Fight, Flight or Connect? Parenting Your Teen with Your Wise Mind

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Parenting is likely the hardest job on the planet, hands down. And it’s the one job that doesn’t require an interview process, an orientation/training period or annual evaluations. Parenting can drudge up the most painful feelings, and can gift the greatest joys. So, given that parenting is inherently a roller coaster ride, how do we parent effectively and forego screaming and throwing our arms up in the air?

The heart of the matter lies in parents’ abilities to keep our own reactions to our children from getting the best of us in each given moment, whenever possible. In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), we call this Emotion Regulation. For many people the ability to regulate their emotions has been trained over time to take place in certain environments. For the most part, as adults, we have learned certain ways to behave at work to keep our job, or in social situations to keep our friends. But what about in the comfort of our own home, with our family? Emotion regulation in this context is another skill that must be learned and that is usually not taught along the way. I often hear from parents that no one makes them want to explode more than their teens. We’ve all seen it happen—a parent starts out calm and mild-mannered, the teenager responds in a way that the parent feels is unwarranted, the parent corrects her on her tone of voice, the teen explodes, the parent explodes. The moment is gone and nothing has been gained, except more frustration and guilt. So, is Emotion Regulation easier said than done? Yes. And is it possible to learn? Yes.

For parents who feel that the scenario I described is all too familiar, learning skills to use in each specific moment can be helpful. When parents learn how to stay calm in the midst of really difficult emotions, all of the dynamics in the family shift. When parents learn how to step back, allow their bodies a chance to return from a fight, flight, or freeze adrenaline-based reaction, and to use their own wisdom (or Wise Mind as we call it in DBT) to create an effective response to the dilemma they are facing with their teens, it creates space for their teens to follow suit. For example, one thing we know helps calm our systems is exercise. But how many of us in the midst of a heated argument decide in that moment to put on our running shoes and go for a hard run? This action goes against the grain and for most of us it requires practice acting in this way over and over again. Once we learn this action (or a multitude of others) to break the pattern of continuing to engage in a discussion that is going nowhere, we give our bodies and minds a chance to settle and return to the situation with a fresh, wise perspective. Parents who have made this shift often report more ease in daily living. It is not to say that they have been able to create a “perfect” environment or that they no longer argue with their teens. Instead, they report that when they do have a disagreement, it does not escalate the way that it used to, which has a positive effect on the relationship. In turn, when tempers do flair, it is within the context of a strong relationship—a relationship that has a trusting, loving center—a relationship where repairs are possible.

This work isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s hard. It’s some of the most painstaking work we can do. It requires wrestling with ourselves. It requires letting go of being RIGHT, which wouldn’t be a problem if being right didn’t feel so darn good! Learning DBT skills in the context of parenting is a marathon of a challenge and ultimately, it can lead to some really pleasant feelings, both about ourselves as parents and about our relationships with our teens.