“What are we supposed to do?” asked the mom.

This is a question that every counselor, who works with families and their children, hears often. The parent waits expectantly for the counselor’s sage advice. They are frustrated by their child or teenager’s behavior – from cutting school to more serious behaviors, such as smoking weed or staying out late at night. The list goes on.

My sage advice ranges from “don’t sweat the small stuff” to having their child drug tested. In serious cases, where the child is physically aggressive with family members, I have even counseled pressing charges with the police. All of these answers may be appropriate in some cases. The problem is that they don’t get to the root cause of the problem, as we used to say in the corporate world. That’s where I came from. I used to solve business problems. Now I help solve family problems.

What is the root cause of a child or teenager misbehaving? That I can tell you in one word: alienation. Kids are more alienated from adults today than ever because they face more complicated problems, and they don’t think their parents or other adults understand. They are right. We don’t.

So, what are parents supposed to do? The question itself contains the problem. Parents are often looking for how parents are supposed to behave, as if they are playing a role and following a script. Then their young person goes off the script and the parents don’t know what to do. So they change roles. One day they play “the friend” and the next day “the policeman.” Often, the most comfortable roles are the ones the parent’s own parent played.

One role I hear parents play is “the evaluator.” They do a lot of commentary on their child’s behavior. In the business world, they call that a “performance review.” How many of you look forward to performance reviews?

Here is the answer to mom’s question. Parenting is not a role; it is a relationship. When the child was very young, that relationship was easier. The older they get, the harder it gets. If you have a relationship in which your child or teen believes you are on their side (the opposite of alienation), then you will be surprised at the many creative ways your young person will find to ask you for help. They almost never say, “I need your help.”

If you want a relationship, stop playing roles, stop evaluating and stop judging. Hear this and hear it well. No one likes to be evaluated and judged. The opposite of evaluating and judging is exploring and learning. Ask your young person questions that have no agenda other than the sheer love of finding out who they are. If you have an opinion, ask them if they are open to hearing it.

Listen, Listen, Listen. Listening leads to talking, which leads to relationship. When we have a relationship with someone, that is the only time we can influence their decisions.

Charles Hughes is an Oak Park resident, licensed counselor and divorce mediator, whose private practice is in Oak Park.

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