I am Mary Smith, a certified professional Parent Coach. My parenting journey of raising four girls—just 5 years apart—has been thrilling, exhausting, and humbling. The last 22 years are scattered with ups and downs, as I’m sure you can imagine. Our stories are all different, and mine is not defined, but impacted, by my long battle with anxiety and depression. After an abusive childhood and losing family members to suicide, I developed an array of coping mechanisms that led me to believe I was okay. In fact, I felt better than okay. I excelled academically and in my career — and thought parenting would feel the same. I plowed ahead, a few steps ahead of the anxiety and depression, until it all caught up with me. When it hit, it hit hard. The past few decades, I have been parenting my girls and healing myself. I’ve been in more dark places than I want to admit.
As I immersed myself in understanding the root causes, patterns, and physiology of my own struggles, the reasons behind the epidemic of teen and young adult angst, anxiety and depression also became increasingly clear. Recognizing some of my same issues arising in the next generation, my girls, I was determined to give it everything I had to stop the cycle.
My professional life now focuses on helping parents shift their parenting perspective through learning about how kids’ (and their!) brains work. This surprisingly simple paradigm shift allows you to replace behavior struggles with cooperation and a sense of calm, while simultaneously nurturing resiliency to navigate life in the 21st century and as a buffer from the epidemic of anxiety and depression.
When my girls were teens, I read that being curious was a great way to invite conversation. That seemed great if the kids were young, but my children were teens at this point; it just wasn’t going to go over well. I could not imagine myself saying “I’m curious, tell me about…” to one of my teenage (did I mention teenage?) girls without prompting an exasperated eye roll and some sort of ‘don’t try to be a therapist’ snarky retort.
The youngest daughter had been away for four days on a chorus spring break trip to somewhere fun. The second daughter had been home, stewing that she wasn’t off doing something fun. So, when I came home with Sophie (young one, having fun) after picking her up, I wasn’t surprised that her sister Catalina was cold towards her – but I was irritated. I mean, really, why can’t she be nice to her sister who has been away for four days? Is that too much to ask? And so when Sophie left the room, and Catalina launched into complaints of Sophie posting too much on social media and why didn’t I do something about it and why was she allowed to go on an expensive trip anyway, I was very ready to a) defend Sophie b) tell Catalina that it wasn’t really her business c) shut Catalina down because it’s not comfortable to listen to one teen complain about the other teen. But for some reason, the ‘I’m Curious’ option popped into my brain. I found myself giving it a try. “So, I’m curious, Catalina, you seem so angry at Sophie.” I felt like a fraud. It felt funny rolling off my tongue. It felt so awkward.
You know where this is going. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Catalina started talking, and kept talking, and she talked for 15 minutes. Ok, maybe 10, but it felt like fifteen. She began with the surface stuff that I mentioned above and weaved a path all the way to her feelings of hurt that she didn’t have as many good friends and sadness that she didn’t really have the fun opportunities that her sisters did. I would never have shared Catalina’s vulnerable expression of that painful ache that she was experiencing in that particular moment had I not opened up to hear her. Bonding and connection is simply the culmination of interactions like this that build the relationship and increase the level of trust so that, hopefully, they’ll reach out again. How easy it would have been to miss that opportunity.
How humans build connections with each other, how we deepen them, and how we repair them when they break can be as simple as a warm smile, a particularly empathetic moment, or just a moment of sitting and listening. The process is often ‘felt’ more than understood. John Gottman, who wrote Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child and has done tons of research on family dynamics, basically says that the building blocks of connection are the small overtures we make to each other every day, and the way our loved ones respond. Gottman calls these “bids,” as in “bids for attention.”
Daring to use “I’m curious” was a response to Catalina’s veiled bid. The good news is that it is simpler than you might imagine, especially when you start with younger kids. Being curious gives you an opportunity to really know your child better. And, if we respond with compassion and curiosity to our child’s frustration or anger, we build trust and strengthen the relationship. If we respond with something other than compassion, our child feels less safe with us and adds a brick to his defensive wall.
To start building a habit of being curious today, there are two exercises you can work on. The first is to catch yourself when you assume you know what is happening with your child; rather, approach them with genuine curiosity to get inside their mind. A second is to try asking your child questions rather than dropping commands. Hang these cheat sheets on your fridge: Get Curious and Asking Versus Telling.
Lastly, if you find that your mouth is moving and not your child’s, email me and I’ll send you reasons listening might be hard for you.
If I can do it, so can you!