I’ve somehow managed to gain the seal of approval from my daughter’s friends and become the unofficial go-to adult in cases of personal crisis. It’s no small accomplishment, when you consider that the teenager’s circle is one private club where membership is not for sale. I feel quite privileged to be trusted by them.
Last night, my daughter’s friend Laura called me. We’ve always had a natural connection. I don’t see her as a 16-year-old kid and she doesn’t see me as a 40-year-old relic. We hang out on different sides of life’s playground, but we gel in the middle.
“My House, My Rules”
I picked up the phone and for a moment couldn’t tell who was on the other end, as Laura was struggling to get her words past her tears. She’d stormed out the door at home after her mom had again abruptly ended an argument by yelling, “My house, my rules!”
A chill of revolt ran down my spine. How does any parent think that kind of overbearing, one-way, dead-end statement will open any dialogue? What if the tables were turned and a husband threw My house, my rules at his wife every time they disagreed?
As adults, we have the option of leaving in this kind of situation, and the means to do it. Leaving might not be the solution, but it’s an option. A child doesn’t have that luxury. When a child is pushed into a corner, there’s nowhere else to go. That corner is the final destination, because the “house” that seems to not even be “their house” is the only home they have. That makes the inescapable corner a suffocating, scary, unbearable place to be.
And that’s exactly what Laura was faced with last night. She felt helpless about making any difference in her own home, let alone in her own destiny or in the world. She felt completely dismissed as a human being, silenced, cut down, her budding wings chopped off.
My heart ached as I saw this situation’s recipe for disaster. Sure enough, Laura started to shift gears, looking for her own ways to dig holes to find fresh air. “Fine!” she said. “The next time I get a bad grade, they can forget about ever knowing about it! And instead of telling them where I am on a Saturday night, I’ll just lie and tell them I’m sleeping at my cousin’s! Perfect alibi! They want to play who’s in control? FINE. I’ll start collecting bad grades and we’ll see who’s in control then!”
Considering the Consequences
I listened and waited, allowing her to vent and expel her erratic, bottled up emotions. Eventually, she calmed a little and I felt a space of listening slowly open up.
I started addressing each of her newly adopted intentions, inviting her to thoroughly consider the consequences. Was the life she’d create from her new intentions was really a life she wanted? What corner would her failing grades and lack of learning push her into? What if she lied about her whereabouts and something terrible happened to her? How lonely and scared would she feel then?
She was listening.
Talk it Out
I suggested she explain to her mom that not only was her way of talking not working, but that Laura had thought about some ways of handling their fights differently. I suggested that Laura point out that statements like My house, my rules are more destructive than helpful. Also, if Laura is asked to be more responsible at school and in her relationships, then that kind of destructive statement is contradictory because it disempowers her, pushing her back into being a small kid again.
Stay in Check
I understand the impulse that made Laura’s mom reach for an emergency “rescue” in a desperate time when her teen is acting out and driving her to the edge. But in the same way I asked Laura to think about the implications of her reactionary intentions, I urge all of us parents to keep our own actions in check by looking at our intentions. If I use such dictatorship clichés as My house, my rules, what am I bringing to the relationship?
Laura courageously went back to her mom and shared what she was feeling. She told her mom what it had triggered for her and they had a great talk about the changes Laura was going through and the kind of support she needs from her mom as she evolves.
Laura’s mom called me this morning. She wondered if she should go to therapy to help her deal with her own feelings and what she herself is going through. I told her I thought that was a great idea.
Five things to say to back yourself out of a conversational corner and start again:
1. “I’m feeling attacked and cornered right now and I’m afraid I might say something out of frustration that makes no sense, so give me a minute to think and come up with something more constructive and helpful for us both.”
2. “I’ve had a long day and I’m not in the right frame of mind just yet for this conversation. Let me regroup and then let’s talk about this.”
3. “Hey, I’m feeling pretty upset. How about you?”
4. If you’re the one who’s said something along the lines of My house, my rules, apologize: “I’m sorry. I realize that saying that backs us into a corner and I really regret having said it.”
5. And my favorite: “Hey, how about we rewind the tape and start this conversation again. I didn’t love it. Did you?”
The Art of Communication
The art of communication is a little like the art of driving. You yield to opposing traffic on a one-lane road. In conversations, however, we let ourselves get careless. We seem to forget that the emotional scars that ensue from reckless conversational interactions are worse than broken bones.
If there was such thing as a communicator’s license, I suspect a lot of us would be pulled over to have it revoked.
About the Author
Sophie Chiche is the founder of life by me, a Me management company
that offers resources that assist people in living a meaningful life. Sophie is an author, speaker, coach and entrepreneur.
She is a single mother of an amazing 15 year old, Leah. They live in Los Angeles.