Embrace the “I don’t know” of Parenting

By Heidi Hopkins, MA

I was standing by the back door with my hand on the doorknob, feeling cramped in the laundry room with one of my teenage sons. I can’t even remember what the specific issue was, but I was in a full blown moment of “I don’t know what I’m doing or how to handle this or what to do next”…and then it hit me. Neither did my teen. By bringing forward and naming the bare truth of my experience in that moment, and letting myself fully feel the “I don’t know” of it, I was given a sudden and unexpected moment of perspective taking: this is how my teen feels most of the time.

In fact, this is kind of the normal developmental state for teens. Their identity is in flux as they try on different ways of showing up, feeling unsure and vulnerable, and like everyone else but them has it figured out. They are old enough to do almost everything independently yet not old enough to feel competent at much of it, and so they must muddle through the day feeling a little insecure about most of their moves.

Teens have a lot of adults expecting many things from them, and are also supposed to somehow “be themselves”. They feel confused and conflicted between these forces much of the time. As unbearable and uncomfortable as it was to allow myself to sit in the reality of “I’m the parent and I have no idea what to do,” it gave me enormous, new empathy for my teens’ daily experience of life. I was flooded with a sense of common humanity, solidarity, and humor. Here we are. And on some level none of us really know what we are doing, but we are in it together.

After that day in the laundry room, when I had moments of not knowing what to do as a parent I began noticing them and allowing myself to pause. I started saying to whichever child was present, “You know, I’m really not sure what to do right now,” and then just waited. What a relief to not have to know. What a relief to have a space where there didn’t have to be an answer. What a relief for them. To not have another pressured expectation or solution imposed. To see a grown up model the okayness of not knowing. To see waiting and silence be allowed. To see humanity.

When we’re stressed, we can stop. We can just stand there. We can wait. And not do anything. The urge to do something can be so intense that it can feel non-optional. But when we discover the freedom to wait, some magical things can happen. 

Our nervous system can start to resettle a bit and move back towards baseline. As a result, some of our higher level thinking can come back online. 

“System Processing”

The silence allows for what I like to call  “system processing” or “buffering”–you know, the little spinny thing that goes in circles on the computer when it needs a minute. 

And out of the silence often comes an inspired impulse, or inspired action. As we sit there feeling empty and out of resources, sometimes something suddenly bubbles up or a way forward reveals itself.

Over time, the “empty and out of resources” feeling isn’t so scary and uncomfortable. We’ve let ourselves be in it enough times, and it starts to feel bearable, like shockingly cold water that doesn’t feel that bad once we adjust to it. Or like sudden and disorienting darkness that soon reveals a navigable landscape and surprising visibility. We’ve started recognizing it as a welcome place to land, reset, and see what unfolds when there’s not so much pressure. We’ve glimpsed the hidden permission there to be completely human.

It’s a bit disarming, being in this space of nothing that somehow seems to hold so much. Turns out not having the weapons of knowledge, control, plans, and actions steps can make us much more accessible from our teen’s perspective. Beneath the stress and confusion of the moment there is an underbelly of connection that can sneak up on us if we’re open to it and don’t move too fast.

A little bit like standing still in a clearing and letting a forest animal come closer and closer. We thought we needed to solve a problem but in the vulnerability of not knowing how, we accidentally stumbled into a few moments of simple human presence with our kid—a flash of seeing each other that is powerful and fresh.

Although we have been cast into these roles of parent and child, and although there is an inherent power difference in those roles, ultimately we are just two beings who happen to be on the planet at the same time and have landed in the same family together. Two beings. Here is a person like me trying to figure out life and doing the best they can and feeling a lot of insecurity and pressure and navigating internal conflict and wanting so much to be loved and have connection. 

Sometimes the “answer” is opening to connection in the not knowing. As someone who began the parenting journey with master plans, perfectionism, agendas, and structure (and a lot of fear!) it has been a long and excruciating road to come to this conclusion.

Not only is an “I don’t know” moment as a parent a ripe opportunity for connection, it turns out that connecting with our child is likely more impactful toward our ultimate goals for them than having answers or control.

How do we do this?

Notice it: See if you can catch yourself when you are in a moment of stress and pressure as a parent and aren’t sure what to do.

Name it: Oh! My current state is “I don’t know.”

Embrace it: This is an OK place to land and settle into. I don’t need to make it different.

Trust it: This is a place of lots of possibilities, out of which can emerge calm, connection, and eventually clarity.

Stay in it: Allow yourself to be in “I don’t know” as long as you need to. Maybe you will go on with your day still not knowing but trusting that the answer or way forward will reveal itself if that is what is needed.

Let connection happen: Open yourself to connecting with your teen despite the stress and confusion. Don’t force it, but see what happens when you are simply present with them.

Practice: This process can be fruitful in all areas of life, not just in the parenting arena. Experiment with it and see what happens!

Heidi Hopkins, MA is a Professional Counseling Associate at Newberg Counseling & Wellness. (Clinical Supervisor: Elizabeth Shields, LMFT)

She has a passion for supporting parents and teens through life’s ups and downs. Are you interested in working with Heidi? Contact us to set up an appointment.

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