This is a tough one.
You just caught your teen in a less than desirable situation.
There’s a moment of shock and disbelief that takes your breath away. It’s painful, with a side of rage inducing anger.
It doesn’t matter what ‘it’ was. The emotional process is the same and your relationship with your teen is on the line.
Maybe you blew up, ripped a strip off them, stormed so angry you couldn’t speak, or turned into a sobbing mess on the floor. You’re not alone. This is HARD stuff there’s very little preparation for it.
Re-engaging after an argument or blow out is key for a healthy relationship with your teen. Timing is important so you both feel ready and not rushed. Too soon is invalidating and avoiding connecting is stonewalling.
Here’s 7 steps to wade into the uncomfortable and emotionally messy aftermath.
1. Process your emotional, raw feed away from your teenager so you don’t add fuel to the fire. Journal it out, talk to your partner, call a friend, your therapist, someone who will listen without taking sides or invalidating your feelings so you find a calmer, less triggered state to constructively approach the issue.
2. Ask permission – “Are you ready to talk about what happened? I love you and my relationship with you is important to me”. This is called ‘making a bid’ or ‘repair attempt’ (Gottman Institute). Re-engaging may require many, small conversations so put away your marathon monologue (AKA lecture 😉) and let go of expectations for a kiss and make up ending.
“I said some things based on my emotional reaction that weren’t as constructive as I’d have liked.”
3. Apologize if you feel prompted to do so. Don’t fake it if you don’t mean it. Your teen has a nose for authenticity and this situation calls for big doses of it.
Follow up with one, or a combination of the following:
a) “I’m not ready to talk about it yet.” Make an agreement to reconnect in a timeframe that feels validating and realistic for both of you. Sooner is always better that pretending the situation will solve itself by being swept under the rug.
b) “I’m feeling X (stick to one or two emotions words from this diagram) about Y (be very specific about the event or situation).” Taking time to get clear on your X and Y helps you stay focused and current without bring in other past transgressions.
c) “I’m really struggling with this.” Be honest without laying on the guilt or shame. Use ‘I’ language to own your feelings and be brief.
4. Check your story – Your emotional response to catching your teen doing what you least wanted or expected is made worse by the stories your mind makes up. Your imagination takes over and fills in the gaps of missing data, then expands and exaggerates the truth.
And what does it all mean? Just because your teen makes a poor choice beyond your limits doesn’t mean they’re becoming an unemployable, homeless drug dealer living under a bridge or going to jail.
This transgression isn’t a red letter, badge of shame your teen will wear for the rest of their days…unless you make it that way.
Watch the full video here ⬇️
5. “Help me understand what happened.” Asking your teen to share their version and fill in your information gaps requires you to stay curious, open-minded and truly listen. Listen without interruption, correction, condemnation, or judgement. Listen with compassion because you want to rebuild connection with your teen and understand they’re imperfect like you, curious about the world and wired for risky behaviour (which DOESN’T mean they lack intelligence).
Your teen got caught doing something they probably knew was wrong or were intentionally hiding because they didn’t want you to know. They may be defensive, angry or refuse to take responsibility, all actions based in fear of judgement, shame or criticism.
By listening more than you talk, you build emotional safety and connection, so your teen is more likely to let you in on their thoughts and feelings.
6. Reward honesty – Even though a consequence may be required, the conversation isn’t over. In fact, the conversations following this event can be pivotal in your relationship and more meaningful to changing behaviour. Let your teen know you’re open to listening and that being honest will get them farther with you (less consequences) and in life.
Taking ownership requires vulnerability, courage and a strong sense of self to understand that mistakes don’t diminish your value or define your life (despite what your parents told you). Your teen wants to know you love them even though you’re upset, and you too made mistakes. Share your stories, what happened and what you learned to create connection and trust, the currencies required for a more honest and open relationship going forward.
7. Restate your boundaries – Setting reasonable limits that your teen clearly understands so you feel respected and safe is essential going forward. Remind your teen WHY this boundary is important to you and any other background to help them understand.
Allow space for conversation and questions, even if you don’t change your mind. When your teen feels their side is heard, they’re more likely to respect your boundary.
If there’s room to negotiate your boundary, let your teenager know it will only happen through respectful conversation, not badgering or constant debate.
This is a HUGE and hard topic and I have many parents reaching out to me about it! There’s many more steps and angles to cover, so stay tuned over the next few weeks for more tips and strategies, and please know you’re not alone.
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