more rational view of the problems, especially those related to our children.
What you can do right away
Don’t take it personally when your teen is trying to assert himself or disagrees with you. Instead, continue to love and support your child.
- Take care of yourself. Do things that help you stay calm, such as eating right, sleeping well, exercising and spending time with friends.
- Practise mindfulness to get more insights into your own reactivity as a parent. This will make you feel calmer, help you stay in the present and reduce stress.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
About the expert:
Wynn Burkett, is a certified career and executive coach and author of The Power of Mindful Parenting. Wynn completed a year-long meditation teacher training through the Sura Center and is a graduate of the Engage program at the Search Inside Yourself Training Institute, created by Google, to bring mindfulness and emotional intelligence to individuals, workplaces, and communities.
About the author:
Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on 22 July 2020.
Dr Singhal is the Manager, Global Content Solutions at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).
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