The truth is, despite all the words in my other blogs, and all the books on the shelves of stores, and all the advice scattered over the internet… affecting teenagers really isn’t as difficult as we’ve been conditioned to think it is. The only thing that gets in our way of having the relationships we want and the influence we want is ourselves. And as strange or irritating as this might sound, keep reading if you’re at all curious, and more importantly, if you’re willing to make a few subtle changes.

Regardless of the behavior that’s confusing us or frustrating us or scaring us, we can, at the very least, be connected to our kids while they’re doing what they’re doing… even if we don’t understand why they’re doing it.  Drinking, having sex, using drugs, failing classes, fighting, breaking curfew, hiding, defying, wearing clothes we think bizarre or hurting themselves are all behaviors that have reasons… and we can learn what these reasons are if we can just learn to simplify.

Now before you write off this notion of simplicity as naive, absurd, unrooted in reality or maybe even condescending, try to understand what I’m saying and why I’m saying it. What our kids are doing is serious. Their lives are in danger and their futures are in jeopardy and they need to be affected by someone if they are to change course. And if you can put aside for the moment all  the different strategies and interventions and explanations you’ve read or heard about, you can see what you can do differently.

In simplest terms, influence over another person requires a connection. It’s no different than a light bulb. Without a connection, the light doesn’t get the electricity it needs to shine. The mistake many of us make is in thinking that our only chance is if we find “the right words” or make the “right decision”… when in truth, the words and decisions mean far less to our kids than does the feel of the connection.

If you’re a parent with a teenager who’s doing something, anything, that is causing you concern, frustration or any unwanted feeling, you just need a few seconds before you speak or react. These few seconds will decide whether or not you have a chance at having influence. It’s these few seconds before we speak the reflexive emotional words we normally speak that make the difference.

The bottom line is whether you fear your child is suicidal or at risk… or you feel the urge to lay hands on your kid because they continue to get suspended for fighting… or you are carrying an unspeakable sadness in you because it just doesn’t seem like your child “fits in”… if you can learn, or bring to mind, the qualities of the best people you know, you can take your interaction with your kid in the direction you both need it to go.

And you’re going to have to take my word for it, as over-simplified as my words sound, because I commit every day to employing this simple strategy. I commit every day I go to work at my huge New York City high school, to choosing the qualities I want to exude. And this is it… this is the way to keep influence simple. It’s to let go of the idea that some highly technical or clinical or clever approach needs to be learned and tried… and it’s to identify and choose the right qualities to convey to your kid. And I didn’t learn this in graduate school over years of study…  I learned it by trying too hard, by making my share of mistakes and by reflecting before, during and after my interactions with others.

First, you take in the words of the teenager (by listening) and sense their mood, need or state of mind.

Second, you recognize the emotions you’re feeling in reaction to the child in front of you.

Third, you catch your urges, no matter how strong, and you choose not to act on them.

And fourth, you choose to embody the absolute best qualities that exist in people… not minimally, but with complete sincerity, regardless of how you were raised or who your role models were.  You embody the qualities in the words you choose, in your tone of voice, in your facial expressions, in your posture and how you position yourself next to your child, and in the volume and pace with which you speak.

You commit, in the highly emotional moment, to being authentic… to being compassionate… to being understanding… to being attentive… to being patient… to being humble… to being direct… to showing your integrity, and above all else, to role-modeling the qualities you want your child to someday possess. And you commit to these qualities because they are your only chance of having the connection you need in that moment to affect your child.  Call it a more “Eastern” or “Zen” or “Buddhist” approach if you will, but know that as simple and “touchy/feely” as these suggestions may sound… they will give you more power and influence than you ever thought possible.

And this isn’t to say that you don’t ultimately set limits or administer consequences… because young people most definitely need and earn both. But it’s the qualities we exude and the approaches we choose (as 1970’s “love, peace and joy” as this may sound), that dictate whether our children resist, shut down and defy, or remain receptive to and trusting of our authority and influence.

I see it work every day. With any and all kinds of demographics. With kids from intact and broken homes. With kids with physical and emotional scars, and with kids who’ve grown up spoiled and entitled. The profile and issues of the teenager don’t matter as long as we are approaching them with the qualities I mentioned above.  The words and decisions will come to you, and more often than not you’ll choose the right words and make good decisions… but only if you can lock in, quiet down and listen, realize what you’re feeling, hold your urges to react, and choose to play, with authenticity, the role of the kind of adult you want most to be, and the kind of adult they most need you to be.


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