Freak Out, But Stay Calm
by Karin Sasser
Like many parents, I remember bringing my firstborn home from the hospital petrified and thinking, “I have no idea how to care for this baby! Am I ready for this?” In the first 24 hours, my husband and I were contemplating whether we needed to call the doctor or 911 because it looked like our newborn had stopped breathing, only to realize seconds later he was just having a bowel movement! By the time we had our second child, we felt more comfortable and confident with the newborn stage. But just when we think we have it all figured out, it feels like we’re faced with a new, unfamiliar challenge. As our kids reach their teen years, we often begin to feel the weight of these challenges in a new way. We can look back and laugh at our naivety of being new parents while experiencing an enormous amount of angst, contemplating how to parent our teens through difficult and challenging circumstances.
You may be able to recall a time in your childhood or adolescent years when you made a big mistake or a bad decision. Many of us dreaded having to talk to our parents about it. We feared their reaction. We didn’t want to see the disappointment, disapproval, or maybe even anger on their face. Sometimes, these were almost worse than the consequences or punishment we had to endure. Fearing these reactions may have even kept us from talking to our parents about topics or decisions we made in which we really could have used their wisdom or discernment. I once went to a parenting seminar where the presenter talked about the importance of keeping a straight face. “Freak out on the inside, but stay calm on the outside,” he said. I must confess this is a skill I am still working to possess. In addition to keeping a straight face when our child breaks some unsettling news to us, the speaker also impressed upon us to keep our emotions at bay for the time being. Our initial reaction to disappointing or difficult news about our child’s behavior or circumstances is a huge factor in whether our child feels comfortable and willing to come to us when they need us the most. When your child comes to you with a difficult topic, whether a poor decision they made that they have decided to/forced to confess or a circumstance or something they are struggling with, it is best to respond to the conversation with empathy and patience. Sometimes, our first response needs to be, “I know that must have been difficult for you to share with me.” And our next statement may need to be, “Tell me more about that.” We may need to spend some time really listening not only to their words but also to the emotions and feelings behind both their words and actions. Are they already feeling shame? What about their self-esteem or sense of self led them to make this decision? Try to listen with your ears, mind, and heart without formulating what your response should be. While discipline may be called for depending on the circumstances, sometimes it may not be best to discuss it in the first conversation. If it is a heavy topic, sometimes it can be beneficial for both us and our child for our response to be a separate conversation. This gives them time to feel loved even in the midst of a mistake or struggle, and it gives us time to think through and pray through what our response should be.
At this same seminar, we were broken up into smaller discussion groups. The presenter asked one person in each small group to role-play a real-life conversation they had had with a parent about a difficult topic and another person in the small group to role-play the parent using empathy, patience, and gentle general follow-up questions. The woman who volunteered to relive a difficult conversation in our group had been caught cheating on a standardized test as a high school student. She revealed at the end of the role-playing that it was actually a bit healing to have had someone interact with her in a parent role in which the first reaction wasn’t anger and disappointment. She felt enough guilt and shame when she had had to confess to her parents as a teen. There already were real-life consequences in place. What she needed was a parent to say, “We’ll do what we can to help you through this.”
One other exercise the speaker led us through was to imagine the worst thing your child could confess to you. What would your initial reaction be? What feelings would it evoke? If you can begin to imagine this as well as begin to process what would be the most helpful and healthiest way to react if a difficult conversation did come to fruition, it allows you to work through some of your tough emotions ahead of time so you can be in a better frame of mind if you’re ever face to face with your child over a similar topic.
As parents, we are sometimes at a loss as to how to handle difficult situations with our kids. We don’t always know what the best way is to handle different situations. Sometimes, we are caught off guard by a circumstance we are facing. In these instances, we need to remember to freak out on the inside but stay calm on the outside, to pause before we speak, to let our children know they are loved no matter what, and to give ourselves permission to take time to think through, pray through, and research through our next steps in helping, guiding, and discipling our children through hard times.