Learning the difference between normal teen tantrums and a cry for help is tough for Tracey.
I can’t begin to describe the horror and guilt I felt when I discovered my then 15-year-old daughter was cutting herself
. And after I’d garnered the help and opinions of a slew of specialists, the real root of the problem made me feel a thousand times worse: I hadn’t been listening.
‘Listening’ to your children, especially when they’re teenagers, involves a lot more than physical hearing (and even that, as I discovered, some parents – including me – don’t do well enough). Teenagers give off a horde of non-verbal signals ranging from good old-fashioned body language to acting out.
For busy parents who’re earning a living, running a household and perhaps giving attention to other kids in the family, it’s hugely tempting to ignore the often puzzling conduct of a ‘problem’ teen. I justified ignoring my daughter’s infuriating behaviour by telling myself it was only a phase, blaming it on hormones (hers, not mine), and congratulating myself for the amazing patience I was showing in not strangling her.
My daughter’s response to practically everything during that time was monumentally passive-aggressive. This is a particularly hard one because your teen becomes both so confrontational and so adept at avoiding confrontation – by, in our case, for instance, my daughter screaming, ‘I hate you! You’re ruining my life!’ before locking herself in her room for hours. It’s just easier for the parent to ignore it and hope it will pass. Who wants a lippy teen hanging around in the living room anyway?
But, as exasperating as these scenes are, they’re a genuine cry for attention.
Once the initial turmoil had died down after I’d discovered that my daughter was self-harming, I was deeply ashamed of how she’d been reading my reactions to various situations. ‘You don’t listen to me at all when you’re working. You say, ‘‘Uh-huh,’’ and I can tell that you haven’t heard a word. You obviously just don’t care about anything I say,’ she told me.
Well, she was right – not about not caring, but certainly about not listening. After 15 years of working from home I’ve learnt to block out all extraneous disturbances and operate on autopilot in the ‘real’ world; and sometimes, chasing a deadline, instead of taking two minutes to explain this to a teen desperate to share something with me, I would just pretend to hear. Very Bad Move.
My daughter and I got through that crisis. It required an enormous effort from her (one that I will never stop being proud of) and a huge wake-up from me. The harrowing lesson I learnt was how to be a good listener: now, I genuinely try to listen with my ears; but I also listen with my eyes and my instincts.
Do we tune our teens out too often?
Read more by Tracey Hawthorne