“How many times do I have to tell to brush your teeth and get on your PJ’s and GO TO BED!” My voice would be raised, my blood pressure mounting, and my patience worn thin. The last thing my kids heard from their dad that night was yelling. I hated it. They hated it. And, all of us went to bed feeling like they had done something wrong, and they didn’t know how to fix it. We were emotionally drained and relationally strained.
Rethink: (These steps work with all relationships, but let's stay focused on our children for consistency sake. You can make the necessary adjustments to other relationships.)
Make a plan. Something isn’t working in your relationship. Part of it is you and that’s where the repentance comes in. And, part of it is your child. But, as you may have guessed, you are not responsible to change him or her. That is up to them. It is out of your control. Trust that part to God and do your part.
But, there is the in-between part: the relational space between you and your child. Maybe right now it is filled with angry words, painful events, or emotional distance. So, you need a plan. How do you rethink that space?
Part One: You will have already confessed your part and cleaned up your side of the relationship. But your child still has memories and distrust, and lingering pain. So, the first part of the plan is to stop adding to those.
When you deal with the why behind the what, you demonstrate to your child that you are serious about making your relationship with them a priority. As much as you can, be honest and tell them why you acted the way you did and what you have done to change your perspective. Tell them what God has taught you about yourself and demonstrate a spirit of humility and continued growth.
Don’t promise that you won’t ever blow it again because you might. But, commit to them before God and whatever witnesses seem appropriate that you will never stop trying to get it right. Be quick to confess when you blow it and quick to reaffirm your commitment to keep working on being there for them. (Remember your actions are not dependent upon your child’s response. Depending upon how deep the rift is between you, the habits that your child has formed, and the level of support you both have, your child may not be ready to reenter this relationship for a long time. Be patient.)
Part Two: Be creative. In your time of difficulty, you may have gotten stuck in some relational ruts. Break out of those. Be proactive and find something that you and your teen can enjoy together. It is a lot easier to believe that you care if you are observant enough to know what kind of things your teen would enjoy, are willing to sacrifice the time, energy and money to enjoy it with them, and give them the opportunity to help make it a success.
This is not easy! It takes a plan. It takes time. There may be some little things you can do that would be appreciated and noticed. Do those too! But, also take the time to make a plan. Something big. Something that they won’t soon forget. And, something that will remind them how much you love them every time they think back to it.
One Small Change we made for Ethan.
Ethan loves to talk. So, I changed my plan. It meant sitting with him at bed time and listening to him, letting him tell me about his day, about his imaginings, about his future. In the quiet, with no distractions, he had my complete attention. My job was to listen with my whole heart. I would sometimes ask probing questions, maybe something that I knew was going on or something that had come up in last night’s conversation. But, my goal during that time wasn’t to impart wisdom or tell him what he should do. It was just to listen.
I would tell him that he was special, but assure him that his fears or worries were normal. I would show him love and acceptance and try to get to know him, to really understand him. And, often, I would hear him ask, “Could you come and sit with me tonight? I want to talk more about what we were talking about yesterday.” And, I knew that we were on to something good.
It was a sacrifice for me. I had to change my routine. The norm was rush and get the kids to bed by 9... or so, so Rachel and I could have some peace and quiet together before bed. Some "us" time, adult time. Time to talk or watch a movie or read together. We just needed to reconnect. I felt like I needed that, we needed that, so I resisted giving it up. I felt resentful that I had to give it up, especially since it felt like I was rewarding bad behavior. Ethan makes a fuss, so I spend more time with Ethan. That's not right.
Then, I was convinced through prayer and confirmation from Rachel and that feeling in my gut that it was the right thing to do. So, I did it. I sacrificed. I gave up a half hour of my time with Rachel to be with Ethan before bed with the lights out, just listening and attending to his emotional and relational needs. And, it was real. The change was incredible. I loved being with him. I grew in my love for him and value that time.
Sometimes, before, I would feel so angry when, after they were supposed to be in bed, we would hear a knock on the door and get a complaint or random question. "Just go to bed!" But, those mostly stopped when he would have that time with me to say whatever was on his mind or heart. And, when they didn't, he and I had just spent a half an hour connecting and my love for him and for all my children was made a priority and it didn't seem to me like such an interruption. It was ok.
My emotional and relational needs were being met as well. I could be patient and kind and loving to Rachel, my wife, and to my children. Something good was happening in Ethan and in me.
A Bigger Deal was when we planned to go to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. We planned ahead, looked up pictures on line, checked the train schedule and headed off. I followed his lead. We went where he wanted to go, and we saw what he wanted to see. We read the signs he wanted to read, and we only stopped when he wanted to stop or when his Dad’s legs got tired. When he was done, we left. We got an Italian ice and a pretzel from a street vendor, and we headed back to the train station.
If you want your child to make a great memory, get them laughing. The endorphins released when we laugh reduce our pain and you will be associated with those positive emotions. So, get them laughing and then tell them how much you love them and how happy you are to be their parent. Tell them what is really on your heart and mind but keeps getting pushed aside because of the busy lives you lead and the difficulty of your relationship right now. Speak the truth in love.
Ethan loves to laugh, so we did a lot that day. We looked with wonder at the size of the blue whale floating in mid air, looked up close at the wings of the hawks which we normally see flying high above us, and were amazed by the size of the condor. Ethan has a memory that reinforced what I had been telling him. “I love you. You are so important to me.”
Be careful that you don’t plan a trip that is hectic and busy and stressful. If you wind up yelling at them to hurry up or don’t do this or don’t touch that, you’ve lost the point. There will always by time constraints, money limitations and acceptable behavior, but take this time to try to engage your child fully. If they are disappointed, join in with them. “I know! I wish we could do this all day! Maybe we can plan another day when it can be just the two of us again! I love you and I love spending time with you. You are so fun to be with." Tell them the truth in the most positive way you can.
Repent first. Then, Rethink.
The process of Remembering looks something like this: Repent, Rethink, Redo, Respond, and Restart.
How did you try to rethink the relational space between you and your child? More ideas would be great. What worked? What didn't?