It’s a thought pattern that used to make me nuts (and I haven’t completely conquered it yet): 'Zero to disaster in 60 seconds!’
Here's how it goes....
My 16-year old son has missed two history assignments this week... He'll start falling behind and fail a test. Then he'll stop working in other classes, fail multiple courses, he won't graduate high school (forget about college!), start using drugs, and end up living on the street. Zero to disaster in 60 seconds.
Yes, it's overly dramatic. But it illustrates how something small can trigger your fears and have you projecting way too far into the future… especially when the event is outside of what you consider normal for your child.
If you think about it, most of the awful things you imagine don’t happen. Why do you do it? This worry, this catastrophizing, takes up mental and emotional space and makes you crazy. It also makes your kids crazy!
In my own life, there were times when my fears about my child’s future had me depressed and anxious. I jumped in to micromanage situations that were not mine to fix. It sure made me feel better to be doing something, but didn’t improve the situation. In fact, it said that I didn’t trust my kid to figure it out, and he lost what little self-confidence he had. I didn’t believe in him, and he didn’t believe in himself. I don’t regret much, but that is definitely on my list.
Imagine that your child earns a few bad test grades. (If you’re living with this, you already know how it feels.) Now you’re on high alert. For too many parents, this leeches into your attitude when you’re with your child. The panic ramps up. You may start to hover over him when he’s doing (or not doing) homework and studying. Maybe there’s an edge in your voice, desperation, disappointment and fear rearing their ugly heads. How can your child not sense this?
Now there is increasing tension in your relationship. It’s the only thing you can focus on and the last thing he wants to talk about. Trust erodes. Zero to disaster in your relationship in a very short period of time. How did you get here? It started in your head. (I’ve heard it said, “My mind is a dangerous neighborhood. I should never go there alone.” Some days that’s me, wishing I could just shut down my thoughts.)
As always, this is an opportunity for a discussion. As long as you stick to the facts (and avoid emotions and improvising), you can have a conversation.
Ask yourself, “Whose problem is this?” Before you even think about problem solving, determine if this is something you should be managing. Objective thinking often reveals that it’s your child’s responsibility. Be there to help, if he wants it, but don’t do it for him.
Say what you see and what you hear. This you can believe. You’re not imagining these things. Express it respectfully and as neutrally as possible. You can be concerned without speaking with anger, finger pointing and panic. If you want your child to hear you – instead of tuning you out – this is the way.
Make it a conversation, not a trial. You’re not there to judge or criticize. It’s a time for presenting the facts and gathering more information. Maybe there is a bigger concern, maybe not. The goal is for your teen to feel it’s okay to talk it through and not worry about being attacked for falling short.
Watch your tone. Tone is just as important as words. “What’s that about?” can sound curious or accusatory. Watch your tone!
Don’t make assumptions about what he needs. Half the time he doesn’t even know what’s good for him…. and neither do you. Ask. “Do you want a hug? Time alone? To talk? Help getting started?” This is a great opportunity to continue talking, and to help him discover what works and doesn’t work for him. Here’s where self-confidence and independence are born.
Go on with your day. This is easier said than done. Parents always worry; however, take comfort from knowing that you are helping him develop awareness and skills to manage his own life. Remember that so much of this is beyond your control. He will do what he’s going to do, no matter how much you worry, and often in spite of consequences you impose.
Some decisions have long-term consequences, and many do not. Either way, a parent’s role is to prepare children to cope and thrive. You are his most important teacher and your home is a microcosm of the bigger world. You don’t have to go from zero to disaster in 60 seconds.
Practice these six steps to regain your own calm. When you do, you’ll be able to see your role in the bigger picture of your teen’s life, and give him the best gifts of all: independence, self-worth, and the ability to live life on his terms.