The other night I was in my office finishing up some work. It was right before bedtime. My almost-teenager came into the room and sat down on the couch. “Hey, mom,” he said. I had work to finish up, but this time, I knew what was happening here and I didn’t want to miss it: my son was wanting to connect.
What my growing son didn’t say but meant was: “Hey mom, I haven’t really seen you much today. I’d love to spend some time with you.”
That night I closed the computer. There have been times when I have gotten sucked into doing more and saying, “You start up to bed and I’ll be there in a moment.” But these days, I am really trying to be conscious of how these bids for connection from a teenage boy might become less frequent over the next few years. And so I am choosing to pause, tell myself that my work can wait, and go to be with my son.
Some nights my son might come over to me while I’m sitting on the couch, snuggle up to me, and though he may not say it, his presence next me means: “Hey, let’s connect.”
It’s a bid for connection. It’s a bid for presence and to be seen.
Some nights, after he is already in bed and the lights are off, I might hear him call out, “Hey mom, can you come in here for a minute?” He may not say it but what he means is: “Now that I’m settling down to get into bed, I am remembering something that happened today and I need to tell you about it.”
It’s a bid for connection and reassurance.
These bids for connection can easily go unnoticed. For most of us, our lives our full. It’s hard keeping up with emails about school, sports practice, band rehearsals, piano lessons, and scout events let alone pause to notice the subtle ways our children make a bid for connection. We are also managing a lot – in our homes, with our children, between us and our partners, and at work. I don’t know a parent who doesn’t feel like they aren’t pulled in a hundred different directions and also trying to “do right” by their children!
It’s also hard to decode the messages our children are sending us. Between getting home from school and work, eating dinner, and getting off to an evening event, you might ask your kiddo, “How’s it going?” and get “Ehhh” in return. Or maybe you get a door slam or an eye roll. Maybe you get a “You don’t get it!” or a “You don’t know how it feels!”
It’s hard. It hurts. It’s activating. It’s hard to not take it personally. It’s hard to not get riled up when you get the eye roll. It’s hard to know what is going on with your tween or teen when they don’t talk much. It’s hard to not think they are crazy when one minute they are fine and the next moment they are storming off and slamming their door closed.
Yet lately, I’ve been asked a lot by parents to help them understand their teen. Their teen is struggling — with anxiety, depression, or ADHD. Their teen has had a friend try to commit suicide. Their teen has had a friend overdose on heroine and die. Our teens have a tremendous amount of pressure on them. They have seen a lot and are holding a lot. And we can’t ignore the rising rate of anxiety in teens.
What our children SAY isn’t always what they MEAN. They may not have the words to say exactly what they need; they may not even know exactly what they are feeling or thinking; they just want to know they are loved and that we will stand by them.
They want to perform well. They want to please you. They want to measure up. They want to do a good job.
They want to be independent AND they need us around. They want to have your approval — but not be ruled by it and driven by it.
They want the freedom to express themselves, to discover what makes them unique, what lights them up, what their passions are, and what they care about. AND they need guidance, coaching, limits, and boundaries (they won’t say this, of course!).
They are insecure AND confident. They are emotional AND learning to handle those emotions. They are moody AND need to know how to healthy express their emotions. They want to belong AND be different.
They want to be regarded. They want to want to know down into their bones that they are enough and loved as they are.
I know – it can be really hard to decode what they are saying. It can be hard to pick up on the subtle bids for connection. They might act out. They might grunt or give one-word answers. They might give you the cold shoulder. But if we can keep this on the forefront of our minds – that they just want to be loved – we can pause for a moment, suspend our judgment, and respond to their bid for connection with kind presence. If we can coach them instead of save them, we can help build their inner sense of resilience and soul confidence. If we can just be beside them, we can send the message that they ARE loved and they CAN get through anything obstacle they face. If we can give our teens our presence, we can send the message that they matter. And they just might internalize that message and carry it with them for life.
So when you hear, “I’m nervous” before the big game, test, or performance, know that this is a bid for reassurance and connection. They want to hear, “No matter what happens, I’ll be proud of you.”
Tell him that your love and pride in him is not determined by what he does or how he performs. Tell them that no matter the outcome, you’ll love them. Period. You’ll be helping your child go out into life, try, AND fail…AND realize it’s okay! THAT builds resilience and will serve them long after they leave your house for college.
When she asks, “Do you like my earrings?” Know that she is trying to express herself AND fit in. Know that she wants your opinion AND also she doesn’t. Know that she is looking for reassurance.
Tell her that she is lovely – inside in out. Ask her what SHE thinks of her “look.” Let her know that you admire how she expresses herself.
When he is up late sitting there tapping his foot furiously on the ground staring at his homework, complains of a headache yet again, and gets irritable when you ask him how it’s going, know that he has a lot of emotions going on that he may not be able to name. He might be holding some shame – not feeling good enough, smart enough, capable enough. He might have high expectations of himself while feeling like a failure and anxious about it all.
Just be a calm presence with him. Show that you are interested in him. Let him know that you are there for him. Give him words for what he might be feeling. Share a story about how you felt like this when you were growing up, too.
When she slams her door, know that she wants you to leave her alone but to not leave her alone! She wants help making sense of all that is going on inside of her and in her world but she also wants to do it herself.
Pause. Exhale. Try not to take it personally. Know that there is a lot going on inside of her and she’s trying to make sense of herself, her emotions, and her world. You might say, “Sounds like you’ve had a rough day. I’m here when you want to talk.”
When she sits quietly in the car texting on her phone, know that there is a lot going on inside that heart, brain, and body of hers. She wants you to SEE her — but not come too close. She wants you to LOVE her — but give her space. She wants you to GUIDE her — but trust her. She is wanting to express her uniqueness but also to still fit in.
You might ask her how her day was or tell her how nice it is just to be with her. You might get a one-word answer or a grunt. She may not even look up at you. But trust me; she’s noticing how you notice her. She might think you are annoying but she will remember that you cared to notice her.
Let’s enter our teen’s world for a moment and open to the possibility that they are carrying a lot. While they may have an interesting way of making a bid for connection, we can decode their eye rolls, short temper, or one-word answers and know that they just want to be loved and to know they are good, that you believe in them, and that they are enough.
If you’d like support in decoding your teen, coaching them instead of saving them, and connecting them in meaningful ways so they have an inner sense of resilience and confidence, check out my on-demand course, Regarding Our Children.
If you’d like one-on-one support, please schedule a consult with me.
We are in this together! Let’s raise resilient, kind, confident kiddos. Thank you for being here!