“An Open Letter to My Teen Daughter Who Is In The Next Room” is a short blog by Margarita Gokun Silver. The article takes the form of a letter written by a mother who clearly loves her daughter, but who (I suspect) feels quite frustrated with many aspects of her teenager’s behaviour.
My blog is Margarita’s letter reimagined, using the communication skills from a particular parenting approach. To help you put my opinion piece in context – my article is based entirely on the events and behaviours outlined in the original blog, and I urge you to read Margarita’s Blog first (its short!) before continuing on with this one.
I hope this article will be helpful to those of you who ‘have tried everything’, and may be looking for another approach with your teenagers.
Why Did I Re-Write This Mother’s Letter?
I teach, and attempt to put into practice (as a parent), the communication skills of Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.). This is a parenting approach that emphasises mutual respect, and eschews the use of punishment and reward. The ultimate aim of P.E.T. is to develop and enhance a relationship of warmth and respect between children and their parents.
I am also the parent of two young people*, a daughter and a son.
With such a background, it is second nature to scan articles such as “An Open Letter” through a P.E.T. lens. While I saw warmth and love (mixed with exasperation) behind the words in the letter, I was curious. How would the author’s teenage daughter perceive the messages? Would she find the sentiments humorous, or hurtful? How would such a letter affect their relationship?
“I wonder,” I say to myself, as I read the blog. “Am I being too precious? How would I tackle the situations this Mum discussed? If I were to implement a P.E.T. approach, what would I say or do?”
So – I decide to set myself a challenge. I will try to rephrase the letter, utilising the P.E.T. communication skills. In my view, the mother’s concerns are too big, too complex, to deal with in one discussion. I realise that I will also have to imagine subsequent conversations on issues raised in the letter, again putting P.E.T. into practice.
My purpose is entirely respectful. I sincerely appreciate the author’s honesty and openness, putting into rich words situations familiar to many parents of teenagers. I thank her for providing heart-felt examples, with which I could work and challenge my knowledge, for the benefit of others (and myself!).
I am a very human parent who makes many mistakes – just ask my children! In real life, I suspect I would struggle to perfectly pitch, in P.E.T. language, the issues this letter raises.
Perhaps, as you read this blog, it may be helpful to read both articles side by side. To compare the effect of the different approaches of each piece, try asking yourself these questions: “How would I feel if I were the mother?” followed by the challenging question “How would I feel if I were the daughter?” Importantly, as you finish each article, ask yourself “How would we feel about each other, and our relationship?” I don’t think there is a right or wrong. Some of you may feel more comfortable with one approach than the other, and vice versa.
What I think is essential, though, is that we connect to our children with warmth, love and understanding, to build a relationship of mutual respect. In my experience, this may best be achieved through wise, careful and respectful communication.
P.E.T. skills and approach – a Brief Summary.
A foundation of P.E.T is the recognition that all behaviour indicates an unmet need. There is no such thing as ‘misbehaviour’. Rather than labelling children as ‘selfish’, or making assumptions about their intent, P.E.T. asks that we try to understand our young person. What might really be happening, that may be masked by their behaviour?
The scaffold for the P.E.T. communication skills relies on an understanding of ‘who owns the problem’. Is it me (the parent), who is upset, or my child . . . or both of us?
From this framework of problem ownership, I am guided in my use of skills. When my children are upset, they ‘own the problem’. My role is to try and help them through Active Listening (“You feel . . . because . . .”).
When I am distressed, I ‘own the problem’. I need to be respectfully assertive, using an ‘I-Message’ (“When . . . I feel . . . because . . .”).
Importantly, I have to avoid the trap of ‘you messages’ (which tend to blame the other person, such as “You’re just being lazy”). P.E.T. shows us, in detail, how roadblocks such as ‘you messages’ stop our children communicating with us, and can leave them feeling put down, unimportant, powerless, or rebellious.
If my child resists my I-Message, then I need to ‘shift gears’. I try to understand their point of view by listening, before going back to another I-Message.
If those skills don’t resolve the issue, then I slip into no-lose problem solving. And this is one of the biggest challenges of the P.E.T. approach. P.E.T. asks us to avoid rewards and punishment, and instead put into practice no-lose conflict resolution skills.
The big picture? P.E.T. aims to help both parents and children meet their needs, and maintain a relationship of warmth and respect. For life.
So, here is my attempt to translate non-P.E.T. communication into ‘P.E.T-ese’.
‘An Open Letter To My Teen Daughter Who is in the Next Room’: Rephrased and Reimagined, using P.E.T. Language.
“My Darling Girl,
I have a problem (well, a few, really), and I’m wondering if you could help me? I’d like to find time to sit with you, so that we can discuss what is happening, and see if we can come up with some solutions. Together. I want to hear what you have to say, and I hope you will listen to my concerns. And then we can both decide on the best solution.
I know that in the past, I have told you what to do. I have used sarcasm, I have ordered you, I have not listened when you said “yes, but . . .”, or rolled your eyes. Now, I would like to try things a bit differently. My relationship with you is extremely important to me, and I am hoping that by making a change in the way I discuss things with you, we may feel even closer than we are now. I genuinely want to hear your side, and find a solution where we will both be happy.
We’ll have to set some ground rules before we start. For example, we might decide that neither of us can bring our devices to the table, because otherwise we won’t be paying full attention to each other. And this process is flexible. We might decide something today that, when we put it into practice, we find isn’t working. But that’s OK, because we can come back and try to work it out”
Once I have my daughter’s (possibly sceptical) agreement, we find a time to talk that suits both of us.
Before I start, one of the first things I have to do is let go of my expectation that she will change her behaviourimmediately. I must also remember that, although we may come up with an agreement, the final step in conflict resolution is to come back and ‘check results’. There is no ‘fail’. As I think further, I realise that I have a substantial list of issues. I resign myself to not addressing them all in one go, and recognise that this process may take a while.
We decide to talk on Saturday afternoon, each of us willingly (well, perhaps a bit begrudgingly) setting that time aside. Before meeting with my daughter, I spend some time thinking about my issues. What exactly are my needs? Then I write out some I-Messages, even trying them on my husband to make sure they are not blameful.
I am sitting with my daughter at the dining table. I begin to outline my concerns with an I-Message, and then ready myself to shift gears, before moving into problem solving. I have a piece of paper with me, and explain that the paper is for us to write down our issues, and our solutions. My daughter asks if she can do the writing, and I give her the pen.
“I have a number of concerns about the way the household is running at the moment”, I say. “Could we list them, so that I don’t forget, and so that we can clearly see what we need to discuss?”
She eyes me. “Sure”, she says. “But you’re not the only one who has some issues. I have a list of my own, you know.”
“Oh. You’re a bit annoyed that I’m only talking about my stuff, and you’d like to put your annoyances on the table too.” I have shifted gears by active listening to her feelings, and the facts.
In “An Open Letter . . .” Mum initially opens with five difficulties she has with her daughter’s behaviour. I perceive them as being ‘you messages’, because they assume the daughter is the cause of the problems, and they could be experienced as blameful. In contrast, the I-Message format is to: describe the behaviour non-blamefully; include how the parent feels about the behaviour; and the concrete and tangible effect on the parent (the ‘because’).
“When I walk into the bathroom, the den or the kitchen, and find the lights left on and no-one in the room, I get annoyed because I am paying for electricity when it’s not being used. I also hate the thought of the environment suffering when we waste electricity.”
“When I see shoes in the middle of hallway, I am afraid that I might trip again. I tripped over them twice yesterday, and the second time really hurt.”
“I noticed candy wrappers, tissues and popcorn in the lounge room. I am frustrated because I have to pick my way to the chair, and then I find the wrappers in the chair, which I have to remove. I am also concerned that the food and tissues will invite ants and cockroaches into the house.”
I will not follow up with a threat of confiscating devices, as this is a punishment. Instead, I trust her to care enough about me, and our relationship, to consider a solution to our dilemma.
The aim of using the P.E.T communication skills is to maintain or enhance the relationship. I-Messages come across as appeals for help, asking our children to change their behaviour out of consideration for others. Threatening to punish would be an attempt to make my teenage daughter comply, where the only person she would consider is herself.
“I’d like to talk about family chores. For me, it’s important that we share the chores, as we all live together and I think it’s important for us to all bunk in and help each other out. Let’s list some of the things that need doing – and what we each already do (and that includes what you already do). For example, there is unpacking the dishwasher or walking the dog”
At this, my daughter creatively protests.
“Why do I have to do all the work? I feel like I’m Cinderella, expected to do everything! And why do I have to walk the dogs when you say? Saturdays and Sundays are the only days I get to sleep in, but oh no, just because you think I have to be up, you lose it with me! You’re always quoting to me about “the evidence” saying I need nine and a quarter hours sleep because I’m a teenager. You’re violating my human rights by making me get up so early!”
Hmmm. This is tough. My initial reaction is to yell right back at her, perhaps to tell her how selfish I think she is being.
But I don’t. This won’t help our relationship, or help us work out how to find a solution. I recognise that if I called her names or was sarcastic, our conversation would end, or escalate, and our relationship would be badly soured.
I need to put an emotional gap between her words and my response. I need to regulate my own feelings. Somehow, I have to temporarily let go of my stuff, and think about what is happening for my daughter. This is ‘shifting gears’, and is one of the most difficult skills of P.E.T.
“You sound really annoyed and frustrated with me, and everyone, really! It’s like we don’t appreciate what’s happening for you, how much you already do, and how much you need and enjoy your sleep-ins. It seems like we just tell you what to do all the time!”
She calms down somewhat.
“Yes! I don’t mind walking the dogs – just why do I have to do it in the mornings?”
She’s got a good point. We agree that it doesn’t matter when she walks the dogs, just as long as they get their daily walk.
We continue to go back and forth for a while. By now, an hour has gone by, and both my daughter and I are feeling tired, and are not really concentrating.
“We’ve worked out some things, but there is more I’d like to discuss. Can we come back tomorrow afternoon? This will let you think too, and you might have some items you’d like to bring up?”
We gather together on Sunday afternoon. I begin again, with I-Messages for two more situations.
“I’ve noticed that lately when your phone has lost its charge, you’ve used your Dad’s, or my phone, to take selfies. I’m annoyed because I often then can’t find my phone when I need it, and the photos are taking up memory in my phone. Sometimes your Dad has gone to charge his phone, and has had to search for the phone charger and found it in your room”
“When I go to get dressed, I usually have a pre-planned outfit in mind. Occasionally, when I go to find my clothes, including my bras and shoes, I’ve discovered they aren’t in the drawer or cupboard, and I find them in your room, and that they’ve been worn. I then have to do a rethink about what to wear, and sometimes this has made me late – which leaves me pretty frustrated!”
My daughter objects.
“Well, that’s your problem! And anyway, I’ve got nothing to wear!! Some of your clothes are nicer than mine.”
“It’s hard for you to find something to wear sometimes, and you really like some of the clothes I’ve bought.”
“Yes. Some of your clothes and shoes are just so nice – I feel a million dollars when I wear them.”
“Hmmm – they are nice to wear – they cost me a fortune. Really, I am secretly chuffed that you like my fashion sense so much that you wear my clothes!”
I have a better understanding now. I own clothes and shoes that are better quality than my daughter’s, and she feels good about herself when she wears these clothes. We discuss this further. Then I move onto another topic.
“I have another concern I’d like to raise with you, but I don’t think we’ll get time to talk about it today. This is an issue that plays on my mind, and it’s something that is also important to you, and we’ve already argued about it a lot. So now I want to do it differently. I’d like to think carefully about how to discuss this with you – and I want to stop nagging you about it. I’d like to discuss the use of apps such as Snapchat and WhatsApp. I’m also very concerned about somehow trying to balance the use of electronic devices with outside time and exercise.”
Phew. That’s going to be a huge discussion. In P.E.T. language, I am going to have to take on the role of ‘consultant’ to my teenager. I mentally prepare myself to make sure I understand the apps, why I am concerned about them, and why I think outside time is important. And, I prepare myself to listen – deeply listen and to hear – her reasons and feelings.
I move on to flag another issue for future discussion.
“I’ve noticed lately that when we talk about family holidays, going to places such as Prague or Vienna, you roll your eyes and turn your head away. You seem very annoyed with the thought of going away with us. I’m wondering if we could find a time to talk about this further? Your Dad and I love being away with you and your sister, and in the past you seem to have enjoyed the holidays with us. I’m feeling pretty puzzled about your reluctance, and would really like to understand what is happening for you, and whether we can find a solution so that we’re all happy?”
There is another issue, and I carefully choose my time.
“It seems like your Dad and I are really annoying you at the moment. I just don’t like the way you’re telling us. I really object to being called a stupid idiot – I actually feel quite hurt when I hear those words. And I worry about slamming doors – that someone may get injured, or the door will break.”
I imagine her response could be something like,
“Yeah, right! And I wonder where I learnt to speak like that? It couldn’t be from living here, could it? It couldn’t be from watching you flounce off after an argument with Dad at all? You’re such a hypocrite, Mum. At least I don’t call you lazy or selfish!”
“Oh”. It’s pretty difficult shifting gears for this one. I note my immediate response, which is to want to defend myself. I put that wish aside, and instead actively listen to her strong feelings. “I’ve really hurt you by saying this.”
“I’m sorry. Seems like we’re pretty good at hurting each other. I don’t mean to put you down, or make you feel bad. I just really don’t like the way you let us know how you’re feeling at the moment. But I can see that I’m just as much at fault, if not more so, and that I’ve hurt you.”
“I’m sorry too, Mum. I hate having arguments with you – I feel so bad afterwards. But you just never listen to me!”
And so on.
My Learning from this Exercise?
Being the parent of a teenager is hard. But I think it might be even harder to be a teenager. So much of their experience will be a ‘first time’ experience – their first love, their first fail, their first alcoholic drink. This time in their lives can be as scary as it can be exciting. I often think they are as confused as us at their responses and feelings. I have to remember that their brain is changing, and as a result they sometimes misread our emotions.
While it may seem daunting to take the time to reframe an issue into an I-Message, and then to listen and problem solve, I think of this time as aninvestment. I am investing in my children, living and modelling the social and emotional skills they will need in their workplace, their friendships, and their intimate relationships. I am investing in a relationship with my child, that will last a life-time.
Soon enough, my children will be treading the halls of another house, as they make their way in the world. And I will be craving that time to spend with them, to hear how their day has been, to discuss those issues that are so important, to see the world from their eyes, to share our different hopes and dreams.
One day, they may bring their own children to visit their grandmother. I will wish for my children a relationship of warmth and regard with their own children. I will hope that the love I see shining in their eyes for their babies, will continue to shine for their teenagers. Just as the love in my eyes will shine for my amazing adult children, who are now parents.
*The Australian definition of a ‘young person’ is anyone aged between 12 years and 25 years.