By John Townsend, Ph.D.
Few conflicts are more difficult and stressful than having an adolescent in your home who is struggling. It’s hard on the teen, hard on the parents and hard on the siblings. Some parents, however, are more vulnerable to the stress than others. They can feel overwhelmed and be easily triggered and discouraged. This then keeps them from being the healthiest and best parent they can be.
If your spouse is in that vulnerable place, here are some ways you can provide support.
Attune to their feelings.
When overwhelmed by a child’s disrespect, conduct problems, school troubles or emotional issues, some parents will be flooded with very strong negative feelings. These might include anxiety, confusion, anger, helplessness, guilt or shame. The last thing a vulnerable parent needs is to be alone with these emotions. It makes their brain work at a lower level.
In these cases, it’s best to listen and be empathetic. Authentically listen and engage your spouse in conversation: “That is really overwhelming … tell me more,” or “I’m so sorry … how else did that feel … I get it.” Don’t offer advice or observations such as, “You need to get it together … our son needs you to be calm,” or “You’re overreacting to his trigger behaviors … be rational.” Attunement gets better results than explanations and advice.
Join them in a united front as spouses and parents. Let them know you are on their side in tough times. You may not agree on some matters, such as how to discipline or help your teen. But when your spouse struggles, it’s not time to major on the minor differences. It’s time to major on the majors. Offer words of encouragement: “I’m with you and I’m with us,” and “We will figure this out.”
Bring the strength.
A struggling spouse often feels powerless and impotent with a difficult teen. Your partner might feel totally drained and unable to act. Show strength by saying something like, “Why don’t you let me have this hard conversation with her? I want to give you a break.” This gives your spouse a little time to restore and center themselves.
You don’t always have to tackle the difficult situation by yourself. Sometimes a struggling spouse just needs a little backup. If your partner is feeling strong but a little tired, you could say, “If you’re in an OK place, let’s talk to her together.”
United you stand. Be strong when your spouse is weak. If the tables turn, reverse the support. Best to you!