"Am I doing ANYTHING right?" — The importance of balancing positive and negative feedback for our teens

Chances are, it has been quite a while since you were a middle school student. Do you remember what it was like to be 13? I mean, do you REALLY remember? We tend to look at our teens and poke fun at how dramatic they are and accuse them of whining and complaining too much. After all, their lives are so easy! They have no idea what the real world is like, right?

I have spent the last 20 years working with middle school kids, and I am often struck by how much of their day is spent listening to adults bark orders at them or remind them about all the ways they are not meeting expectations.

Just think for a moment about the interactions our teens have with adults throughout the day. It often goes something like this:

In the morning, usually much earlier than they would like to wake up, they start hearing:

“Wake up. Hurry up. You’re going to be late. Don’t forget your stuff. Where’s your backpack? Why didn’t you get your stuff ready last night? Hurry up. Hurry up.”

Throughout the day at school, they hear over and over again:

“Hurry up. You’re going to be late. Stop running. Stop playing around. Sit down. Turn around. Be quiet. Pay attention. Stop talking. Where’s your homework? What do you mean you forgot a pencil? Be quiet. Sit down. Stop talking.”

And when they get home:

“Hurry up. We’re going to be late for (insert practice/game/lesson here). Clean up your dishes. Pick up your jacket. Did you do your homework? Stop being mean to your sister. Stop doing (insert your favorite annoying habit here). Hurry up. Get ready for bed.”

And the list could go on and on.

Think about that for a moment. Think about how much of the communication aimed at our teens on a daily basis is about what they shouldn’t be doing – all the ways they are doing something wrong or not meeting expectations. And we are all guilty of it to some degree– parents, teachers, coaches — all of us. We aren’t intentionally being mean. In fact, our intentions are quite good. We want kids to learn. We want them to be responsible. We want them to succeed.

One of my favorite authors, Maya Angelou, once said

“Your kids want to know……do you see me? Do you hear me? Do your eyes light up when I enter the room?”

Of course kids need guidance and instruction. They often need to be reminded to hurry up or be quiet or do their homework. But they also need a sense of connection. They need to know that you really see them and that they matter.

So how do we make sure we are sending positive messages to our kids every day?

Sometimes the nagging comes much more easily. We have to make an intentional effort to be positive. Our teens might not want as many hugs or snuggles anymore, so we have to find new ways to show affection.   Here are some ideas I’ve gathered from parents:

  • Send a “good morning. I love you. Have a great day” text right after they leave for school.
  • Write a note on their mirror in the morning – “You’re beautiful. I love you.”
  • When they get home from school, greet them with “I’m so happy to see you. I missed you today.”
  • When you check on the status of their homework — “I appreciate how hard you’re working. I’m proud of you.”
  • When they are in the same room with you, remind them “I love having you around.”
  • When you’re driving all over town after school, ask them “Tell me something funny that happened today.”

The reminding, correcting and nagging is always going to be a necessary part of parenting, of course. But let’s make an effort to ensure it isn’t the only communication our teens hear throughout the day.

Recently I’ve made an intentional change in my own home. It’s a new rule I have for myself at our dinner table. No more questions about grades, missing assignments, emails to teachers or quizzes that need to be re-taken. There will be time for those conversations later, but from now on at dinner we will laugh together, tell crazy stories about our day and simply enjoy being together.

What subtle changes can you make to let your teen feel a resounding YES to the question — “Do you hear me? Do you see me? Do your eyes light up when I enter the room?”

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