Marla Estes: Tips on talking with your teenager

Do you find it challenging to speak with your teenager? Marla Estes understands. The Ashland teacher, workshop facilitator and writer will be offering communication strategies in a free presentation from 7 to 8:30 p.m. today in the Ashland High School library.

Estes has a degree from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, Calif., and teaches the Social and Environmental Justice course at AHS as well as film courses through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the Southern Oregon University campus.

She founded the School of the Examined Life, where she teaches in a small-group setting, after moving to Ashland 11 years ago from Paris, where the Los Angeles native lived for 16 years while raising three sons.

What point do you want people to remember from your talk at the Ashland High School Parent Academy? That it's important to be able to identify and recognize when you as a parent are triggered by your own stuff. By that, I refer to the times when our reactions seem objectively to be out of proportion to current events. It might point to the parent's past unresolved issues, unfinished business, old wounds or traumatic events.

Once I was scolding one of my kids for not being able to do a complicated word problem. All of a sudden I realized that it was me who couldn't understand it. Catching myself, I told my son we'd take a 10-minute break. I went into the shower and howled with the pain of past shame of being young and not being able to figure things out. I could then go back, tell him what happened for me and proceed to help him.

The more we can see our own stuff as a parent, the more a path of personal growth it becomes. As a parent, we're supposed to be in the know, to be the expert, and a lot of shame can arise when we discover we are simply human, with our own particular set of limitations.

Another example of this is when a mother who has had traumatic sexual experiences in her youth may become understandably over-protective about her daughter, actually passing on her anxiety or phobia, and perhaps stunting the child's sexuality or, conversely, causing the child to rebel and act out.

Another example is that sometimes the things that irritate us most about our children are the very things we reject about ourselves. I knew someone who couldn't stand her daughter's sense of entitlement; when she finally realized that she herself had the same sense of entitlement but had taken care to cover it up, the tension in the relationship eased up. That's called "owning your shadow."

What should a parent do when he or she recognizes that their past stuff is part of the current conversation? Realizing that you are being triggered is the first step. When I am triggered, sometimes I need to give myself time out to calm down and to reflect on why I reacted so strongly, to determine if current events actually warrant such a reaction. Depending on the circumstance and relationship with my child or teen, I might acknowledge that this incident has brought up some painful feelings from my past.

What state or place should a parent communicate from? Ideally, from a place where you are responding to present circumstances and not past history. I've heard the expression, "If it's hysterical, it's historical." Not that that's always true, but I think it's something to consider.

Can you give us examples of projecting our past on our teen? There is one kind of projection called transference. This is when we transpose one person onto another. One example would be when a mother was second in the birth order and had a dominating older sister. If she's had two girls, she might unconsciously relate to and side with the younger, and perhaps be harsher with the older.

There is another kind of projection called displacement. The classic example is when the husband gets chewed out at work by his boss and then comes home and kicks the dog. Sometimes our child gets our unwarranted anger because we are frustrated with some other aspect or person in our lives.

Is parent-to-child communicating more fraught with mind minefields than any other form? I'm not sure, but there are the added developmental stages in which the child or teen absolutely needs to separate from the parent, hopefully appropriately, respectfully and safely. Sometimes if we get reactive as parents and/or try to control our children too much, a power struggle ensues and the whole thing escalates.

How does it get more complicated when the child is a teenager? The stakes usually get higher and the teen is moving closer and closer to "leaving home," both literally and metaphorically, being their own person and making their own decisions.

In my view, there are no rules or how-to's about how to appropriately, as parents, give them enough rope but not too much, depending on a whole slew of circumstances. Again, the more clear we get with our own psychological baggage as parents, the more chance we will be able to access our wisdom and, as the Buddhists call it, "right action."

How does this generation of parents differ from the past? It seems to me that in general, once we become parents, until we understand our own psychology, we either parent the way our parents did, or the pendulum swings the other way and we rebel: "I'll never be like my mother/father." The problem with either of these is that mostly this is unconscious and/or automatic. Part of becoming an adult means being free of how we were conditioned by our parents in order to find what is true for us and what our values really are.

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