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For a parent, the teenage years are probably the most daunting of all. Many of us find it easy to fall into a loose form of cognitive dissonance with our child, a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Or we become alienated by the deep yearning for independence that our beloved so obviously feels at this stage. I am happy to report that this does not have to happen; there is, as we Buddhists are fond of saying, “a Middle Way.”
Setting a Solid Foundation for Teenagers through Buddhist Practices
The most important prerequisite of a strong relationship with your teenager is the solid foundation created in the early years. If you develop a close relationship with a young child, the later years are much easier to manage. It is similar to the wisdom that dog whisperer, Cesar Millan, constantly reinforces: however you train a puppy, so will the dog behave. If the puppy is allowed to bite, bark, and jump on the furniture, the dog will do the same, only with more disastrous results. For those who feel that the younger years were a failure, do not give up! All is not lost. As I have said for the past two decades in working with families, there are no “bad” kids, only parents who need retraining.
The biggest mistake that we make as parents is what I call “time-warping”. We can get locked into thinking of and relating to our child as if they were still eight or nine. The challenge is to realize that our child is rapidly evolving and that if we don’t allow ourselves to evolve with them, we will inevitably experience what used to be called the generation gap. This often happens when we have focused so much on our child’s well-being that we forget about our own. While it may be our evolutionary or cultural conditioning to do this, it creates a large number of problems and the most unsatisfactory adult relationship with our progeny.
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Once again, I offer the mindful caveat that our own personal practice of self-awareness is the most critical place to start. If I am not awake to my own issues, of perfectionism, for example, I will undoubtedly project them onto my child. This is true in any of our relationships. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is through an example of my own.
When my son was in junior high school, he began to receive lower scores on his report cards.
It was not because he was challenged by a learning disability, but because he was not doing the homework required to know his subject well. At first, we just talked about improving study skills, and pretty much let things flow. Soon, however, we began to receive notes from his teachers. My wife, who is a veteran elementary school teacher of impeccable talent and gifts, approached this from her own experience. She began to have him undertake study times that she would monitor in order for him to complete his homework. Unfortunately, this soon resulted in arguments and hurt feelings.
Like his father, my first response was a swift, strong, and probably unnecessary reading of the riot act. None of this worked. Even as I was reading my son his “rights”, my deeper, more contemplative awareness recognized the real problem. The ability to step back in the midst of chaos is one of the most significant fruits of meditation. The regular practice of learning to collect and contemplate the mind is the ancient secret of every satisfied Buddhist parent.
I could see that the real issue was that while my wife was working with him as if he were an elementary student, I was reacting out of fear that he would not develop the skills to be accomplished in life. Both of these approaches were irrational and unhelpful. My wife and I sat together and calmly looked at the problem instead of focusing on our son. This is a very useful tool for any relational issue. It steers us away from the shame and blame game and helps us to become more solution-oriented. It also assists us in calming down and using clarity to evaluate the situation.
We decided that the best way to resolve this was first by recognizing that our beautiful boy was becoming a man. He needed to begin to realize from his own experience that he alone would be responsible for the course of his life. We would always be there as his biggest fans but we would no longer play “cosmic cop” and try to ameliorate every difficult scenario he got himself into. Rather, we would have to let him fall down a little. Instead of always rushing to pick him up, we would remain by his side, loving him every step of the proverbial way.
Once things (all of us!) cooled down, we had a long discussion about karma. In the Buddhist view, karma is not a punishment or reward mechanism, rather it is understood to be the way that causes and effect functions for every one of us. We are not destined to some preordained fate; we can change our karma and, thus, our experience of life. Accordingly, we decided that we would offer our help but that he would have to request it. He would have to figure out how to do his school work.
At first, inspired by this new adult freedom, he actually began to study more. Then he started to gradually fall behind, eventually receiving a letter from his teachers that if things didn’t improve, he might be in danger of not passing some courses. Letting him face these consequences was incredibly hard for us! We agonized many times over whether we were doing the right thing. When our doubts would arise we would undertake the “Four Questions of Mindfulness” together (see my book, Free Your Mind, for a detailed explanation) to ensure we were acting from a balanced position of both compassion and clarity.
Eventually, our son became very upset and angry when we wouldn’t rescue him from these consequences. We lovingly reassured him of our support but explained that if we intervened, he wouldn’t really be growing as a person. We told him how much we believed in his ability to learn how to solve any problem and that if he asked, we would help in any way we could. This led to him doing the “Four Questions” with us and discovering that his own conditioned perfectionism was at the root of his problem. He had some anxiety about doing well and was subconsciously sabotaging himself so that he wouldn’t have to face the fact that in some areas he would not always be naturally the best and would have to work harder. Indeed, even if he worked harder, he still might not accomplish some things perfectly. And that it would still be okay because as a Buddhist, he was learning that his behavior is not identical with his being (once again, please refer to the chapter on self-esteem in Free Your Mind).
As we worked together on changing this belief in perfection through exposing it to reality, he came to be more unconditionally accepting of his behavior, realizing that all too often he had put the whole weight of his self-esteem on whether he did well at something. It was a wonderful insight from which we all grew.
Guess what? It worked! It was slow going at first, but eventually, he found a way to balance his study time with his desire to play. His grades improved and he finished the year with a great sense of success and satisfaction. And this was not a fluke. I have used this same technique with hundreds of parents successfully over the past twenty years. The solid combination of affection and discipline is the very best that we can provide. We can have intimate, joyful relationships with our children all of their lives if we really want them. If we learn to look at our lives as an experiment in love, we will let go of our perfectionist tendencies and create a life that is so full, we will be able to move beyond our negative conditioning and experience a world without fear.
As always, remember that we are all in this together. You are never really alone.
The next issue I will take on the simple task of sex and the teenager!