The Phone Call:
Her (voice distressed): Mom, do you have time to chat?
Me (stopping what I was doing): Sure. What’s my role here?
Her: I don’t know. I guess I just want to vent. Let me finish before you say anything.
Me: No problem (then clamping my mouth shut)
Her (25 minutes later): … I’m the kind of person, that when he…
Me (resisting the urge to chime in): Mm-hmm
Her (10 minutes later): What do you think?
Me (floodgates open): Do you feel like the situation is taking some of your power away?
Her: Yeah, I guess I do.
Me: I get it. Let’s look at that together.…
Me (45 minutes later): How are you feeling now?
Her: You know, Mom, I feel like it’s going to be alright.
Me: That’s because it is going to be alright. It always was.
Her (laughing): Thanks, Mom.
Is that an example of brilliant parenting, or what? It used to be that when I heard distress in my daughter’s voice, I would immediately jump in with sage advice. I gave that up a long time ago. Why? Because 75% of the time she ended up emotionally exploding, which, to me seemed to come out of nowhere. We’d go to our corners, with her feeling worse than when she started, and me feeling blindsided, ineffectual, and fully aware that I had let my daughter down when she had come to me for help.
Then, one glorious day, I heard her when she said (once again), “Mom, that doesn’t help me at all!” Instead of backing off and feeling snubbed, I asked her what would help… and she told me.
Epiphany! If I found out at the beginning of the conversation what she needed for help, we could avoid the blow ups.
That changed everything, but believe me, it didn’t happen overnight. The urge to emotionally rescue my child was an ingrained habit, overwhelming in my compulsion to make things better for her. But, I was determined to have us share a good relationship, and gradually things shifted.
Nowadays, I ask what role I should fill (Mommy, friend, listener, advisor, comforter) right after I hear that initial emotion-filled, “Mom!”
I probably do it right about 90% of the time. The other 10% messes up when the magical clamp on my mouth somehow loosens, and I chime in before she’s ready to hear it. (Don’t judge me. I’m a mom.) Regardless, we’ve evolved from “Mom doesn’t get me” to “Mom can help me.” Her trust in our relationship has built back up, even though I haven’t been perfect at it.
It worked for me, and it can work for you. All you have to do to narrow that widening gap with your kids is to make a Fresh Start using this simple technique. Instead of anticipating their needs based on how you see the world, ask them what role they need you to fill at this moment. And then, do your best to fill it.
Make it a formal Fresh Start by sitting down your kids during an emotionally neutral time, and telling them you want to try something new. Try saying something like this:
Sometimes I want to fix things for you so much, that I don’t hear what you’re trying to tell me. I just wanted to let you know that I’m going to try something different. When you come to me with a problem, I’m going to ask you what you need from me. I can be a listener, a hugger, an advisor, whatever you want – you tell me what you need me to do, and I’ll hear you. We’ll solve your problem together.
Sharing your Fresh Start with your kids will
- keep them from being confused when you try it for the first time.
- make your intentions accountable.
- allow them to remind you when you forget to ask which role you should fill.
The next time your child wails, “Mom!” you’ll be ready.
- When he needs you to listen, listen and don’t talk.
- When she needs you to cuddle, hug and listen.
- When they need advice, tell them what they need to know.
- When she wants to vent, let her vent without judgment (it’s just venting).
Accept that there will be a learning curve. From personal experience, I can tell you first hand that it may be difficult to keep your mouth shut. When I made my Fresh Start, my daughter was old enough to respect my attempts to improve our relationship. Despite her own emotional turmoil, it wasn’t unusual for her to interject a good-humored, “Mom, what did we say your role was supposed to be?” since it wasn’t unusual for me to get so caught up in the topic, I’d prematurely start offering advice.
Sometimes, I still can’t help myself, but that’s okay because after years of positive results, she’s confident that my goal is to help her when she wants help – and even now – to cuddle her when she needs a hug.
Make a Fresh Start. It’s well worth the effort. You’ll gain your kids’ trust by making them feel heard and understood. Someday, you may even overhear them sharing your pearls of wisdom with their friends. Now, that’s awesome!
Bonus: This technique actually works with the other personal relationships in your life (spouse, siblings, parents). Try it!
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