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The words your teens desperately need to hear

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My 16-year-old daughter is sleeping a lot lately. Like so many others during this time, her depression and anxiety have escalated, and sleep is one of her best coping mechanisms.

I haven’t worried about it. She’s juggling distance learning, babysitting, teaching guitar, studying for the ACT and several creative pursuits. If she needs a nap every day, I’m certainly not one to judge.

Still, I didn’t realize how much she was judging herself. As I nudged her into wakefulness the other day, she immediately began berating herself, “I didn’t mean to sleep! I meant to get so much done today.”

“You’re fine,” I assured her, “you’re doing your best. I’m really proud of you.”

Her eyes lit up, a smile spread across her face, and my soul-shrunken girl seemed to expand in front of my eyes, “You’re proud of me, really?”

And my mother heart ached just a bit, these are words she needs to hear more often.


Taking advantage of a gorgeous fall day, I went to the apple orchard with my friend and her four-year-old son, Seth. I’d almost forgotten how often a mom needs to correct a four-year-old in an hour: “You need to wear shoes.” “Don’t eat that, it’s rotten.” “Please stop throwing apples at people.” etc. And because my friend is a really good mom, she interspersed her corrections with plenty of hugs and tickles, kind words and smiles.

Little Seth accepted the corrections with the compliments, laughed and played and raced through the orchard with unrestrained joy. When he was exhausted, he collapsed comfortably into his mother’s arms as she carried him to the car.

As a photographer and a parenting coach, I recognized in Seth that buoyancy so common in small children and so rare in teens. We’ve all seen it. The way a teen or preteen seems to almost cave in, like a collapsed balloon. Somewhere before thirteen and as young as four, most of us decide there’s something deeply wrong with us. All the corrections of childhood take root in the heart and we shrink, hold back, build up walls and defenses.

Parents need to correct. It’s an essential part of our job to prepare our children for the world; to teach them to eat from a plate and wear clothing in public. And in the midst of all that (mostly necessary) correction, most children conclude there’s something wrong with them, something deep in their core that simply doesn’t measure up.

We are told we are too shy, too loud, too hyper, too slow, too emotional, too messy. No one fits into the narrow little box of ‘just right.’

As parents (and our parents before us and their parents before them…), we too often act out of fear. We are afraid we’ll be judged, we’ll afraid our kids won’t fit in, we’re afraid our kids won’t be successful. This plays out in big choices like the stereotypical lawyer dad who does not want his son to attend art school, or in small ones where a mom warns her child of wearing that ‘weird’ outfit to school. So often, we are acting out of our own fear. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again– parents are influenced more by peer pressure than their children.

With our little ones (especially when I’m talking to good parents like you), those corrections are accompanied with hugs and smiles, tickle fights and stories at bedtime. As our teens age, the physical closeness decreases and expectations increase. We’re expecting more than just eating off a plate—we want them to make good use of time, think about the future, and pay for their own gasoline.

So often we get caught up in our expectations and are blinded to the gorgeous, brilliant, unique human being right in front of us. All of our sadness stems from these unmet expectations.

Let’s ponder that for a moment: ALL of our sadness stems from unmet expectations.

I coached a mom of a boy who took a very different path than the one his parents hoped for and their home was filled with frequent fighting and conflict. When we first started meeting, she was distraught by his choices and mourning the life she’d wanted for him. We created a plan, and over time, she started dropping her expectations and began to truly understand her son. Once her son felt heard and acknowledged, their fighting diminished, and his angry behavior disappeared.

“My expectations were like wearing clouded glasses,” this mom told me, “I couldn’t see my incredible, talented son. These days, I tell him I am proud of him every single day. And I mean it.”

Your child is incredible. You know their heart, their history, their unique abilities and extraordinary moments. This is why you are the best possible parent for your teen. No doctor, coach, or teacher understands your child as you do. If we sat down together, you could tell me a dozen amazing qualities you’ve recognized in your child.

But have you told your teen the unique abilities and qualities you recognize in them? In the midst of preparing them for adult life are you telling them how much you love them?

When I was talking to my daughter about her naps, I reminded her of baby Fritzie, her beloved nephew and my first grandchild (and yes, it’s every bit as fun as you’ve heard). “Do you judge baby Fritzie for sleeping a lot? Do you think he should be accomplishing more every day? If all you did this year was just eat and sleep and survive, it would be OK.”

I truly mean it. We have a beautiful young friend in the hospital right now who attempted suicide a few weeks ago. I’m certain his mom would agree with me: if all he does is eat and sleep and survive this year, it would be OK.

I’ll never forget my friend Judy Wolf addressing the children at her son’s funeral after he died in a traffic accident: “I’m going to tell you one of your parents’ great secrets. You know all the fuss they make about your grades and making the team and getting awards?” Her eyes swept through the room as she noted the many children and teenagers filling the chapel.

“This competition, this drive to measure up: It’s all a show. Your parents are in love with you anyway. From the moment you were born they adored you—all you had to do was show up.”

Of course we feel this way about our kids, of course we adored them from the minute they were born. But it can be incredibly hard to drop those expectations—especially if no one ever did it for you. I teach parents all the time how to create a happier family than the one they were raised in.

Tell your kids you adore them. Tell them you are proud of them. They need to hear it. And if your parenting glasses are clouded with expectations, clear them off and admire the incredible human standing right in front of you.

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