Fear is the enemy of compassionate parenting

Life is hard for Teenagers these days. They are surrounded by an unstable and unsafe political, environmental, economic, and social landscape. All this a time when the inner turmoil of adolescence makes external stability an anchor which aids in navigating this tumultuous stage of life. The path to successful adulthood is no longer clear. Getting a college degree won't necessarily provide a secure future, but will often lead kids into a mountain of college debt. Parents too, are overwhelmed, anxious and fearful.

Parental anxiety about their children's future can cause them to make choices about how to act towards their children out of a fear-based scarcity mindset. Unfortunately, when fear is the motivator, the wrong choices are made and the wrong lessons are learned. Fear is the enemy of kindness and compassion. Fear is a hardwired evolutionary response designed to help us survive when our lives are threatened. It's hard to focus on kindness when you are worried about survival. I know with my kids I often worry about all of the terrible things that can happen, and this translates into my discussions looking like me lecturing them about all the bad things that will happen if they don't get their ducks in a row. This doesn't help our relationship, or nurture their ability to grow into kind compassionate human beings in the future.

It's dreadful for kids to have these conversations with parents who talk about only negative things. It increases their anxiety, fear of making mistakes, and promotes a pessimistic and negative view of what their life will consist of. Knowing all this I continue to make these mistakes myself as a parent. Parenting is just one of the hardest things to do!

It's important to remember that part of our lack of self-compassion comes from how we were raised. Fear and anxiety can cause parents to act in a critical and controlling manner, and that will later become a child's inner voice. Fear is always the enemy of kindness and compassion. How you talk to your kids and what you focus on becomes what they will focus on and their inner voice.

Almost everyone I have worked within my 25 years as a therapist agrees that what is important in life is whether you are happy. Often, part of why they are in therapy is because they learned the wrong ways to be happy. Also, almost everyone I see in therapy at their core feels that they are not good enough.

Parents who get caught up in fear and scarcity risk conveying the message to their kids that they are not worthy enough. We don't want our entire focus as parents to be on having our kids question whether or not they are good enough or worthy enough. They will then become adults that struggle with this core issue. Additionally, we want to teach our kids the right ways to be happy. These are not generally the things we focus on teaching our kids these days. We get sidetracked by fear and what we focus on and model for our kids is often not about what is important.

The right ways to be happy have to do with discovering who you are as a person rather than meeting goals. How can you be kind? Are you a good friend? Do you contribute to your community? How can you be a good family member? What do you really care about and how can you connect with that? What are your values?

When we become focused on fear and survival we stray away from the things that give life meaning. We don't focus on nurturing these qualities in our children or in ourselves.

When parents I work with become reactive and caught in fear work we work on using some strategies to help them remember to be both compassionate and self-compassionate.

Some things that help parents to stay out of a fear mentality

  • Remind yourself you don't and can't control everything, and you can't control a teenager

  • Nagging, criticizing and lecturing are responses to the feeling that you have to control things

  • Learning to recognize anxiety in your body can help you make better and less reactive decisions. One way to do this is by practicing body scans. There are many on the internet.

At the moment when you start to feel fear and anxiety about your teen:

  • Stop and give yourself a moment to rest when you start to feel worried.

  • Deliberately attend to your body slowly breathing in and out. Where is the stress in your body?

  • Where can you relax more?

  • What are you feeling and where is it your body, can you describe the sensation of it?

  • Try to bring some kindness to that feeling. Try to practice seeing the difficult feeling with kindness.

  • Let the feeling be.

  • Stop and breathe into the feeling, in and out and start to relax around it and into it.

  • Continue doing that exercise until the feeling starts to dissipate.

Helping reduce fear in your teen with listening and communicating

  • Practice dropping judgment and cultivate a friendly interested and curious attitude about your teen's day. This may mean intentionally focusing on calming yourself before going into the interaction and reminding yourself of the intention to convey a friendly and interested attitude.

  • Try to remember their priorities may not be yours, but they matter to them. Diminishing what is significant to them is not going to help your relationship.

  • Put yourself in their shoes. Remember how hard it was to be a teen a be judged constantly by peers, parents, and teachers and to be scared about fitting in being loved. Teens don't know who they are, where they fit in, or whether they are going to be okay in the world.

  • Try to focus on conveying an attitude of trusting and believing in them and their capabilities.

  • Reflect back the content of what they are saying and feeling and ask if you have it right. Totally focus on only listening and not giving advice, unless they ask for it.

  • Try to help them solve their own problems with some choices if they seem to be stuck, but don't fix it for them.

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