There was a lot of tension in my home when I was growing up. I can remember the whole family nervously sitting around the dinner table and eating a meal without saying a word. When we were at odds with each other we were taught a very simple coping strategy; avoid it! Of course that didn’t solve anything or make it go away; the tension just built up over time, eventually exploding like an erupting volcano.
It’s important that our homes be a place where everyone can release their tension in appropriate ways and find a respite and relief. If not, your teens will find ways to self-medicate the tension away through drugs, alcohol, promiscuity or self-harm. The pressures of their world are far greater than when we were kids, so let me share with you some practical ideas for relieving tension in your home.
1) Hold the drama. I got a question recently from the distraught mother of a sixteen year old. She asked, “How do I get my daughter to stop being a drama queen and upsetting the entire family? I feel that I have to protect my younger children from her blowups.” I told her that drama occurs because drama works—teens do it because it produces a result they desire. It is an easy way to gain center stage.
Drama is usually crisis-driven; something has happened that they’re responding to by creating drama. And if it works for them one time, they’ll do it again, and again. Of course while that helps them release their own tension, it tends to add tension for everyone else in the family. So I told this mother to say something like this, “If you can’t control the drama; if you insist on being the center of attention by acting out, there will be consequences. Drama is not an appropriate way to deal with whatever is bugging you.”
We have fifty kids in our residential center at Heartlight, so there’s a huge potential for drama, but we quickly put a stop to it. We have a number of ways to get across to them that there are better ways to process the tension they’re feeling and express it appropriately (including talking to their counselor), without unloading tension on everyone else. Putting an end to the drama in your home will help relieve a lot of tension for everyone, and especially you.
2) Learn to laugh. When was the last time your family laughed together about something? Proverbs 17:22 says “A cheerful heart is good medicine.” Laughter short-circuits tension. So, watch a comedy together; find good clean comedians you can all enjoy. Invite friends over who have a good sense of humor. Have a joke night at the dinner table where you assign everyone to bring at least two new jokes and engage in laughter together. Post humorous cartoons on the refrigerator. Text jokes to each other. The point is this, it takes some work, but if your home is tense, you need to bring in some humor to offset it.
Your children watch to see how you respond when things go wrong, and they tend to pattern their behavior after yours. So, laugh at yourself. When something goes wrong—when you break a glass—don’t get angry, make fun of your clumsiness. When your teen makes a mistake, don’t get angry, make light of it — “Wow, you really blew it this time! I guess we have a lot of yard work to do together.” Making anger part of your “punishment” will never improve the situation, it will only damage your relationship. Anger from the parent also short-circuits the lesson to be learned, because instead of the teen contemplating the stupidity of his own actions, all he feels is anger right back at the parent. So instead of getting angry next time, let the consequences teach your teen the lesson they need to learn. In fact, do as we do, work alongside your teen as they complete their consequences (we prefer yard work as a consequence –without the IPod–because it gives a teen time to think). Working beside them lets them know that you are on their side, that you are feeling their pain, and that you want to see them do better.
While it’s true that “The family that prays together stays together,” it’s also true that the family that laughs together stays together, because laughter helps overcome tension and stress. Your teenage boy is going to release his tension in some way. It is far better to release it through laughter than slamming doors, recklessly speeding down the road, or putting his fist through the wall.
3) Talk to your teens differently. Talking (if it is kept under control) will help relieve tension, but sometimes it takes some prying to get a teenager to open up. So ask them lots of questions; not about specifics, but about how they feel about things in general. Avoid questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no.” Instead try asking open-ended questions that will get them thinking and talking. Teens process life out loud, so don’t respond to their processing, just keep them talking. The more they talk, the more they’ll process.
Teens (especially girls) want someone to listen to them. If you ask them questions about what they’re thinking and feeling, you can just sit back and listen (but really do listen). When they finally stop to take a breath, reflect back what you’ve heard them say, but don’t be judgmental or correcting. Just listen. Conversations with teen boys go really well when you’re doing things together or when you are in the car.
4) Listen for a cry for help. If your teen is tense all the time, it could be due to deeper issues that need to be dealt with by a trained counselor. One of the young ladies we’ve been working with came to us because she was out of control and adding tension to the whole family. As we worked through her issues, she told me that she had come to recognize that her behavior had been a plea for help. She wasn’t able to process some of the things she was having to deal with, especially because she was adopted and felt that her parents treated her somewhat differently than her siblings. The tension she was expressing came from her struggles with trying to fit in with her new family. We’ve been working with her to find better ways to ask for help.
I want to encourage you to look beneath the surface for the root cause of the tension. Your child may be letting you know they need a lifeline. Getting a counselor involved may help your teen find better ways to deal with those issues.
5) Keep your correcting to the important things. It’s important to learn when to correct and when to let go. I’m all for correcting the big stuff (character, values and honesty issues); but it only adds tension when parents nit-pick the little things. If there is a pattern of inappropriate behavior, then take steps to correct that. But if you’re always “on their case” about every little thing, they’ll learn to hide their thoughts and feelings to avoid the constant barrage of criticism, and that will build tension.
I told you earlier that my home was filled with tension when I was growing up. The way I processed and dealt with that in my later teen years was by spending every moment I could at the home of the girl I fell in love with…and am still married to today. That was my escape valve, and fortunately it wasn’t a negative one. But it still moved me away from my family. Remember that if your home is constantly tense, your child will find some outlet for releasing their tension, away from you. It’s far better for us as parents to provide them a place of rest than to push them away to find it somewhere or with someone else.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.