At the 25th Annual Wild Child Conference held in Marion, Ohio Tuesday 9-9-14, keynote speaker Dr. Gus Reyes, PhD stressed the importance of building a heart connection between parent and child. Reyes is Director of Hispanic Education Initiative for the National Christian Leadership Conference and Director of the Texas Christian Life Commission and Advocate for Learning Environments at Home initiative. “Fifty to 70% of problems teens have are with their parents. Parents have a lifelong impact so it is no small goal to improve relationships between parents and children,” he opened with. In interviewing teens at the mall, Reyes has discovered parents just ‘checking out’ of their kid’s lives- almost like abandonment. This is true of teens and college age kids. Adolescent and transition age youth ‘need parents wisdom more than ever before,’ he said. Reyes stressed that ‘Everyone needs a heart connection, and if not with a parent, the child (of any age) will be looking for anybody to connect with. It may not be the right connection, but they won’t know that if you haven’t established that first. Be connected with your son, daughter, husband, or wife. Have a heart connection“, he urged.
To demonstrate, Reyes had 4-5’ sections of PVC pipe. He invited audience members to come up front, and placed them in pairs. Each member of a pair placed one end of the pipe over their heart and stood slightly leaning in, so they were connected, heart-to-heart. The influence/communication goes both ways and allows each to impact the other, one generation to the next. In a strong heart-to-heart connection, relationships are central. A strong heart connection has visible evidence. If you grow distant, the pipe is pulled loose and there is little impact. At this point one member stepped back and the pipe either fell, or the other partner was left attempting to hold it in place or re-attach. ‘In adolescence, a teen may try to fill that parental connection with peers (or a gang), but what the heck do peers know? The child’s best interest is not always their peers’ (or other teen’s) interest, and the effects can be devastating- in place of the mature wisdom of a parent (or teacher, counselor) with perspective,” he emphasized.
Reyes moved on to ‘Tankology 101’, referring to one’s emotional gas tank. A full tank impacts the way we behave; a tank is filled by affirmation- from an adult caregiver. An empty tank (in the opposite fashion to a full tank), does not help a teacher to ‘fill’ his or her students, and may have a negative outcome. Drawing an illustration of an iceberg, he said this symbolizes the life of an adolescent student. There is what we see above sea level: grades, clothes, friends, Facebook posts, hair, and/or negative outcomes. With teens, what is below the surface is often the much bigger portion: foolish strategies, fear, secrets, shame, guilt, pain, wounds, anxiety, suicidal ideation, foolish beliefs- ‘Nobody knows me, but me!’; ‘I don’t need anyone!’; ‘I will stop listening to adults!’; ‘I can numb my pain!’; ‘Running away helps!’. There are often two personalities evidenced: the one presented at home with family, and the one presented with friends. Discovering a completely different aspect to their child comes as a shock to many parents who ‘find’ something or ‘hear/see’ something.
How parents respond is often based on fear, and leads to failure. “For instance, a parent may try to control what they can’t see or engage in a power struggle with fighting and screaming. Yelling never accomplished anything. The difficulty is with their own emotional tank, and the outcome is depression and/or a feeling of hopelessness- on both ends. What students really need: a heart-to-heart connection with parents; parents as re-fuelers; and SUS-security, unfailing love and affirming their significance. Teens don’t need more same age friends; they need parents! Don’t try to be on par with the popular kid or be the popular parent; it’s okay to be adult,” Reyes stressed.
Reyes recommended the Five Love Languages by Dr. Gary Chapman: 1. Gifts, 2. Service, 3. Words of affirmation, 4. Quality time, and 5. Touch. He explained how these work in his family and who responds especially to each. One son is a hugger, and requires that frequent affirmation from his dad. Washing the car might be a service- for a parent, or quality time might be turning off the electronics and going fishing.
There will be times when healthy discipline is called for which mixes a healthy dose of justice and grace with an end in mind. Justice means you are in charge, making decisions re. structure, limits and behavior and then enforcing the consequences. Justice/rules are like a hotel balcony rail; you need it! You can explain things after hearts are connected, but the relationship must be in place. Yelling is not an evidence-based behavior geared towards positive change! Do not use an emotional outburst which is a choice, and shows an emotional weakness in the parent. It can damage a child’s self-esteem and push children away. Yelling frightens kids when a parent loses control, and conversely gives him/her a formula to make you lose it. Having emotional outbursts can damage a child’s self-esteem, push children away, and harden their heart, which can lead to emotional injuries that last for years and result in cold/distant teens.
Connecting their behavior with consequences is more effective than changing bad behavior- as in the case of a speeding ticket. There are positive consequences too- “You are the highest priority so you don’t need to do this to earn love and acceptance,” Reyes explained. There should be an appeal process in the home (we have it in traffic court); so you can work it out. Having an appeal process in the home: 1. Doesn’t happen overnight; 2. Requires practice; 3. Needs an agreed-upon phrase; and is 4.Based on ‘let’s work this out’; 5. Requires flexibility. The process has a sense of ‘What must I do to ‘get right’ with you?’ It is okay to say, ‘I forgive you”.
An important section of Reyes talk was on exploring dreams. How many parents can answer the question, ‘What dreams does your son or daughter have for his or her future?” and, ‘What dreams do parents have for their kids?’ It’s important to affirm and encourage the interests of students; show them a path. What happens too often is when the parent says, ‘I don’t know! I’m still working on MY future!’ A strong heart connection involves exploring dreams together which requires listening and testing of ideas. Institute a culture of practice. For the parent, the best job is a completed job- a closed loop. Like in fast food communication, hear the request, repeat it, affirm, deliver, ask- ok? This is critical in the home.
It is important that parents share their disappointments, stories how they have overcome obstacles and share examples; and share their victories. Kids learn healthy strategies for overcoming life’s challenges when parents share plans; what’s going on. They are connected. ‘Never give up,’ Reyes said. Have family meetings and negotiate logical consequences; negotiate these requests; teach and learn helps develop skills. Breaking things does not work as a negotiating skill. Reyes shared an example of how negotiating works. It should not be ‘Dad, can I have $20 to go out with my (iffy) friends?” The parent should present acceptable choices and the teen should rate the choices before proposing his/her decision.
On getting kids to talk he said do not use ‘yes/no’ questions. Asking ‘why’ or ‘how’ questions often seems like it looks down on them; rather, use ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘what’, ‘who’ or ‘which’. For instance, ‘on a scale of 1 to 10, worst to best day of your life, how was today?’ ‘What caused it?” ‘What would it take to raise that number?” and, ‘What can we do to help you have a better number tomorrow?” Reyes stressed, ‘Build the heart connection. Heart connections last. If there is not a parent figure, sometimes an aunt, uncle, teacher, caseworker fills that void.’