Talking to Teens… About Friendship

Friendship is complex, just like family relationships. There are many layers of needs, preferences, pressures, expectations, and ambiguities to navigate.

I have 5 strategies for talking to teens about friendship. These drive meaningful dialogue and invite your teen to develop their sense of empowerment.


Today’s post is the second in my series called “Talking to Teenagers.” In these articles, I’m addressing common questions and concerns I get from parents about how to guide, support, and teach their tweens and teens. I’m sharing strategies and inviting parents and supporters to reflect as they explore ongoing, intentional dialogue with their children.  Be sure to read my first blog, about social media, too!


Parents often share with me that they’re worried about their child’s friendships, or lack thereof. Some parents have spent hours comforting and advising their child after a conflict over social media. Others have encouraged their tween to find a new group of friends that can be a better influence. Many have experimented with giving their children space, steering clear of voicing their judgments or advice. Lots of them have talked with teachers about their child’s social life at school. All of them want their teens and tweens to have strong, supportive, and healthy friendships.

Friendship is complex, just like family relationships. There are many layers of needs, preferences, pressures, expectations, and ambiguities to navigate. You may recall from last week’s article that the teenage brain is still developing, particularly in the areas that control rational, logical, and critical thinking. Thus, our teens and tweens tend to be very impressionable. Compounded on this is the fact that our young people are managing friendships IRL (in real life) and online. They are bombarded with input and stimulation.

I have 5 strategies for talking to teens about friendship. These drive meaningful dialogue and invite your teen to develop their sense of empowerment.

  1. Define friendship loosely; teach that it is a process that’s always in progress. Here’s my working definition: Friendship is a mutual and supportive relationship with a peer.
  • Friendships take many forms. They can be based on common interests, such as art, sports, or academic subject areas, and may exist primarily in the spaces of these activities.
  • Friendship may be more emotional or spiritual in nature- focused on deep connections and conversations.
  • Acknowledge all types of friendships, and keep conversation about the definition of friendship open.


  1. Create dialogue about needs. Help your teens know that their needs are real, valid needs, and deserve to be met.
  • Ask what their needs and desires are within a friendship.
  • Consider taking the love languages quiz and invite them to do the same. Here’s the link for teens! Together, research and explore how our needs show up in our love languages.
  • Acknowledge that needs will be met in a variety of ways, and one friendship won’t necessarily meet all needs.


  1. Teach and model emotional intelligence. Invite your teen to observe emotions that come up when they’re with friends, to notice where they feel sensations in their body.
  • They can watch and name emotions that arise with friends online or over texts.
  • They can practice this with friends in class, at lunch, or out at a late-night dinner.
  • Offer questions to consider. For example, “Where do you notice tension/excitement/love/fear in your body?” “What do you feel in your friendship with ______ ?”  “Where do you feel sensation in your body?” “What emotion do you think is behind that feeling?” At first, your teen may want to answer internally only; this is a significant start! 
  • The greater their emotional awareness, the more intentional teens can be in decision-making, including decisions about friendship.


  1. Discuss the fact that we always have a wide range of choices and options when it comes to friends. Help teens let go of a scarcity mindset ; truly, there cannot be a shortage of people to interact and build bonds with.
  • This concept helps eliminate tendencies toward competition. Any sense of performing for another’s friendship becomes null when we are pure in our intentions to connect.
  • This concept invites teens to walk away from friendships that aren’t serving them, knowing that they can and will make new friends. They have permission to choose what serves them and makes them feel authentic, respected, and loved.
  • Recall tip #1: Shared interests can be pathways to new friendships. Encourage activities and passions; these will bring teens into connection with new friends. More activities means more opportunities for friendships.


  1. Normalize conversation about relationships by sharing your own experience with friendships occasionally.
  • Openly share stories of what has made some of your friendships strong, healthy, and fulfilling. Likewise, share stories about friendships you have had to take space from because they weren’t supportive, fun, or in alignment with your needs. Keep these brief and remember that they are intended to be a mirror for your teen.
  • Explain your process to coming to these realizations. Be explicit about the actions you took. 
  • We are models for our young people, no matter what we do, so conversations that include mental processing and strategy provide our teens with models for doing the same in their lives.
  • For example, I might share the following experience, “I noticed that I wasn’t laughing much with a friend. I felt really serious in her presence. Conversation always felt tense and serious. I decided to ask this friend to walk at the lake with me; I feel comfortable and open in nature. This invitation was an opportunity to try something new within the friendship, to see if my needs for fun and curiosity could be better met in a different setting with this friend. She agreed to walk– perhaps she had needs that could be met by the walk too! The next week, we enjoyed a long chat while exercising. I felt more like myself, and I was smiling more.”


As you engage with your teen, know that these strategies may take time to sink in, and it may take multiple attempts before you see a shift. Yet, rest assured that when you are speaking from the heart and staying open to your teen’s truths, connections are happening. Their friendships will involve moments of heartbreak, bad decisions, awkwardness and more, but this is normal! Keep holding space. ❤ 

Talking to Teenagers… About Social Media

Teenagers spend up to NINE HOURS a day on social media. Parents feel helpless and uncertain about how to help their teens navigate their relationships to technology and social media.

Today’s post is the first in my series called “Talking to Teenagers.” In the next several articles, I will address common questions and concerns I get from parents about how to guide, support, and teach their tweens and teens– roughly 11-19 year olds. I’ll share strategies and invite parents and supporters to reflect as they explore ongoing, intentional dialogue with their children. Dialogue, to me, is an ongoing process, not just a single conversation, and it invites both parties into the space of sharing, thinking, feeling, adjusting, and integrating many layers of ideas. 


Teenagers spend up to NINE HOURS a day on social media.

Let that sink in.

Now, consider: How many hours a day do you spend on social media? Right now, check battery usage under settings on your phone. Where have you spent your screen time in the last 24 hours and the last 7 days? And how much time have you spent? Let’s go ahead and admit that as adults, we struggle with device-overuse too.

Tweens and teens, however, have grown up socializing on and through social media to an extent that is unprecedented. During the teenage years, the brain is changing very quickly and can be easily influenced. Thus, impulsivity and the drive to impress others can occupy much of our young peoples’ thought processes. Enter social media and the ability to engage and interact 24/7.

This cocktail of impulsivity and nonstop stimulation can be a huge drain on teenagers and a massive barrier in family relationships. Parents often share with me that their teens have “unhealthy relationships” with their phones or laptop. They almost often continue, saying that they feel helpless and uncertain about how to help their teens navigate their relationships to technology and social media.


Get Curious About Your Teen

I’d like to invite all parents and supporters to work towards a curious approach when addressing social media with their teens and tweens. This requires letting go of our biggest fears about what they’re doing on their devices, our resentment over their addiction to their devices, and so on. While these fears and hurts may be real, it’s important that we loosen our grip enough to get curious and to listen authentically.

Here’s a list of open-ended questions (my favorite, as you might know!) that we can use to open space for our young people to share (and become aware of) their process:

  • What kind of posts (that you see or create) make you feel joyful?
  • What kind of posts (that you see or create) make you feel upset?
  • How does social media help you express yourself?
  • How does social media create a sense of competition?
  • How does social media feel like a tool for you?
  • How does social media feel like a chore/challenges for you?
  • Where do you go online for support?
  • Where, online, do you feel fearful or insecure?
  • What will you create online? In your online presence?

All of these example questions can be followed up with a “why” or a gentle encouragement to dig a little deeper. As our young people engage in dialogue with us, it’s important that we refrain from responding with judgmental comments or quick advice*. The goal is to give our young people space to put a name to what they’re feeling and to grow consciousness of their behaviors and patterns. We are careful, in this dialogue, not to fault or scold. *Of course, if our teen shares that they or someone they know is in danger, we must take action, set boundaries, or intervene.

I also encourage parents to share their own responses to these questions. This is a sweet, authentic, and inclusive way of modeling healthy behaviors for social media and technology usage. It is also a pathway to relating to our children, acknowledging that we, too, are challenged by social norms and pressures of the internet.


Creating Routines 

Another crucial piece of this conversation is about helping our teens create routines that help them thrive, not just survive, this highly stimulating time of life. Co-creating norms for technology usage supports teens in growing awareness of their thoughts, feelings, and actions, and it encourages them to self-regulate. Norms and routines must be created together in order for our young people to feel a sense of ownership and purpose. Thus, we may use another series of questions to empower our children:

  • What types of things do you need your phone for on a daily basis?
  • What time should screens be put away so we can get the rest we need?
  • How long do you think you’d like to be on your phone for socialization each day?
  • Where will you keep your phone over night so it doesn’t disturb your rest?
  • What times or situations is phone usage not appropriate for?
  • What types of things do you find it useful/fun/joyful to post/share about?
  • What types of things do you find it unhelpful/hurtful/damaging to post about?

These questions allow our teens to develop habits that serve them, name their needs, and become aware of boundaries. Likewise, they provide parents the same opportunities.


Tips for Dialogue

  1. Start with 1-2 questions at a time. We aren’t interrogating or interviewing the child.
  2. Sharing the adult experience! This makes it a true dialogue.
  3. Adapt question to individual languaging/style (but stay curious and receptive using open-ended questions).
  4. Initiate this dialogue in a time free of technology-related conflict. Start with a fresh slate.
  5. Boundaries and safety are important. Trust your judgment if there’s something you know you need to intervene in.
  6. Revisit this conversation time and time again. Routines need to be updated as life (and technology) shifts and changes. Emotions and reflections will get lost in the daily pressure to perform from time to time. So, come back to these questions often. Come back to a calm, shared space of curiosity and conversation.

Consistency is Crucial

5 Ways to Maintain Practices that Serve Us

Last weekend, I found myself seriously resisting my morning meditation routine. I came up with excuses like “It’s the weekend; I’ll have plenty of time to meditate later.” I gave into this sneaky self-talk two days in a row. Instead of starting the day with breathwork and mindfulness practices, I started on my screen…with news and work.

When Monday rolled around, I got back to my cushion, and a sense of “I missed this!” came over me. I realized that my weekend might have felt more balanced if I had maintained my time for centering and clarity. And I may have been more present if I had gotten in touch with my energy and the energy around me from the beginning of the day. It took coming back to center to realize I was a bit off.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about consistency and dedication. We all think, act, and behave in patterns; often, the patterns we default to, though, don’t serve us. Committing to patterns that give us life is the way we grow and transform ourselves with gentle intention.

I often talk with parents about this very concept. We talk about carving out self-care time, creating a bedtime routine, scheduling dates with partners, stopping and breathing, or honoring play time with their children. Parents often express the need to build patterns that serve them and their family. Moreover, they typically describe exactly what their ideal routines would be. However, executing and sticking to plans is what’s proven to be tough.

My last article about affirming beliefs we can tell our self comes to mind here. These work best and most powerfully when we return to the mantras or phrases consistently. The tips for an intentional back to school season bring a strong sense of stability and ease only when practiced with fidelity. 

Now, I’d like to remind you to take three deep breaths… whatever kind of intentional breath feels good to you… take three. Be gentle with yourself.


If you’ve let routines drop off, if you’ve “slacked” on your commitments, now is the time to welcome some big self-love, accepting yourself exactly where you are right now. Give yourself credit for the work you have done. Acknowledge that change can be difficult and takes time.

With clear minds and gentle hearts, we will look at 5 Ways to Maintain Practices that Serve Us:

1. Accountability partners- Find a partner that you can talk to weekly about what you accomplished in the last week, what you didn’t accomplish, and what you plan to accomplish in the coming week. Giving yourself credit results in confidence and affirmation! Having a partner provides an extra layer of accountability. This should be a 20-30 minute weekly commitment to yourself and your partner, and it’s not about coaching one another, but about holding space for one another.

2. Alarms on devices- Set alarms for different practices you are commited to. For example, set an alarm to get up from your desk to walk at mid-morning, for your evening yoga gratitude journaling, or for reading with your child. Create a system of accountability and consistency for yourself.

3. Use timers- Give yourself set amounts of time for certain tasks. This can limit the time you spend on tasks you don’t love, the ones you let  build up. For example, do a light clean, but only take 20 minutes. This also works with tasks that you value, yet you are struggling to schedule them into your full day. For example, you might find yourself rushing through evening hours with your teen after a long day. Instead, you might sit down to study with your teen for 30 minutes nightly. Timers help us honor the time we intend to spend on a given task.

4. Visual schedules- Create schedules for parts of your day that have many small but crucial parts. Morning, lunchtime, nighttime routines are the ones I hear about most often. The visual schedule can be accessible to just you, or it can be made for the family. If we commit to our practices on paper and see them each day, we are more likely to stay consistent. (Pinterest has tons of ideas for visual schedules!)

5. Post-Its- Post reminders or mantras on your mirror. You’ll see them first thing in the morning and get a little kick start to the day. Post them in other crucial places, such as your computer or inside your lunch, to remind yourself of the practices and beliefs you are committed to.

Post it
Comment below with other tips for sticking to important practices. Consistency is crucial to our growth, and it’s a journey. Some days will be difficult, while others feel easy and free. Talking about and owning the ways we excuse ourselves helps! Creating a layer of accountability to our practices helps ensure our dedication. Happy to be journeying with you all!

How Our Past Can Influence Our Choices: The Imago.

Considering how important your own parents’ model was on your own relationships, realize that your relationships are similarly powerful models that are currently being built in your child’s mind.

Guest contributor Dr. John D. Rich Jr. is an educational psychologist, associate professor of Psychology at Delaware State University, a full-time husband, and father of two sons. You can hear Dr. John every other Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. on the Matt Connarton Unleashed radio show on WMNH 95.3 FM. Also, check out for more info. Got questions? Dr. John will help you navigate. Reach him directly at

A large body of research shows that the home environment, particularly the quality of the relationship between the primary caregivers in the home, has a powerful influence on how we grow up. As children, we watch our parents closely, looking for clues about how adults are supposed to act. We pick up on signals about what a man is supposed to look like, what a woman is supposed to look like, and how a man and a woman are supposed to interact with one another. According to some psychoanalysts, those screenshots we take about how romantic relationships are supposed to play out create an unconscious image in our minds, called the imago.


Unless you’re a hermit, you are going to enter into relationships with others. Some of those relationships will be romantic. Romantic relationships, because they entail so much vulnerability, carry with them the potential for self-growth, but also the potential for great emotional harm. Whenever we open ourselves up to someone, we take a risk that that opening will be abused. On the other side, if we open up to someone, and they return the favor, what joy there is in being truly open and available to someone else!


What is the imago?


Our ability to open up like that, and the people we tend to attract, are heavily influenced by this imago. Essentially, the imago is a representation of our parents that forms the basis for how we have learned a relationship is supposed to look. If our parents spoke kindly and respectfully to one another, at an unconscious level, we find ourselves attracted to people whom our “antennae” pick up as being the kind of people who are kind and respectful.


[for an excellent guide to the imago and how to use it to improve your existing relationship, I highly recommend this book]


On the other hand, if our father was abusive of our mother (or of us), then even though we may consciously want to avoid abusive partners, we are more likely to find ourselves attracted to people whom our antennae pick up as being the kind of people who will be abusive. Now, of course, at the beginning of most relationships, the outward actions that our mates use to lure us are attempts to portray their best sides. Therefore, when a woman is seeking a man, she is often unaware that her new boyfriend, who is at first treating her so well, and complimenting her so nicely, is actually someone who is capable of the same kind of harm she is hoping to avoid.


Most of our parents had both positive and negative qualities,  and the imago is our mind’s attempt to recreate the parental home. The imago is a way to conceptualize how our experiences influence us to attempt to relive the past, often with the unrealistic goal of correcting it.


In the work I have done with relationship counseling, I have found that the imago concept is a powerful way to help people recognize how our partners sometimes exhibit traits and behaviors that are all too familiar. When we feel our buttons being pushed, knowing about the imago can help us reflect on the degree to which our hurt feelings are relevant to the situation we are in, as opposed to being unconscious reactions to past wrongs. In general, this is a good example of the belief of most psychologists that knowing about who we are and how we became ourselves, is the best way to become better selves.


Identifying your imago


In the classroom, I teach my Psychology students about the imago, and then ask them to reflect on the quality of their childhood home environment. Describe your mother – what were her good traits and bad traits? What were her best and worst qualities and practices? Now, describe your father – answer those same questions. Finally, think about their relationship – was it contentious? Did they speak respectfully to one another? Who “wore the pants” in the family, if anyone? Did they show love and affection? Was there any psychological, emotional, or physical abuse?Next, I ask students to describe their most recent relationships, including their current one if they have one. Using similar questions as we asked before, describe the relationship. Describe your role in the relationship. Describe your partner’s role. What similarities do you see across your relationships? What similarities do you see between your relationships and the relationship your parents had? The answer to that last question is your imago. It is what you were taught a relationship was supposed to look like.


Considering how important your own parents’ model was on your own relationships, realize that your relationships are similarly powerful models that are currently being built in your child’s mind. Your child’s imago is under construction, and your relationship to your partner is the building material. Be intentional about your life, and your parenting. If you keep finding yourself in unhealthy relationships, your imago is in full swing, and your child’s imago is taking notes.


Fortunately, you can change the pattern. The imago is like Dracula – the first glimpse of light, and he cringes and weakens. You don’t have to blindly go along with the imago’s demands. You are in control. I tell my students – if you keep ending up in bad relationships, perhaps it’s time to try out different types of people than the ones your eye is drawn to most immediately. If you like “bad boys,” seek out someone who is outside your normal area of interest. If you are in a relationship, it is time to model ways of speaking and acting with one another, so that your child’s future partners will treat your child kindly.


Your partners’ faults are not yours to fix – they are yearnings from your child self, wanting to change the past. But the past is not to be changed. Only the future is yours to create.

12 Affirming Beliefs for Getting out of Competition and into Connection

When we can live in and practice radical self-acceptance, our children and teens will be touched. They will have clearer pathways into their own self-acceptance and the acceptance of others.

We often hear our young people doubt themselves as they look towards their peers for acceptance and credibility. They might say things like, “I’m not as smart as they are,” or “I’m not as funny as him.”

As parents and supporters, a typical first reaction is to reassure them, to praise and affirm them, and to try to help them eliminate their limiting beliefs.

Ten minutes later, though, we might experience a limiting belief of our own. We might look at our neighbor and think “He is so together, and I’m such a mess!” or “Ugh, I’ll never be able to keep up with them.” These comparisons are a essentially self-doubt that stems from deep seated fears.

I was recently stuck in a cycle that looked something like this: “I don’t fit in as easily as everyone else… I don’t get invited and welcomed the way other people do… I’m always getting left out… I wonder if people think I’m not fun/interesting/cool enough…” and so on.

So, let’s break this down… While it is true that I didn’t get invited to something I wish I would have, I allowed myself to drift into a vast lake of self-doubt… alone, and it was difficult to stay afloat. The ways in which I don’t trust in and accept myself come from fears. In this instance the big fear was likely, “I’m not lovable.” While this thought never directly crossed my mind, it’s at the core of each of the doubts that I allowed to pull me down.

While talking with a parent recently, we discovered that she was comparing herself to other moms of teen daughters, and she felt like she was failing. She assumed that other moms had closer bonds with their daughters; she started to believe that she had ruined the relationship with her daughter, worried that all that would remain was resentment.

Now, if we break this mom’s challenge down. Her self-doubts might have come from a fear of being alone.

In both of these situations, the phrase “compare and despair” came to my mind. Yet, while I believe that there’s truth in this statement, the negative slant wasn’t resonating with me. It didn’t give me the loving support to bring me to shore… back into self-acceptance… back into connection with my deepest sense of Self. It felt too harsh and seemed to only look at the symptoms this mother was facing.

Thus, I mediated on this phrase. I came up with a few mantras or phrases to use instead. Phrases that get into the roots or the beliefs that I tell myself. Then, I put it out in the universe. I asked friends and a few of my Facebook communities to share.

Together, we created 12 Affirming Beliefs for Getting out of Competition and into Connection:

  • I am perfect exactly as I am.
  • I am content with the life I’m creating.
  • I am good enough.
  • I am right where I’m supposed to be.
  • I walk in love and light.
  • Only love today.
  • I have all that I need within me now.
  • I am here for a purpose.
  • I love myself.
  • There is only one me.
  • I am here.
  • I know who I am.

These beliefs are crucial to us as parents and supporters because we model our mindsets for our young people. When we can live in and practice radical self-acceptance, our children and teens will be touched. They will have clearer pathways into their own self-acceptance and the acceptance of others. Our work, then, is to face our fears and grow into connection with truest Selves, our loved ones, and our world. Then, from this place of alignment, we can give our young people the space to know and trust in these beliefs of and for themselves.

10 Tips for an Intentional Back to School Season

Regardless of where your teen is on this spectrum of back to school feels, they are likely experiencing the energy of transition. And you too!

Are you noticing a shift in moods as summer comes to a close and school is just around the corner? Changes, albeit inevitable, can be points of challenge for all of us!

Some of our children and teens can’t wait to get back into the routine of school; they might be excited to reconnect with friends, to resume extracurriculars, to get out of the house more. And some of our young people are dreading getting back to campus; they might resist or fear the structure, the work load, the socialization, the pressures.

Regardless of where your teen is on this spectrum of back to school feels, they are likely experiencing the energy of transition. And you too!


Transitions (or changes) range in magnitude and impact, of course, but they all require us to make shifts. Even if the transition is one that we are looking forward to or celebrating, we will likely face some discomfort or stress through the process.

I have some big tips for the back to school season because the more intentional we can be about adjusting to change, the more present we can be in the transition.

10 Tips for an Intentional Back to School Season:

  1. Talk Explicitly About Emotions: Share how you, as the parent, feel about the transition back to school. What are you excited about? What are you nervous about? Focus on the positives, but be authentic in sharing about the challenges and tougher emotions that come with this transition. Invite your child/teen to share how they feel. If you get a shoulder shrug at first, try again the next day. You also might ask for a thumbs up, down, or sideways. Another idea is to rate emotions on a scale of 1-10.
  2. Implement Individual Planner Systems: Whether it be electronic-based, a daily planner, or a bullet journal (my fave!), ensure that you and your children have selected individual planner systems that match needs and preferences.
  3. Family Calendar: Sit down with your children, your planners or calendars, and a copy of the academic calendar. Together, transfer important dates (days off, holidays, exams, practices, etc.) from the academic calendar to the family calendar. Create an ongoing routine of sitting down at the end of each month to add additional dates (events, games, tests, etc.) to the upcoming month. Co-creating the calendar = co-creating family schedules and time-management.
  4. Scheduled Quality Time: As a family, decide on a 1-2 activities or commitments that everyone will show up for. These activities should support quality time and connection, and they will be prioritized from the get-go. Ideas might be pizza dinner on Thursdays, morning exercise on Saturdays, or attending a religious service together. This way, as schedules get more hectic, all members honor the family commitment.
  5. Name Daily Routines: Ask your teen open-ended questions like, “What do you need to do each morning to be prepared for school?” Likewise, “What steps do you need to take to get good rest each night?” Allow them to name tasks that are important to their success. You might remind them of something they’re missing, but rather than coach your child, let them create the list. Encourage your child to write these routines down and keep them somewhere they’ll see them. (Consider sharing your own list with them as a model, as well as an accountability measure for everyone!)
  6. Agree Upon Technology Norms: Engage your teen in conversation by asking, “What types of things do you need your phone for on a daily basis?” As the conversation progresses, ask questions such as, “What time should screens be put away so we can get the rest we need?” and “How long do you think you’d like to be on your phone for socialization each day?” Help your children make commitments and systems for their technology usage.
  7. Discuss Academic Supports: Before the workload gets tough, it’s important to explore opportunities for academic supports. Explore campus websites with your teen. For instance: Is there a writing center on campus? Do they know each teacher’s office or tutoring hours? Do they know how to log on to campus portals? They should log all of this info in the planner for easy reference!
  8. Discuss Social and Emotional Supports: Just as you and your teen did with academic supports, explore and name social and emotional supports. As examples, locate campus counseling and support personnel on the website, discuss teachers/mentors they feel supported by, explore extracurricular opportunities, and ask where they plan to each lunch and with whom. If you have an anxious teen, perhaps invite them to journal or write about their supports.
  9. Commit to Down Time: Discuss healthy, supportive options for after-school and weekend time. Give your child or teen options for extracurricular commitments, but also ensure that everyone will have time at home to rest, read, take care of chores, and simply be.
  10. Set Goals Together: Create S.M.A.R.T. Goals for the first few months of school. These are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time-Focused. Everyone in the family, including parents, can create a beginning of the year goal for home, as well as a goal for school/work. Consider displaying these on the fridge so that process can be monitored regularly.

Bonus: Come back to this list again and again. 🙂 Daily routine will need adjustment at some point. The selected planner system might not be working. Goals will be achieved and new ones await. Come back and co-create again. ❤

The Choice: Punishment vs. Repair

It serves everyone in the family system when we choose to focus on repairing harm, rather than defaulting to punishments. 

It’s inevitable that our young people will make “mistakes.” They’ll do things to push our buttons, to test our limits, or to get what they want. They will take risks, act impulsively, and experiment with boundaries. Sometimes these actions are harmful or destructive. There’s often a mixture of peer pressure and a desire to be accepted that fuels these “mistakes” and “bad choices.” (Check out Sarah-Jayne Blakemore‘s chat about the teenage brain for some of the neuroscience behind this.)

Our role as adults is to help our children and teens imagine a range of possibilities for their actions, as well as the consequences (meaning, either positive or negative reactions) of their actions.

When we see our young people taking risks– from lying, to poor study habits, to experimenting with drinking, drugs, or sex– our own triggers, memories of teenage risks, and desires for control can bring us into a spiral of fear and anger.

It might sound like this in our minds: “My teen made a bad decision. Then they lied. They made a choice that can hurt their future; they might start taking even greater risks. I must show them the weight of their choices, and their actions deserve punishment.”

Let’s use a real-life scenario to explore the idea of punishment:

As a junior in high school, my client experimented with drinking. Her father found out after screening her Facebook pictures. When he confronted her about the issue, she denied it. He showed her the evidence, and she eventually admitted.

In order to help his daughter “learn a lesson,” the father implemented a strict punishment– no going out on weekends, no sleepovers, no driving, plus, additional responsibilities at home.

The father in this story used the word punishment to instill the fact that his daughter had made a mistake and needed to face the “consequences” for it. He felt exhausted as he monitored the punishments and gave countless explanations to his daughter about why her privileges were still revoked. The daughter was angry about her loss of freedom and saw the punishments as aggressive and unnecessary. She felt like she was being treated as a child. Both parties were angry and frustrated throughout the experience.

The language we use as adults, and the intention behind our language, deeply impacts our children and teens; likewise, it impacts us! If we react emotionally, we are likely to grasp onto the idea of changing our teens’ behaviors through punishments. We might have a desire to control the situation. While we are constantly influencing and teaching our children and teens, we truly, don’t have control over their thoughts, behaviors, and actions. Thus, using language and intention to control can create an energy drain for everyone involved.

Punishments are delivered from the adult to the child. They can be harsh, extremely limiting, destructive, and backed by anger, frustration, and likely fear. Alternatively, repairing harm is a process of dialogue and collaboration. Its about mending or making right, and its regenerative. It serves everyone in the family system when we choose to focus on repairing harm, rather than defaulting to punishments.

So, let’s look at the same scenario through a repair lens:

After the father finds the evidence of his daughter’s drinking, he can sit down with her (when he feels calm and centered), acknowledge that he saw the photo, and ask what the experience was like. He might ask, “What were you thinking when you decided to drink?” and “What did you notice during or after this choice?”

He can express concern about the effects of teen drinking and share some statistics that worry him. Again, he can check in with his daughter… “What comes up for you as you hear my concerns?” The father might share a story of his own experiences with drinking and a lesson her learned. Then, he can ask his daughter “What’s your plan for alcohol-involved situations in the future?”

Here, the father allows his daughter to think through “the harm,” her original process of deciding to drink, as well inviting her to reflect on the consequences of this decision. He opens the channel for dialogue, while giving his daughter the space to explore a range of possibilities for future situations in which alcohol may be involved.

Next, he will support his daughter in “repairing the harm.” He can ask his daughter, “How can you repair the trust that was hurt through this experience?” or “What will help you remember the choice you made and encourage you to make a different choice in the future?”

This is simply one example of the choice we can make to encourage repair, rather than punish, when our child or teen makes a mistake or poor decision. This choice, allows our teens to make choices too; they get to be involved in thinking through their actions–past and future. The impacts of working with our teens at this level and focusing on repair include improved communication and mutual understanding. The outcome is growth together!