(a special guest post by Debbie Hitchcock)
Last week I felt like everything I did for one of my kids was met with sarcasm, frustration, or anger. The typical jokes we had between us, the acts of kindness I did, and every time I seemed to open my mouth it was met with a snarl of “you never…” or “you always…” I couldn’t win.
Having had four kids under my roof, I’ve learned to try different things to get to the root of the issue. This time was no different.
I fixed a special breakfast one morning. No change.
A special treat from the grocery store. No change.
I tried talking about it. More anger.
Going for a walk with him. Good conversation about the weather and general topics — but no change.
And then I decided to wait.
I didn’t totally avoid him (after all, we were living in the same house), but I did my thing and he did his. I didn’t go out of my way to seek resolution. (After all, I had already tried that and it hadn’t worked). So I waited.
If he needed something, he had to come to me.
And I continued to wait. (Difficult for me as a mom who wants to solve the problem now.)
One evening as the two of us were together standing in the kitchen with no one else home, the words came tumbling out of his mouth. He shared his fears and his assumptions about how I was handling a situation.
I listened — I mean really listened.
The words kept coming as if pent up emotion had been there for years — and in all reality it had. A feeling he had almost a decade before had been triggered by a choice I had made two weeks earlier. My son had tied that feeling of 10 years ago to a situation I was facing today. As a result he was making assumptions. Assumptions that I was responding the same way I had all those years ago.
And he was angry, frustrated, and filled with fear.
A-ha! Now I knew what was troubling him.
Rather than tell my side of the story, which is where my true now I can fix-it nature likes to go. Thankfully I paused long enough to know what I should really do in moments like this.
I empathized. I apologized for what he experienced earlier. I made sure that he felt heard and affirmed.
Then I asked a critical question. “I know you were hurt years ago, and I know that the decision I made this time feels the same way to you, and I’m sorry. Would it be okay if I share why I think this time is different from last time?”
Notice that I asked permission to talk.
What I’ve learned is that when there is a disconnect between two people, asking their permission to tell them how you see the situation differently creates two things — an acknowledgement that you heard them and an understanding that you want to create a “safe” place for them.
If my son had said no to my question, I would have honored that and ended the conversation with something like “I know that this has been difficult for you and I respect that. I do feel like the situation today is very different from what you experienced in the past. When you are ready to talk about it let me know and I’ll share how I see things now.”
Thankfully my son agreed to let me share what I was thinking about the current circumstances. Once he was able to hear my heart, the climate changed between us. The sarcasm, the frustration, and the anger seem to be gone. Mutual respect has re-entered our relationship because we now understand each other’s reasons for our choices and behavior.
Without the empathy and respect piece, we don’t create safety for the other person in the relationship. This derails our conversations and keeps us from getting to the root cause. Instead we typically try to justify or at least explain our side of the story which makes thing unsafe for the other person.
I’ll admit that typically I’m terrible about making sure I validate the other person. I just want to fix the problem and move on. However, we need to remember that conflict resolved well (with empathy, validation, and safety), creates a more intimate relationship.
I’ve given my son permission to give me a cue when I head down the path of justifying my actions before I’ve made sure he has been heard. It’s humbling to see how many times I get it wrong. That said, I want to grow in my relationships with others–especially with my kids.
A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.
Dare you to look at how you respond when your kids seems frustrated or angry at you. Empathize, validate, and create safety to mend and create a more fulfilling relationship.
Debbie Hitchcock is co-author of With All Due Respect: 40 Days to a More Fulfilling Relationship with Your Teens & Tweens (Thomas Nelson, 2016). She is a trainer, speaker, and parenting coach at Greater Impact Ministries, Inc. and blogs at DebbieHitchcock.com. Debbie and her husband, Dave, have been married since 1978, and they have four grown children.