I am the mom of two teenage sons. While they are quick to have emotional outbursts as teens often do, I am not usually privy to what is going on inside their heads and hearts. Sometimes it feels like they are hidden deep in some kind of parent proof vault. So how do I crack the code to get inside?
While I wish it was as easy as just sitting down for family dinner it often takes more thought and intention. At my dinner table after the requisite review of our day, the conversation inevitably leads to the boys sharing the latest antics of their favorite You Tube streamers or their most recent performance in Valorant. I always joke that when they are done we are going to talk about our “feelings”. They know I am kidding (sort of) but after uproarious laughter and some eye rolling, they go back to THEIR favorite subjects. So I have learned that the dinner table isn’t where I am going to reach them at that deeper level.
Nevertheless, I want into that vault! But I know that it has to be on their terms, not mine. I want them to know that they can come to me when they are in need of emotional support. And that’s no joke.
Since my teens aren’t naturally emotive, how do I crack the code to get inside?
The answer is CONNECTION, CONNECTION, CONNECTION.
So with my sons, I make sure to find time with them one on one each day, even if it’s just for 5 minutes.
How? Sometimes I watch them play a video game, we walk the dog together or connect in the car. Usually it IS still about video games, YouTube, school and friends but that’s ok, because I know that’s how to build the bridge to their hearts and minds, especially at this age and stage of development.
What is NOT helpful is prying or nagging to be let in. Nothing will instigate the eye roll and shut the emotional vault quicker than that.
I trust that if I am present and make myself available, they’ll come to me when they need me.
And when they do, the REAL work begins.
I show up for them by:
Click to learn more about Active Listening and how to ask Open Ended Questions.
This week my youngest child turns 13 and I now am the proud mother of two teenagers. Contrary to what I expected from the media and from lore, I am not experiencing managing two moody, brooding kids. It's me that needs to be put in check, not them. What a shock it was to learn this. Let me explain.
When my children were born the parenting guru of the day was Dr Sears. The parenting style came from the book his wife Martha and he wrote called Attachment Parenting. Together they raised 8 children and advocated for a collection of seven practices they call the Baby Bs: “birth bonding, breastfeeding, baby-wearing, bedding close to the baby, belief in the baby’s cry, balance and boundaries, and beware of baby trainers.” Reflecting on that list, with two teenagers on my hand I am far from the Baby B’s.
So much of what the Sears’ advocate naturally falls away once the baby grows. It’s pretty easy to un-attach from co sleeping, breastfeeding and wearing your baby. Can you imagine that with a teenager? (squirm-city!). In so many of the more subtle ways I find myself trying to learn the fine art of “un attachment” parenting that is as fundamental to raising teens as bonding is with your newborn. Taking stock, I realized that in some ways I am doing a great job, letting the kids take risks and allowing them more independence and freedom, but in other ways that are tied to their emotional well being, I fear I am falling short.
Here’s an example. My eldest is doing all school at home and I find myself privy to everything that’s going on. He is very responsible about his work, and yet everyday I ask him his plan for homework, assignments and check in about communication he needs to have with his teachers. While he is very patient with me, I know it is annoying to have me up in his grill all of the time; honestly I annoy myself while I am doing it. So much so that I finally had to ask myself why. What do I hope to accomplish by being so involved? What is really going on here? Am I worried about him getting into college? Do I think he will fail? So what if he gets a bad grade and feels bad about it?
None of these possibilities are very realistic (except the poor grades, which happens to everyone). The truth is that instead of “saving him” I am really trying to save myself; Save myself from disappointment and from my own discomfort when he has hard feelings. And this isn’t fair because my selfishness is actually depriving him the opportunity to build his own tool kit of grit and resilience and the ability to handle all kinds of emotions and experiences. All the while I’m sending him the message that I don’t trust that he can handle his schoolwork on his own, or get through difficult times. Not very nurturing and not what I want for my kids.
My teenagers need agency and ownership of their lives, so that they can learn to navigate their ups and downs. It is not my job to keep them in emotional bubble-wrap. It’s not good for them or for me. I need to learn to be a foundational presence, waiting in the wings, to cheer them on, pick them up when they are down and support them no matter what. I can be their rock, steady and sure when they are stuck, upset and adrift. This is the greatest gift that I can give them; the opportunity to gain the confidence to handle whatever comes, so that they can take risks, comforted knowing that I will be here for them no matter the outcome. Ultimately this is about me letting go of my own fear while building confidence in my own emotional resolve. Like so much of parenting it’s about looking within to shift MY perspective and change MY approach with them.
I am not sure what ever happened to the Sears’, or if new parents still embrace the 7 Baby Bs. I do find myself wondering how they “unattached” from their 8 children once they became teenagers . And if it worked well maybe they could help us out and write volume 2 “Un Attachment Parenting the 7 Teen’s Ts”. I know that I could use some guidance on how to gently, compassionately unattach from my kids and watch their story unfold as they experience their life.
I have been reflecting a lot on dreams lately. Not the sleeping kind, but the big vision and hopes you have in life. I have never been much of a dreamer. I never wanted to be a princess or an astronaut. I didn’t dream of my wedding day or my dream job. Dreams felt out of reach and beyond my control. Instead I stuck with attainable goals, things I knew if I used enough drive and elbow grease I could make happen. Lately, though I have been exploring the concept of fulfilling a dream. This is because as a parent coach, I ask my clients to dream about how they want things to change with their children. It’s not hard for parents to envision kids who have a perfect balance of on-screen and off-screen activities, who jump right up off the couch to help you unload the groceries and when asked, “How was your day?” give you a detailed synopsis of what they did and how it made them feel. I ask my clients to paint this picture because dreaming of a preferred future is an essential part of the change process.
By their nature, dreams are often deep, transitional states that can seem out of reach. Putting them in writing or on a vision board helps. The concept is that the dream works towards you while you work towards it. I took this on faith, but my pragmatic brain had a hard time coming to terms with what seemed like a “magical process”. I had never heard of “letting go” as part of making dreams come true. But I have seen it work over and over again with my clients. Dreams don’t become a reality without hard work and determination, but there is something to this release of the vision that is a part of the recipe. Recently I had an experience that brought it home for me. And in a most unlikely moment.
Since the pandemic started my husband and I have been doing jigsaw puzzles. I love the orderly goal oriented, instant gratification and meditative nature of puzzles. On the outside of the box is the image, complete. Inside all the small steps towards making that vision a reality. It takes time, commitment and intention sitting down each day to make it happen. Doing a puzzle is a lot like building a dream. As I was working on a challenging puzzle, last week, I was sure that we would never be able to complete it. Instead of giving up I turned my attention to one corner area, deciding to take it one small step at at a time. Eventually I fit enough pieces together for the image begin to emerge and I felt hopeful that we could complete it. I resonated with the process as similar to asking my clients to paint the full picture of what they want to change, but then identifying one corner, one set of small steps, to start on. It was so cool to make that connection. And then it got even better.
When I’m puzzling there is always that part in the process when I encounter a moment where I can’t find one stubborn piece. Frustrated and convinced that the piece is missing I move on letting it remain empty, when BAM! the elusive piece emerges. I recognize it instantly and place it with great satisfaction into the puzzle. The last time this happened to me a light bulb went off . This was exactly what it meant to hold the dream in your mind but also to let it go. Your brain is still holding the dream, just like it’s holding the shape, size and color of that missing puzzle piece. This experience embodied for me the possibility of holding to a dream in your mind while also letting it go. It’s almost as if you can’t even find that piece UNTIL you’ve released it.
Watching my clients do this dance each day has truly inspired me and for the first time I also have a dream I am pursuing. I have chosen a tough 1000 piece puzzle. It’s a beautiful image, one that I have been designing for the last few years. I have it up on a vision board displayed where I can see it everyday, BUT I have also let it go. With determination and drive, I fit pieces together one at a time, knowing that even when I can’t find that one stubborn piece, it’s working it’s way towards me. And when I finally find it and fit the last piece in the puzzle, there it is, the complete image all put together. I step back and look at what I have accomplished, a testament to my hard work and a reflection of my dream meeting me halfway there. Maybe it’s really about giving up control or maybe it’s magic, but either way I believe!
2020: Looking Up Close at the Beauty. Perspective makes all the difference in the way we view things as parents.
I was recently interviewed by Matt Albert of the Big Picture Parenting Blog at Psychology Today. Thanks Matt for the opportunity to talk about Pandemic Parenting in 2020 and 2021.
It’s been quite a year! I’ve been speaking with other parenting experts to hear their thoughts on 2020, COVID parenting, and looking forward to 2021. This week, I had the chance to hear from Dr. Jenny Michaelson, a PCI Certified Parent Coach, about pandemic parenting.
Q: What’s been on your mind as we wrap up an undoubtedly difficult year for parents?
The scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at the Chicago Museum of Art keeps popping up for me. You know the one, when Ferris and his friends are looking at George Seurat’s painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. The camera zooms in until you can just see the dots of color and I’m reminded of how perspective can make such a difference in the way we view things.
When you look closely it’s beautiful individual brushstrokes of color. When you step back it’s a whole landscape. No one would argue that if we step back from our world for a wider perspective today it’s more like Picasso’s La Guernica than Monet’s Water Lilies. Right now life is chaotic, confusing and messy. The pandemic has turned most of our lives upside down.
Q: What would you say to parents who are feeling down about their parenting during the pandemic?
You are not alone. Like a lot of parents I know, I have spent a lot of time thinking about all the ways that I have failed my kids as I have had to balance working from home, distance learning, isolation and the stress of living through this charged political, environmental and social climate. I am sad to say that not a lot of great parenting moments came out of any of that reflection. Like the time when I was so fed up with my son’s messy room that I screamed at him that not only was I going to stop doing his laundry but he was going to have to start paying me to use the washing machine.
Pandemic parenting stretched me to bend rules and make decisions for my kids I never would have in 2020. I lost my temper more often, I let them stay on the screens way too long and we ate more dessert in these last ten months than we did in our entire lives prior!
Q: Looking forward, what do you suggest parents consider in the new year?
As we gear up for more pandemic parenting in 2021 I realize that it’s actually not about taking in the wider view this year, but looking at the details. I ask my clients to look closely at their situation to find the places in between the conflict and stress where things are working. Encouraging them to find positivity even in light of what they are facing helps bring hope and resilience, calm and focus. So I took a deeper dive myself, to find the small moments in 2020 when I did ok as a mom.
What I found out was that while my kids ate a ton of dessert this year, they also learned to bake and clean up after themselves. While I lost my temper more than usual, I also modeled how to repair relationships, by apologizing to them when I was out of line. And while they were on the screen WAY more than I wanted, I was using that time to take care of myself so I could have more patience with my family. Taking the time to focus on sweet moments with my kids even if they were few and far between helped shift my negative perspective.
Q: Are you feeling hopeful about 2021?
My deep dive into the positive has psychological and physical benefits that I am hoping to feel more of in 2021. These include lower stress levels, better overall physical health and increased coping skills. Until life can get back to normal and I can shore up my kids screen use and I can send them back out in the world to go to school, hang with friends and play, I’ll need as much of that as I can get in 2021.
We have miles to go before life looks anything like Seurat’s painting, when we can lounge in the park without concern for our health and safety. Our challenge as parents as we prepare for what’s to come in 2021 is to continue to shift the frame, turn on the zoom lens and focus on the colorful brushstrokes. Set the intention to reflect on your parenting by keeping track of what went right, daily, weekly or even monthly. Pay attention to the small things that bring our focus to what’s good in our parenting and beyond. It will make the difference between just getting through it and feeling positivity, joy, hope and satisfaction during these troublesome and difficult times.
Jenny Michaelson, Ph.D., is a PCI Certified Parent Coach®. In her practice, True North Parent Coaching, she works with parents to uncover strengths and develop strategies to make transformational changes to overcome parenting challenges and bring more joy, ease and fun back to parenting.
Next week kids will be off of school for winter break and with many cities under new shelter in place orders they will find themselves with little or nothing to do. For most kids that means more screen time, and for most parents, increased anxiety about how much screen time is too much and how to get kids engaged in off screen activities. While winter break isn’t the time to try to reduce screen time, you can definitely be intentional about setting up guidelines that promote a healthy balance of screen time and other activities that nourish your kids both physically and mentally.
Having a family meeting to talk about winter break and screen time guidelines is a great way to start the conversation. Here is a great resource about how to run a family meeting: https://www.verywellfamily.com/how-to-hold-a-successful-family-meeting-4155312
Here are a few tips to get you started. Use the ones that feel right for your family:
Contact me if you’d like a one hour coaching session where we will make a Winter Break screen time plan that’s just right for your family.
I live with my husband and two sons. My two boys are twelve and fifteen, well beyond the terrible twos, but for many months now I feel like I am back reliving the toddler years.
Two weeks ago, after a calm afternoon and pleasant evening, our older son lost it when we asked him to spend an evening with us, not online, playing videogames with his friends. A normally calm kid, he was enraged at the tyranny of his dictatorial parents, forcing him to play a round of “Code Names!” The persecution he felt was palpable, and it felt like he was going to call Amnesty International to report us for crimes against humanity. I looked at my husband and we smiled knowingly, working hard to wipe the smirks off our face. We had seen this before, but it had been about 13 years, when he was in diapers, Thomas the Tank Engine in hand.
Last week it was our younger son’s turn. He lost it when he just couldn’t take another day of distance learning, with the microphone not working, and wifi suddenly spotty. I think I saw steam coming out of his ears, cartoon style. And where did he learn those curse words? And laid out in proper order and emphasis! Is that what Discord is for?
And then it happened again, but this time it was my husband and then it was me. My husband did not want to fix the broken thermostat and went on a rampage about house projects and the inequity of gender roles in home improvement. And as for me, between keeping my cool over the people who don’t wear a mask and the lady at the grocery store who got a little too close to reach over me to get her salsa, the dam finally broke when I found out we wouldn’t be able to have Thanksgiving with our extended family. I yelled at my husband, my boys and the barking dog.... I’m not sure what I said. Well I do, but it’s not fit to print.
All four of us acted exactly the same: Anger, followed by yelling, followed by fuming and eventually embarrassment for these extreme reactions. If we were two-year-olds we would have been on the floor flailing our bodies in time with our outbursts.
What was happening? What had come over us? Had we all regressed back to the terrible twos? No, we hadn’t, we were just victims of what I call the Pandemic Tantrum and it’s not just for little ones. And we were ALL experiencing them again.
At first I felt terrible about the way we were all behaving. I know the pandemic has been hard, but are we really back to being toddlers? So I decided to do a little research. I found out that a tantrum is caused when the amygdala (the emotion center of the brain) detects a threat and the hypothalamus (the hormone center of the brain) causes you to snap. Without the developed prefrontal cortex of an adult to self regulate, most young children, and sometimes teens, lose it, triggering emotional fireworks going off in the brain. Kids’ brains literally don’t have the capacity to calm down the triggering of the threat and as a result they snap, cue the tantrum.
After my office visit with Dr. Internet I found an explanation for what’s going on with us. More than ever before in our lives are on edge. Since March, we have faced fears and disappointments that we never imagined. Under lockdown, we are faced with uncertainty of the vague threat of COVID, the poor quality of diplomacy exhibited by the President, political division, fire, poor air quality, no in-person school, hurricanes up and down the east coast, no summer camp, no certainty of when things will be back to normal, no traditional holidays, not to mention the pain, sorrow I feel for the trauma of systemic racism and the disproportionate impact of COVID on People of Color and marginalized groups. All of this is squeezing any last semblance of “normal life” we once had. Where we all had developed the ability to temper our emotions and outbursts, our hypothalamus and amygdala are working overtime to monitor all these threats and react with fight or flight. At the same time our prefrontal cortexes are DONE and have taken their own trip to Mexico, leaving us raw.
So here we are - naked and exposed, with our emotions tied to all the things right now that are out of control. What can we do? Short of getting out the old “What to Expect with a Two-Year Old” books somewhere stored with the baby clothes, I’ve taken a page from those old chestnuts of managing tantrums, and I’m applying them to all four of us.
As is often the case when we parent, I realized that I needed to soothe myself before I could help the kids. I have to take a breath and recognize that I am having a tantrum of my own. First, I let myself feel the anger, the frustration, the tyranny of it all. I have to let myself get mad. I try yelling into a pillow or in my car alone, or I can write (but not send) a scathing email. I know that resistance is futile, that I have to let myself feel the anger, give into the emotion. Let it out, so I can release and move on.
As I cool off, my prefrontal cortex reactivates and I can acknowledge that life is NOT even close to normal. I shared with my family what I learned about brain science and the new outbursts we were all experiencing. Together we came up with how to support each other when Hurricane Tantrum comes ashore. Here are the five things we all have agreed to do when someone else is melting down: we try not to yell back, we honor the feelings of anger and frustration, we try not take outbursts personally, we de-escalate things by staying calm and we use humor, distraction and hugs whenever possible. And we are encouraging ourselves to practice gratitude and compassion for ourselves and each other, even when we lose it.
And we acknowledged that we ARE under threat right now, that we will snap, and that more tantrums are inevitable. It’s actually comforting to know that our brains are working. In fact it’s probably the emotional release we all need under the circumstances.
That’s what is happening in my house and you know what...I’ve decided that it’s ok. With my new understanding of the brain science behind tantrums and my tantrum refresher course we are ready and able to ride them out until this pandemic is over and our brains can recalibrate as our lives get back to normal.
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I don’t know about you, but I have had to make BIG adjustments to our house rules, especially screen limits since the pandemic began. Before COVID, my boys had limited access to social media or gaming platforms. Now, my tween and teen are connecting to peers through Instagram and playing games online with friends. I know that I am not alone. Many of my parent coaching clients with younger children have had to resort to the screen to get work done or just get a break from being with the kids 24/7. I am exhausted and worn down after seven months of pandemic parenting and I am sure you are too.
Knowing my priorities for my kids is usually how my parenting decisions are anchored. After so many months of loosening all kinds of limits with my kids I find myself questioning my everyday decisions, unmoored and far away from where I feel confident as a parent. Without this foundation, inconsistency and instability are causing stress for everyone in my house. So I asked myself, “How can I get back in touch with my parenting values when it all feels so much like a moving target?”
I decided to take out a page from my parent coach training. One exercise we often ask of parents is to describe how they envision their child as an adult. What are the most important qualities they hope to instill in them when they are all grown up? For me that’s pretty easy. I hope my boys carry forward lessons from childhood that leave them resilient, gritty and tenacious. I want them to embrace a growth mindset, engage in intentional self care and give back to their community. I wish for them the ability to give and receive unconditional love. After doing this brief exercise I felt more in touch with my own guiding principles. I was able to focus my parenting decisions based on them. Each time I make a parenting decision, I know that I can fall back on these fundamental goals. I designed these four questions to make sure that my own decisions are aligned with my values when I am pushed to make decisions that are outside of my comfort zone.
The pandemic has been hard on parents. It has stretched us and forced us to make compromises with our kids that we never thought we would. If there is a lesson here, it is that sometimes it takes a shock to the system to rediscover what is most important to us. If you are feeling untethered from your parenting values take this time to reset. Ask yourself what are YOUR guiding parenting principles? What questions help you stay grounded in them? Use this opportunity to find your footing and to rebuild your confidence. Keep in mind the long game, the one in which the parenting decisions you are making today, however big or small, are supporting your vision for your child as they grow into adults no matter what is going on in the world around you.
The days full of anger and frustration seemed to be outweighing the days full of joy and satisfaction. My kids and I were locking horns over screen time every single day. I was struggling to get them following any limits, completing chores or finishing homework before getting on their devices. I was at my wit’s end and worried that our relationships were deteriorating into dangerously negative territory. Seeing my desperation a friend of mine recommended that I “talk to someone”. Therapy didn’t seem like the right fit. I didn’t need emotional healing, I needed a practical solution in the here and now. But my friend corrected me, she meant a parent coach, not a therapist. I was puzzled. I had heard of life coaches and executive coaches, but not parent coaches. She told me that like other coaches, parent coaching could help support me to make the positive changes I so badly needed.
I was ill at ease enough to look into it. After doing some research I decided to contact a parent coach. From the very first call I felt relieved that I had someone to help me. Coaching, I learned, was going to help me get in touch with my parenting priorities and values around screen time. It was time to block out the noise of the internet searches, parenting books and advice from family and friends and tune into what I really wanted for my kids and my family, and not just about screen time. Combined with her expertise about child development we would get me to a better place. I wasn’t sure I could fit coaching into my busy schedule but I set aside one hour each week for 10 weeks and it was worth it. For the first time, in a long time, I felt hopeful.
With the guidance FROM of my coach I was able to see that some things were actually working for screen time at my house, even in spite of the challenges. While they were on the screen more than I wanted, they were using it to learn new skills, connect with friends playing games that were interactive and collaborative.
We spent one session formulating my dream. The ideal family life that I was longing for without all of the tension and struggle. We spent a session talking about my strengths as a parent and my children’s strengths. I am really good at talking with my kids about things and making sure they know how I feel. They do well when rules are clear and they have a voice in decision making. Then we used the strengths to design the steps I would take to make my present day to day match my dream.
I engaged my boys in conversation when I wasn’t feeling charged or anxious and we were able to come up with some screen time parameters that worked for everyone. I had homework and there were times that I had to step out of my comfort zone. But each week I took a small step towards creating limits and boundaries around screen time at our house making sure my kids were part of the process. It wasn't perfect and it didn’t resolve everything, but it made life easier and I felt the joy return to our household and in my relationships with my kids.
Coaching is also about engaging in self care because it is an essential part generating the high energy and focus that is required to be a parent. It is so easy to let it go when there is barely enough time in the day to maintain balance between work and family. I came up with the self care that works for me. It felt doable, just 10 minutes a day to take a walk, meditate or write in my journal. On days when I followed through (most of the time) I was more patient with the kids.
While having a better screen time balance in my household was the reason I sought out a parent coach, I came away with so much more:
I am grateful to my friend for introducing me to parent coaching. In this day and age when so many people are raising kids without the help of extended family around, and now so many of us are isolated from our regular communities due to COVID, it is nice to know that there is a resource out there to help.
If you want to learn more about parent coaching and how it can support you please visit www.truenorthparentcoaching.com.
Everyone agrees that in-person learning is best for most kids. Being in school provides not only the best academic learning opportunities but is essential for the social-emotional development of all children. In addition, some kids depend on school for meals and other important services. For many parents having kids at home is an economic stressor which makes it impossible for them to go to work or even work at home. In California, where I live, most schools have started with distance learning as mandated by the governor. As the counties in my area see cases decreasing, schools are making plans to reopen. While all parents have the option to continue with distance learning, many are faced with the decision of whether or not to let their child return in person. We all want our kids to go back to school, but we all want them to be safe too. It feels like an impossible decision. Here are 8 questions to ask yourself while you weigh the pros and cons:
Remember to breathe, stay grounded and trust that you know what is best for your child and your family.
If you need more support and would like some coaching in making this decision please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. True north is offering individual and group coaching sessions to help you.
Distance learning is hard on everyone, but especially for our youngest learners and their caregivers. That is why True North Parent Coaching and the PA of the Contra Costa Jewish Day School created a workshop: Tips and Tools: Strategies for Successful Distance Learning for Young Learners K-3. We gathered a group of parents to find out about their most pressing issues around distance learning and to share strategies to increase focus, promote independence, manage screen time and much more. We compiled the results in this Resource Guide. Please use it and share it. If you are interested in bringing the workshop to your school or organization please contact Truenorthparentcoaching@gmail.com
To watch the workshop for free click HERE
Jenny Michaelson is a PCI,
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