A few days ago, I was sitting with my 12-year-old daughter on the couch, listening to her describe some things that had happened on a school trip. I was shocked as she relayed certain things that been done and said among the group of kids at her Christian middle school (Christian, not perfect!), and even more indignant as she described some things that had happened when they encountered a rough group of inner city high school basketball players.
As she relayed what the basketball players had said to them, on the inside I was furiously thinking, “Are you kidding me? They said that to a 12-year-old girl?” But on the outside, I was nodding calmly. “Wow, that’s inappropriate, isn’t it? It must have been really embarrassing. How’d the girls respond?”
As she kept sharing … and sharing … there were a few times I thought to myself, “I can’t believe she’s telling me this!” For the last few years, my daughter has often been reluctant to share what she’s thinking beyond a certain point; she has tended to hold back a bit, be reserved. And I have longed for her to let me in.
So I was grateful at what I was hearing that night – despite the content of what I was hearing – because it was clear she was letting her guard down.
I’m sure there are several reasons, but I know one of them for sure: I didn’t freak out.
Over the years, I’ve interviewed and surveyed thousands of teens and preteens and found that kids want to talk to their parents – but they hold back because they fear we’ll “freak out.” But they’ll open up once a parent proves they are safe.
Here was the funny thing I learned, though: freaking out is the visible sign of any emotion – not just anger or frustration. Positive ones can be freaking out too! So this explains why when you squeal, “Oh, buddy, how awesome that the coach picked you for first string next game!” your teen son rolls his eyes and says, “Mom, don’t freak out.”
Basically, I realized our teens and tweens – including mine – are like skittish little deer, and any sudden emotional movement on our part can send them bouncing away! And we want them to come to us, but they might be wary next time. Figuring out how to show our little deer that we’re safe doesn’t mean becoming an automaton or not feeling something ourselves — but it does mean being very aware that they are watching us for our reactions and toning them down when necessary!
So I’ve been trying (and trust me, its not always easy) to calm my visible responses and stay ultra-calm and keep my “interested mom face” on rather than my “angry mom face” or my “indignant mom face.” And when my reticent daughter shared what happened on the trip – and kept sharing the inner things, I was beyond thrilled.
But I hid that reaction too. And she kept talking.