By Heidi Hopkins, MA
One phone call came while I was standing in the chip aisle at Naps, our local grocery store, and I conducted the entire conversation while staring at bags of Rold Gold pretzels. The other came while I was in bed, startled awake at 1:30 am by the ring breaking through “do not disturb” because it was from one of my “favorites.” The calls came 5 years apart, each from teenage children, each of whom had just made a fairly serious mistake. “Mom…??”
I get choked up thinking about their voices on the phone—scared, gathering courage, disoriented, needing love, unsure what’s next. As parents we feel panic and suspense as well as relief they are alive. We might feel anger building and an impulse to lash out, while at the same time a fierce instinct to defend and protect. They’re precious, and we don’t have as much control as we’d like.
Fear and Control are Sponsoring our Behavior…
What a position to be in, and for so long! It’s an 18-year plus marathon of figuring out what to do on a daily basis with the fear and urge to control that regularly arise. It’s biological. It’s survival wiring. It’s necessary when there is physical danger. It’s also exhausting and relentless and often gets in our way. For most of us, we are already talking and taking all kinds of action before we even realize that fear and control are sponsoring our behavior.
When I got that first phone call I had been dabbling in “mindfulness” for about three years. This meant taking a few minutes to sit and notice my breath or feel the soles of my feet making contact with the floor. Sometimes it trickled over into more of my life, and I would find myself taking a breath or feeling my feet while standing in the grocery line or driving in my car.
Every once in a while I would remember to do this at the start of a conversation with someone. I would look at them and just take a breath first. Or feel my feet on the floor before starting to say something. A kind of palette cleanser for whatever leftover energy or momentum I might be bringing into the interaction. I could feel this had an impact in the moment, but I didn’t imagine that this growing habit was really changing anything deeper down or longer term. Until I got that phone call in Naps. After hearing what happened, the first thing that rolled out of my mouth was, “I’m glad you’re ok. What are you going to do about it?”
What? I heard myself say this in a legit calm voice…
What? I heard myself say this in a legit calm voice, and that was more shocking to me than the incident itself! I had read the research—the short mindfulness practices I had been doing not only impact how we show up in the moment but when repeated many times they actually lower the baseline activation level in our nervous system. I did not realize this was happening inside my actual body until I was faced with a very stressful situation and, without thinking about it, had an entirely different response.
What ensued was a series of events that ended up being incredibly supportive and impactful for both my teen and myself. Growth and stability happened for this child. And I began parenting differently based on the data from this experience. The new parenting patterns that followed made a profound difference in my well-being and enjoyment as a parent, my children’s well-being, and our relationships with each other.
Here’s what happened…
Here’s what happened. Instead of my teen and I spending a bunch of energy fighting over what happened and trying to figure out consequences, my simple question from the Naps aisle sent my teen straight into problem solving hustle mode. They adulted. Step by step, with my support where they asked for it, they made phone calls and went through processes that naturally took a lot of their time, as well as money they didn’t have, which then led to financial resourcing on their part. This whole series of events matured them, empowered them, and put them in contact with people who influenced them. It is not an understatement to say that this turn of events was “life changing” for them. Not only did the Naps phone call crisis itself get completely resolved, but development emerged in them that I had been trying to facilitate for years.
Here were my takeaways as a parent:
- I saw with my own eyes that fear and control were not necessary either to solve the crisis or to produce development in my child. Prior to this, some part of me believed that if I let those strategies go I would not be able to parent effectively. We are heavily socialized as parents to be afraid and to think about what we might need to control. And there is a biological basis for this “negativity bias”: Our brains are wired to scan for threats. Fear and control kick in to activate our nervous system and limit our access to higher level thinking so we can focus all our energy on fight or flight for survival. This is adaptive in an animal environment where our physical safety is in jeopardy.
However, in the modern world, including parenting and most other challenging situations, we need higher level thinking more than a fight or flight response. And we want our kids to be thinking! Because humans are pack animals, when our system is in fight or flight it also activates our children’s nervous systems and in turn limits their higher level thinking.
Because children regulate their nervous system based on the adults around them until they are 25, and because nervous system activation biologically limits access to higher level thinking, keeping our own system regulated as a parent is actually one of the most important things we can do for our children and our parenting.
So not only are fear and control approaches not necessary for effective parenting, they are actually detrimental. But because of the enormous momentum of neurobiology and socialization, this is very counterintuitive. For me, it took powerful data to convince me. And the realization that if I didn’t need fear and control to successfully navigate a crisis with my teen, then it would follow that I wouldn’t need those strategies in the less dire everyday stuff, either. And so it became a process of repatterning these deep habits.
- I started noticing when fear and control were rising up in my body and mind. I noticed that this energy was actually present in a low grade way much of the time I was in my teenagers’ presence. I knew I didn’t need it anymore to be effective, but I found it was so subtle and automatic that I had to intentionally embody a completely different posture in order to neutralize it.
- I began experimenting with “enjoy them” as my cue to myself whenever they walked in the room. I made enjoying my children my first priority in any interaction with them. What is endearing about them right now? Can I glimpse their humanity or vulnerability? How could I be a source of relief and understanding for them in this moment? Is there anything humorous I could connect over? What do they seem to be interested in, in this moment? Are they trying to share something that I could be more present for? Wow, how much enjoyment there was to be had when I wasn’t busy being afraid or thinking about what I needed to try to control! My enjoyment of life in general increased drastically, my connection with my kids deepened significantly, and as a result our ability to talk about things and work together improved greatly.
- I reminded myself that my kids needed my regulated nervous system more than my fight or flight sponsored words and actions. I continued using deep breaths and grounded feet to stabilize myself in the moments when the biosocial tides of fear and control started rising. Easier said than done, and for the big waves, we need more than a deep breath for sure. This step probably warrants an article of its own, but in the meantime let us not underestimate the power of small moments of recentering—repeated many times.
- Enjoyment and connection slowly replaced fear and control as my default approaches to whatever was up with my child. And these states opened out naturally into collaboration, which in turn reinforced both connection and enjoyment. The more I operated this way and saw the results, the more I trusted this process to get us where we needed to go.
- Although it was slower and required more patience and trust, I embraced collaboration as our way of navigating things. Collaboration was not just a popular buzzword or a motion to go through to make my kid feel good or more easily comply with my wishes. Collaboration with my teen actually yielded much more successful outcomes. Kids and teens have good ideas! They see the planet differently because they haven’t been here as long. They have less of the crust of socialization and habituation that can narrow and dampen our adult sensibilities. They also have a unique perspective on their own needs, willingness, and values—and when some part of the plan comes from them we are already working with instead of against these elements.
- I began welcoming “problems”as opportunities for my teens’ development. In addition to yielding better outcomes, the process of collaboration effortlessly develops in teens key qualities and abilities we parents struggle to inculcate otherwise. Qualities like critical thinking, reflection, brainstorming, initiative, engagement, attuning to their own inner wisdom, trusting themselves, confidence, problem solving, discussion, and speaking up, among others.
- If we can use some basic mindfulness practice to keep the fear and control at bay, and learn to tolerate and trust the space before there is a resolution, we will discover that our teens’ problems or conundrums do much of the parenting for us. We can lean back a bit and become more of a game show host with prompts instead of a contestant, asking things like:
- What was going on for you when that happened?
- How can I support you?
- What do you need?
- What do you think?
- What’s important to you in this?
- Can you tell me a little more about what you are thinking and feeling about this?
- What are some options for what you might do?
- How are you thinking you’ll approach this? Where do you think you’ll start?
- What do you see as some potential ways forward?
Connection and collaboration saw us through…
Five years after the Naps phone call, I got the Middle of the Night phone call, this time from a different kid, this time a little more serious. I knew by now how to stay calm, be very present, and not do much else that first night. I’m not gonna lie, I had a fair amount of fear and stress welling up in the days following. But the enjoying and connecting I had been practicing for several years rose to meet me in those moments, and I found there was a very solid foundation on which to navigate the situation.
My teen and I were able to share our honest feelings with each other in real time, one human to another, and even when it got a little messy it wasn’t as raw and triggering because the interactions landed on a cushion of mutual affection, trust, and respect that had been built over time. I was so grateful for such a cushion. It was everything when the crisis came. Connection and collaboration saw us through, albeit imperfectly. Perhaps the stakes will be higher next time or the process more difficult. There is no magic formula or any guarantee for life on this unpredictable planet. But I am convinced that enjoyment and collaboration with our teens gives us much better chances than fear and control.