Staying emotionally connected with your teens!

This year, the theme for #MentalHealthAwareness Week in the UK is “Body Image”.  As the Mental Health Foundation rightly put it, Body Image issues can affect all of us at any age. And given that our body image can impact the way “we feel”, which can in turn impact our sense of self and mental health, their specific focus for 2019 is on opening up this debate. 

Learning ways to process our feelings well, is right in line with the principle of building strong “fences” at the top of cliffs rather than just having more “ambulances” at the bottom.  It promotes healthy thinking, and helps maintain positive mental health.  When we don’t process feelings well, we are more likely to head downhill in more ways than one.

The problem… as we see it

As parents of two teens ourselves, we know that often the greatest nightmare is not knowing what is going on inside our children’s heads, especially in a world in which teenage mental health is off the charts and suicide rates continue to rise.

For whatever reason, an increasing amount of teens and young adults are finding themselves in “downward spiral thinking” that can lead to self-harm in various forms all the way through to fatality.  The increased “pressure to conform” to conjured-up standards of “ideal” has a lot to answer for when it comes to how people perceive the reality of their own body image.  These “ideals” have become even more unreachable by the latest fine-tuning / face-tuning software and social media’s ability to serve up a constant barrage of images of perfection and perfect lives.

The reality of life and “progress”, is that we’re not going to be able to change outside influences… well at least not overnight.  The more rational approach seems to be finding ways to help our young people deal with the outside world and develop a healthy sense of self and self worth in their “inside world”.

The holy grail! 

We have learned that the best way to stand a chance of finding out what is going on inside their heads and coax them away from the edge of the cliff – metaphorically and literally – is to stay emotionally connected with them. When we have strong emotional connection and trust, we put ourselves in the best possible position to be able to have “the conversation” about whatever it is that is on their mind. The goal in a nutshell is to be so connected with them that you have a “louder voice” than what they’re hearing from social media. Not through shouting (!) of course, but through strong, respected influence. 

Contrary to popular belief, there is a world in which your teens value your thoughts and your approval as parents more than the thoughts and approval of their peers. 

So, the connection is a worthy goal, no doubt.  The question then becomes “how on earth do you do that?”

Our own personal experience confirms what intuition would tell us all anyway – we stand our best chance of staying connected by keeping the relationship warm.  The challenge is that at times this creates a tension with the need to correct and parent them well. 

A very helpful context

To deal with this tension, it is important to understand the impact of our interactions on our teen’s “emotional banks accounts”. 

Fortunately, or unfortunately, our teens keep a mental record of every interaction we have with them – good or bad. In fact, it’s not just them, we all do.  The Emotional Bank Account (EBA) is a concept that has been around for decades and was given a lot of airtime by Stephen Covey in his landmark book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. EBAs work like this: when people perceive an interaction as positive, they register them as a deposit; when they perceive what you said or did as negative however, they register a withdrawal.  The quality of the relationship is determined by the balance of withdrawals and deposits. If the balance is negative, everything is a problem. Every conversation becomes an argument quickly and constant tension, friction and distance define the relationship. Painful on both sides but so easy to get stuck in a downward spiral. Where the balance is positive, there is warmth, laughter, flex, give and take and mutual respect in the relationship.  

And in the same way that your children have an EBA with you, they have separate ones with each of their friends, other family members, and everybody they interact with.

Perception = reality

Importantly, the way the interactions register has nothing to do with your (or anyone else’s) intent… and everything to do with their perception.  So, remember that when you’re yelling something like “I’m doing this for your good!” and they’re screaming back “I really wish you wouldn’t!” (or something stronger!) – those interactions are not registering as deposits.

Now, that’s not to say we shouldn’t be having robust conversations with our teens – helping them establish boundaries is a core part of effective parenting.  The goal is to do so in a way that maintains the relationship.  In fact, our experience has shown us that you tend to have less and less of those yelling-match conversations when the relationship is warm… because when there is warmth everyone is more open to hearing what you have to say.  But it’s still easier said than done. 

Likely challenges along the way

Teens are teens, and their “job” is to push boundaries as they grow more and more into their adult personas. If your teens are anything like ours, every now and then they will do or say something that makes you see red! For us, it’s disrespect. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but that one really seems to “get our goat”!  Over time, we have both learned that when our kids slip into this mode, it’s generally a sign that they’re feeling overwhelmed or otherwise threatened by something they haven’t yet voiced.  By keeping a focus on the big picture of the kind of young men we are trying to raise, we have developed a couple of strategies to control our “Chimp” responses (as Prof Steve Peters outlines in his amazing book, The Chimp Paradox).  That way, increasingly, we can address the real issue, model the behaviours we are trying to teach them and resolve issues without things spiralling out of control.  This is something we had to learn the hard way through getting it wrong a few times before getting it right. If this is a particular area of challenge for you too, we show you how to do this in the module: We cover how to develop an Anger Management strategy in Habit #2 of our 4 Habits for Great Relationships online course.

Learning these strategies is super important because, as you can probably imagine, heated arguments quickly drain EBAs and send them into overdraft territory.  Overdrawn EBAs create distance between you and your teens and the more distance there is, the less of a voice you have in their lives. Worse yet, distance fosters rebellion, poor choices and unhealthy thinking in their inner world. On the other hand, warmth and connection in the relationship foster strong parental influence, wise choices and healthy thoughts about themselves and their view of their world. So on those occasions where things do get heated and responses on both sides start to spiral downwards (we are still human, after all) –  restoring the connection and getting their EBAs back up into positive territory becomes a priority.  It’s important that negative thoughts are not left to fester.  The goal is to get back to a place where we can have a conversation about what they’re really feeling that may have made them say or do whatever it was in the first place.  The clear message to them needs to be that, whatever the issue is, we can find a way to get through it together.

Connecting vs correcting

One key way we have found in our 20yrs of working with relationships is to learn how to communicate real value and appreciation to people in a way that really means something to them, and to do that more often than we criticise them.  However, for some reason, it’s often so much easier to give “constructive feedback” and tell them things they “need” to hear “for their own good”. But as our children navigate the complexities and emotions of teen years, they need to hear at least in equal measure that we love, value and accept them just as they are, for who they are, not what they achieve.  This is the fourth habit we spoke about in our recent TEDx talk on the 4 Habits that ALL Successful Relationships exhibit.

The more we find ways to connect with our teens and be present in their world without judgment, the stronger the connection we create with them, and often the easier it becomes to “correct”. There is a direct relationship between the strength of connection and strength of influence.  As parents, we always have a voice of authority.  But if authority and “because I said so” becomes our only “voice”, we are at risk of pushing our teens away, causing them to “shut down” instead of sharing their thoughts and creating an unhealthy desire to leave home as soon as possible just so they can have a voice for themselves. We earn our voice of influence by listening more, criticising less and being deliberate about making regular deposits in their EBAs.

Making “deposits”

The best way we have found to make deposits into a depleted EBA is to show your teens that they are really valued… by you!  Of course, that’s never going to be easy to do when you are particularly frustrated by your children, but it is made easier by a couple of things.  Firstly, by taking time out to think about the big picture of who they are and who you see them becoming. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of perfection, striving to have them become their very best selves, that we lose sight of how wonderful they are already.  We “major on the minors”, and despite good intentions, we cripple their self-esteem by criticising the things they don’t do well yet and lose the connection with them. Don’t get us wrong, we both come from cultures where we have high expectations of our children and demand that they deliver on the huge sacrifices made for them to have the very best possible start in life.  The point is beware the danger of getting the balance wrong. Where the connection is lacking but the correction is still coming in full force, we feed insecurities and push our teens to look for affirmation and acceptance outside the home – and into the merciless world of peer group opinions and social media.  

Learning to speak “their” language

Secondly, one of the very best techniques we have come across for making deposits into EBAs is to  “speak” the other person’s “love language” as defined by Dr. Gary Chapman who’s research more than 20 years ago concluded that we all feel loved / valued / appreciated / really special (let’s just summarise them as “loved”) in one or more of 5 different ways. But there are only 5. Of those, we each have one or two ways in which we feel loved most powerfully. For some it’s the Words we say, for others it’s spending Quality Time together, for others it could be giving Gifts, Physical Touch like hugs or Acts of Service where we do something for them.   

We all tend to show love to others in the way we would want to receive it.  The problem is that typically in a family we have different love languages!  Without understanding this we miss each other emotionally because we are busy showing love in a way that means something to us when chances are what we are doing doesn’t mean much to them – their primary love language is likely to be different and all our attempts are like “water off a ducks back”.  The message of love, value and appreciation doesn’t land.

Making a habit of speaking your teen’s love language is one of the most powerful ways to keep their emotional bank accounts topped up, build warmth and connection with them and amplify your voice of influence to be louder than their insecurities and louder than the outside world.  Taking the time to do this will allow you to have some of “those conversations” that you may not have been able to have until now and get to the stage where you actually know what’s going on inside your young people’s heads.  If you can do that, then you at least have a fighting chance of helping them deal with any “Body Image” challenges they may be having in their head, affirm them, help them maintain healthy thinking and keep them away from the edge of the cliff.

A mother and teenage daughter smile and chat as they drink coffee against a grey sofa.

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