Dr. Grauer's Column - How to Fix Your Child
How to Fix Your Child
(The Parent-Teacher Handyman)
“I just need anyone to talk to because if I tell my parents, they are going to freak out or try to fix me.” —A senior high school student
That quote is the spoiler alert for this story. Please send this column to teachers and parents of senior high school kids, especially.
The number one rule of empathic listening: people are NOT telling us their heart or spilling their guts so they can hear our sage advice or criticism. They are telling us so they can be understood. Or supported. Or embraced.
As parents and teachers, naturally we want our kids to tell us about their stresses or problems. And it is also completely natural that we want to FIX them, just as we did when they were little.
But when we respond with our solutions to those problems, what message are we really sending? Well, we are telling them that we don't trust that they can solve their own problems. Or that there is something wrong with them—they need a fix. “I’m the parent, I better tell you where to go to college and why” is probably the most common attempted fix. Let’s have a look at self-efficacy research to understand this better.
Self-efficacy is a concept we hope all teachers and parents are studying. As Dr. Tricia Valeski, Grauer Psychology teacher, explains, "The self-efficacy of our kids consists of the internal beliefs they hold about their ability to take care of themselves and be successful. With high self-efficacy, our kids feel they are in control of their lives and behaviors.” We are undermining all this if we take control of them or imply that they do not have it! If those kids are in senior high, and they are preparing to leave home, or to pick a college, that’s a pretty scary message.
Feelings of self-efficacy are critical to teen mental and physical health, development and achievement. Dr. Valeski adds, "There is quite a bit of research out there that tells us that authoritarian, or controlling and directive parenting, without support and empathy, results in kids having lower self-efficacy and self-esteem.”
Bottom line: the “fix it approach” can demoralize students, and feed anxiety and insecurity, none of which is going to help them as they make the transition from high school into college and beyond. Plus, it is a pretty good way to stop them from sharing anything sensitive with you again.
When my daughter was picking a college, I was literally hyper-sensitive to advising her about which one to pick—I understood my opinions were outsized in her teen mind, and the thought that she would pick a college to satisfy me was not pretty. What if she got there and did not like it! No, I needed to show trust that she had what it took.
Sure, sometimes kids really want advice, and when that is happening, here is how you will know: They ask for it. “Hey, I’d like your advice.” (Though they’d rather have your money or food!) But your unsolicited advice to a teen tends to mean just: bad news!
So, what’s good news? The answer is: helping kids believe that they are understood and that we believe in them. Let’s tell kids that we hear them, and what we hear. Let’s reflect their emotions back to them. Let’s ask them non-leading, genuine questions about things we really want to learn from them. Let’s express that we are learning from them.
Our kids have been studying us for years. They know our every nuance, tone, and “real” meaning. Hence, as teachers and parents, oftentimes our words or expressions (even body language) often have an outsize impact on our teens—our responses can come down on them with a far bigger boom than we intend. And yet, simply being open to them, receiving them with no judgement or aim to control them is a huge breath of fresh air to our students. It means trust. In an age of anxiety, this is the breath they need.
Our kids need to know that their feelings and experiences have value; they want to be unique, not miniature versions of us. And deep down inside, do we really want our kids to strive to be us?
Rather than telling our students how proud WE are of them, what about telling them how proud we think they deserve to be of themselves? After all, we don’t want them to succeed for us, we want them to succeed for themselves. In the long run, this is going to be crucial to their ability to function and cope in this ever-changing crazy world.
I think I have made my point, but I want to mention just one more thing because the point really needs making: things are different than they were when we were young. And so are our kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and Children’s Hospital Association (CHA) have declared a national emergency in children’s mental health . “We are caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, their communities, and all of our futures,” said AACAP President Gabrielle A. Carlson, M.D. So don’t be surprised that the need for empathic listening is higher than before.
Our kids have just been through a global pandemic rife with threats and confusing information, radical shifts in postsecondary planning and expectations, and angry or vile polemics nationwide. Often silently, they have experienced much, and heard much. Many parents and teachers would be stunned to learn what feelings our kids harbor, but will not tell us for fear of judgement or advice. But our kids need someone to tell!
This past summer, I suggested that all parents read the book “Permission to Feel”.  Of course, there are a number of great books and videos on empathic listening. Wherever you can study this, it’s an ongoing endeavor—I don’t know any perfect listeners, or people. It’s a process and does not take an expert. Our teens just want to be received, not fixed. If you really want to fix someone, give them a hug! For teachers and parents, empathic listening is the best skill we can develop for helping students who are going through emotionally difficult times, but it is also the best thing we can to do support students who aren’t.
In sum, if you find yourself responding to the expressions of your kids by giving them unsolicited fix-it advice, it might be a good time to consider the practice of empathic listening, the best antidote I know. That’s what keeps ’em coming back! Our students and children usually do not respond to us based upon how we make them think nearly so much as how we make them feel.
 AAP-AACAP-CHA Declaration of a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health, American Academy of Pediatrics
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