We focus so much on discipline and correction, but it's something else we do that matters most.
In the past few weeks, my teen has been teenaging especially hard. You know—mood swings, attitudes, the whole gamut of teenage delight. As it’s become less an aberration and more a pattern, I find myself losing patience and getting increasingly frustrated. I started drawing harder lines and speaking more sharply … because that’s what you’ve gotta do as a parent, right?
Spoiler alert: nope. It’s not. I know this, but the daily battles were wearing me down and I wasn’t responding to her with my usual efforts at patience, understanding, and affection. As you can guess, my own shortness compounded the situation until one night she burst into tears and said, “It doesn’t matter what I do, I’m never good enough for you! Nothing matters!”
This was like a bucket of ice water over my head. I realized instantly that I’d never addressed whatever struggle had sparked this cloud over my daughter. Instead, I had focused on her attitude, tone, and general demeanor—all completely reasonable teenage reactions to inner turmoil. I had tried to control her reactions instead of trying to help her deal with the cause of the problem. In doing so, I’d heaped insult upon injury, further pushing her into gloom.
We had a long talk that night, and I apologized. She, in turn, apologized as well. But there was an unsteadiness to our relationship that I could feel. There was damage done, and I didn’t know how to undo it.
Recently, I happened to listen to a podcast with Dr. John Gottman, in which the host asked him if his “magic ratio” of 5 positive interactions for every single negative one applied to parenting. Before Dr. Gottman even answered in the affirmative, I knew that was it. That was what was missing. My daughter and I had had so many negative interactions over the past few weeks that the few positive moments—like our talk and my apology—were a drop in the bucket.
I immediately sent her a text telling her how proud I am of her and how much I love her. Then when she called after school to ask if she could run home from practice, I said yes. She’s been asking to do this daily, and I’ve always said no because I worry about her crossing a busy street on foot.
For my own peace of mind, I drove to the intersection to make sure she made it safely across. She did, of course, and I saw with my own eyes that the danger was almost entirely in my imagination. As she had been saying all along, she was perfectly capable of crossing the street—which I told her when she got home.
I don’t know if it was numerical magic or the sheer pleasure of hearing that she was right and I was wrong, but she lit up after that. She spent the rest of the evening in high spirits, back to the normal teenager (with plenty of eye-rolling) that I love so much.
Our kids absolutely need to hear affirmation and affection way more than they do. We get so focused on the little things that we forget that biggest part of being a good parent who raises good children is forming a loving, supportive, trusting relationship. That will go further than all the correction and nit-picking in the world.