I’ve seen thousands of healthy and troubled kids grow up in my pediatric practice. Now, many of those kids are adults and bring their kids to me. Because I know them well, we’ve had great conversations. Many are happy and successful, but some aren’t. And among those who struggled, there are common themes and phrases they use when talking about their parents.
Here are three that surface regularly:
1. Where were you?
Every hurting child feels isolated and alone. Troubled teens say, “No one listens to me/I feel invisible/No one has time for me.” These aren’t just, ‘You didn’t make it to my concert a couple of times…’ – this is a consistent experience that Mom or Dad was not available for the child emotionally or physically. This happens when a parent’s priorities get out of whack – they work too much outside the home, focus too much on their own interests, are simply too tired to engage the kids or they suffer serious mental illness.
Second, a child may ask this if he was in a situation he should never have been in, i.e. at a friend’s home and was sexually abused. The problem may not have resulted from a parent’s mistake. Nevertheless, the child felt unprotected and therefore blames his parents. If a parent finds out that something terrible happened to her child and responds in a nonchalant manner, the abuse feels intensified.
2. Why Didn’t You?
Kids of all ages (yes, even 17-year-olds) need to feel protected by their parents. They will reject gestures they feel are protective, but deep down, it makes them feel loved and secure. This means saying “no” to certain activities and behaviors. Many parents don’t say “no” either because they want the child to make decisions (remember – they’re kids) or they want to minimize conflict in the relationship fearing that it will drive kids away from them.
Kids of all ages need to feel protected by their parents.
3. What were you thinking?
When kids are over-scheduled, pushed too hard year after year and never given time to play, relax and grow up, they look back over their young lives, feel like their childhood was taken or lacking, and ask why their parents did things that way. Adult kids also ask this when a parent allowed them to do something that clearly was detrimental to their health, dangerous or just plain stupid. Kids who are not prevented from these harmful activities grow up and seriously question their parent’s judgment. When they are older, they don’t see their parents as cool, but as weak.
When kids are over-scheduled, they often look back feeling like their childhood was taken or lacking.
Those can be some heavy, daunting questions. For those of you with little ones now, you may even be carrying around some of these questions about your parents, yourself, and hoping not to leave your kids with the same questions you’ve had.
Here are a few things you can do now with your kids to make sure they never ask YOU these questions:
1. Show up for your kids.
Physically be present at key times of the day and month for your child. Dinner time and after school, in particular, are times when kids need their parents. Life may feel chaotic to you during these hours, but your children feel secure just by having you there. In addition, be there emotionally for your kids. Put your cell phone down, look them in the eyes and have a conversation. It doesn’t matter what you talk about. Kids want to know that you see and hear them and that you really are paying attention to them.
Finding enough time for children is tough for working parents – I understand. The truth is, if you work outside the home, you must sacrifice something to help your kids. Maybe you give up time with friends, hobbies or other interests. It’s tough, but your children’s emotional health is well worth it. And it doesn’t last forever.
2. Err on the side of being too strict rather than too lenient.
Here’s a secret about kids that parents must know: they will tolerate a lot of rules and discipline IF they are balanced with fun and pleasure with a parent. Kids who get into trouble in high school and early adulthood aren’t kids who lived with too many rules – they are kids who had no rules. To kids, no rules means no love. So, make solid rules that will protect your kids. Let them know why you have the rules and then don’t back down. In between the times you are enforcing the rules, don’t talk about the mistakes they made. Instead, go and have fun with them.
Here’s a secret about kids that parents must know: To kids, no rules means no love.
3. Act like a grown up.
When your child wants to do something that you don’t like, you feel a ping in your gut. Trust that. If you don’t want your 12-year-old seeing Fifty Shades of Grey but all of her friends are, don’t let her watch it. The same is true with dating, drinking, social media, phones, video games, etc. If you think it’s wrong or bad for your child, fight to keep them away from it. Period. The worst that will happen is that your 25-year-old will boast that her Mom or Dad was “psycho-over-protective”, but she’ll be very proud that she never passed out drunk, had nightmares from sexual and violent movies or dated the cutest but most promiscuous guy in high school who gave her an infection or broken heart.
Parent your kids, not your friends’ kids
Many parents don’t follow their instincts because they cave to peer pressure. They want to parent like their friends parent. Skip it. Parent your kids, not your friends’ kids. You’ll end up with fabulous young adults who not only respect you but who want to be with you.