Admitting Mistakes Strengthens the Parent-Teen Relationship


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Parents aren’t perfect. We make mistakes. When our kids are small, they quickly dismiss our blunders, convinced of our superhero status. But the teen years take down superhero parents like kryptonite. Suddenly, we’re held to account for every slip-up, bad decision and character flaw. It seems we can do no right.

To err is human nature, to point it out is teen nature

If good intentions were enough, parenting would be easy. But noble intentions don’t prevent parents from making mistakes that belittle, betray and alienate teens. We yell when they come home late (again). We search their rooms or read their text messages. We tune out and push harder when they’re flunking advanced math because we believe they can do better.

The adolescent’s world “is rich in insight and complex connections; it’s also full of ambiguity and mixed messages,” explains Michael Riera, Ph.D., author of Staying Connected to Your Teenager: How to Keep Them Talking to You and How to Hear What They’re Really Saying. Teens struggle for clarity amidst confusion, and their growing cognitive skills make them especially good at detecting errors. With lightning speed and laser-like precision, teens spot the difference between what parents say and what they do — and point it out. Your teenager isn’t out to get you. She’s just showing you she’s a perceptive thinker, willing to argue until she’s blue to defend her beliefs. It’s a good thing. Really.

Messing up is easy, fessing up is hard

Admitting mistakes isn’t easy. Parents are likely to deny, rationalize and justify what went wrong for several reasons, according to Carol Tavris, a social psychologist and co-author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.

To begin with, we feel lousy when our behavior conflicts with our beliefs. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance. Because yelling at our kids is out of line with our self-concept as good, capable, caring parents, it’s hard to admit we messed up, Tavris says. We’re more likely to try to justify our actions. But justifying errors leads us to see what we believe. If you think your teen will make poor decisions, or fear peers will influence your kids for the worse, you’ll unconsciously seek evidence you’re right, which justifies your previous actions and sets you up to repeat the same mistakes. It’s easy to convince yourself you’re doing the right thing, even when these actions diminish your real influence in teens’ lives.

Parents may fear admitting missteps will diminish their authority. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Adolescents don’t want parents who are experts, who know all the answers and can solve every problem. What they want, Riera says, are parents who embrace the role of consultant. Teens need to know they can count on their parents to stick with them as they explore new experiences and confront challenges on their own terms.

Why fallibility is favorable

“Admitting mistakes doesn’t come easy…even in our smoothest relationships,” says Michael Gorsline, a parent coach, family therapist and author of the Awareness Connection blog. But you’ll build credibility by fessing up. Teens lose trust in parents who won’t admit they’re wrong, especially if the errors are obvious.

Admitting mistakes restores trust and communicates respect for your teenager and your relationship. When you say, “I was wrong, and I’m sorry,” you set the right example, Tavris says. It is important to take responsibility for mistakes, apologize for them, and then learn from them so you don’t repeat them.

Teens’ fear of punishment, embarrassment or rejection makes it hard for them to admit mistakes, too. A deep connection with parents makes it safe for teens to admit wrong or hurtful actions and to grow from their experiences. They need to learn that making mistakes doesn’t mean they are bad, stupid or unlovable. It just means they’re human.

Open it up for discussion

Next time you miss the mark, make it right. Wait until you’ve calmed down, then initiate a conversation in the car or late in the evening, when your teen is tuned in and ready to chat. Take a deep breath and follow these steps to come clean and reconnect:

* Lead with empathy. Gorsline recommends parents take their teen’s perspective. Say “I bet I’m not your favorite person right now,” or “You are probably really angry with me for what I did.” This validates their feelings and shows you understand your actions were hurtful.

* Think discussion, not confession. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your guilty feelings and make the conversation all about you. Don’t get sidetracked with a lengthy explanation or make excuses for what you did; these are justifications in disguise. And it doesn’t have to be an overblown, on-your-knees apology, Riera says. Directly acknowledge your error, then allow your teenager to respond.

* Come up with a plan. Talk about how to avoid the problem in the future, Gorsline says. Ask your teen for suggestions and listen without defensiveness. Make sure you both come away with lessons learned and an agreed-upon game plan.

As teens gain independence, parents sense their authority slipping away. Struggling to hold onto the relationship they had with their kids in the past, parents may justify bad decisions and hurtful behavior, pushing teens away in the process. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Every parenting mistake is an opportunity to reconnect with your teenager. But first you have to admit it.

Heidi Smith Luedtke is a freelance writer and psychologist who approaches parenting as a leadership experience.

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