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Softening Your Teen's Hardened Heart

  • Drs. Gary and Greg Smalley The DNA of Parent-Teen Relationships
  • 2007 21 Feb
Softening Your Teen's Hardened Heart

Editor's Note: This is the second article in a two-part series. Click here to read Part I.

Our purpose in writing about a closed heart is not to make parents feel guilty. Rather, we want to provide hope. We have closed the hearts of our own wives and children many times. But it's possible to reopen an angry, closed heart, and next we'll show you how. We have found four essential steps in the process of doing it.

1. Reflect Tenderness.

When we realize a teen's heart is closed, the first step in opening it is to express a softness, or tenderness. To reflect tenderness to your teen, we want you to …

• lower your voice

• become gentle in heart

• get down on bended knee

• speak slowly

• relax your facial expressions

• become pleasant in your demeanor

All of these reflect honor and humility, and as the Bible suggests, "A gentle answer turns away wrath." When we become tender, we communicate four important things. We're saying:

A. The teen is valuable and important. We express this in nonverbal ways: We're slow to move toward him. Our heads may be bowed, and we're obviously grieved that we have hurt him.

B. We don't want to see her heart closed. We care about her.

C. We know something's wrong. We acknowledge by our softness that an offense has taken place, and we're going to slow down long enough to correct whatever has happened.

D. We're open to listening. It's safe for him to say how he feels about what has happened, and we're not going to get angry or hurt him again.

Once we become soft, the next step is to better understand our teen's pain.

2. Increase our own understanding.

It's important to genuinely understand the pain a teenager feels and how she has interpreted our offensive behavior. We must ask for her perspective on what occurred so we can validate her feelings or needs. Taking the time to see someone as unique and very valuable is true friendship. We must resist the urge to defend ourselves, lecture, or question why she did or didn't do something.

Instead, it is important to empathize with our teens. Empathy is identifying with and understanding the other person's situation, feelings, and motives. Empathy is easy to give. You start by taking a guess at what your son or daughter may be feeling.

Listening and empathizing communicates that you believe your child has something valuable to say; consequently, she feels valuable. Listening shows that you respect her as a person; empathy communicates that you understand her. Listen to understand rather than to respond; desire to understand more than to defend yourself. In other words, listen with your heart — hear her pain and feel her needs.

When we're really listening, we don't need to tell anybody — it's evident. You can bet our teens know whether we're truly listening or faking it. We show we're listening by our body language, by nonverbal responses like facial expressions and eye contact, and by the follow-up questions we ask. Furthermore, we give cues that demonstrate we're paying attention. A good listener:

• is attentive, not distracted; does not look around or do something else at the same time

• does not rush the speaker

• is focused on the person speaking

• does not interrupt

• maintains good eye contact

• does not grunt responses

When we're really listening and empathizing, our attention is focused squarely on the other person. He will, therefore, feel like the most important person in our world at that moment. Listening does not require attempts at problem solving. Our teenagers merely want to know that we understand their point of view. They want to sense from us that it's okay to be upset and to show emotion.

Good listening takes time and work, which is why so few people practice it, much less master it. But know this: If our teens don't feel they're being heard, it's unlikely that our relationships with them will improve.

As a rule, to the same degree that they feel listened to, they will grant future opportunities for communication. After all, who wants to talk with someone who doesn't listen? For that matter, who wants to be in a relationship with someone who doesn't listen?

Now that we're becoming soft and tender, and we're listening and empathizing to understand our teenager's pain, the third step in opening a closed heart is to admit our mistakes.

3. Admit the offense.

When someone who hurts us does not take responsibility for his actions, it can be discouraging. Perhaps your teenager feels like one of the monkeys at an unusual zoo. "That's incredible, having a monkey and a lion together in the same cage," said a zoo visitor. "How do they get along?"

"Pretty well, for the most part," answered the zookeeper. "But once in a while they have a disagreement, and then we have to get a new monkey."

Our teenagers may feel that each time they get into a disagreement with us, we come down on them like a strong lion. They may feel their hearts have been "killed" like one of those monkeys — that we, instead of tending to their wounds by admitting our wrongdoing, have simply rejected their feelings as invalid. As a parent, it can be hard to say "I was wrong," but it can work wonders.

Admitting we're wrong (when we obviously are) is like tending to our teenagers' wounds. Or, to change the analogy, it's like drilling a hole in their "anger bucket" and allowing that unhealthy emotion to drain away. Once they sense that we understand our mistake and they hear us admit it, the anger has a way of escaping from their lives.

Sometimes we may not be wrong about the facts or issues of a matter, but our attitude might be. Or perhaps the way we've done something is offensive. If our attitude is harsh and angry when telling our teens about legitimate problems, we're still wrong. The Bible affirms this: "The anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God." Stopping short of admitting we're wrong can leave a dangerous gap between us and our teens that may not mend quickly — or at all.

When parents don't admit their mistakes, they can delay the reopening of their teens' hearts indefinitely. On the other hand, teens feel valuable when they hear us admit our mistakes and see that we understand how they feel. Sometimes that's all it takes to open a closed heart.

The last step in opening a teenager's closed heart is one of the most honoring things we can do for someone. It's like giving a large bottle of cold water to someone dying of thirst in the desert.

4. Seek forgiveness.

The final part of opening a closed heart is to seek forgiveness for whatever offense we've committed. If we don't do this, our teenagers will be left feeling violated and still angry, just like the man who discovered a gigantic dent in the back of his new car one morning. By the look of things, the damage would cost him thousands of dollars to repair. He was relieved, however, to find a note under the windshield wiper from the guilty party — until he actually read the note: "As I am writing this, your neighbors are watching me. They think I am giving you my name, address, license number, and insurance company. I'm not!"

It's important to give teenagers the opportunity to respond to our confession — to ask if they can find it in their hearts to forgive us. This is a wonderful opportunity to model seeking forgiveness. Our children need to see the importance of asking someone to forgive us when we make a mistake. Most young people are aware that the Bible says we're to seek forgiveness when we hurt someone. But unless they see us valuing it by doing it ourselves, they're not likely to ask forgiveness either.

When Bill was about 17, his father, Jerry, got a speeding ticket while in Florida on a business trip. Jerry decided to keep his mistake a secret. He had always taken great pride, after all, in his flawless driving record. He even went to great lengths to remind his family of it. Whenever a family member received a traffic ticket, Jerry was the first to give the "lawbreaker" a hard time.

Jerry's secret was safe until the state of Florida sent him a letter requesting his attendance at driving school. By mistake, Bill opened the letter and discovered his dad's misfortune. "Kelly, you'll never guess what I found!" Bill told his sister. "Dad was caught doing 75 on an on-ramp in Florida. Mr. 'I've never received a single speeding ticket' has to attend driving school!" The two laughed and couldn't wait until their dad got home.

When their parents walked through the door together that evening, Bill and Kelly asked them both to sit down. "Mom," the two stated while trying to remain serious, "we suspect that Dad has been hiding something from us."

"Dad," they questioned while holding up the letter, "do you have any idea why the state of Florida would be requesting your presence at driving school? Have you experienced any problems — no, make that 'delays' — while getting on the freeway?"

Jerry turned red as he realized he'd been caught.

"You should know you can't keep things from us," his children said while laughing. "We're very disappointed in you, young man."

The entire family had fun watching Jerry squirm. Much to their surprise, however, he didn't become defensive. Instead, he got down on his knees and made a remarkable statement: "I'm sorry for trying to deceive you guys about the ticket. Could you forgive me?"

His teenagers were taken aback. Is Dad really apologizing for this? they thought. It had been a long time since they had heard him seek forgiveness. He truly touched their lives with a valuable lesson.

For Christmas that year, one of Jerry's children gave him a special award in honor of his remarkable attitude, one that still sits on his desk. It's a small plaque that reads: "Outstanding Commitment to Continuing Driver's Education. Thanks for being a Man, Dad!"

We strongly encourage you to begin modeling the seeking of forgiveness to your teenagers. It will encourage and inspire them, and most of the time it will open their closed hearts.

© Copyright 2005 Smalley Relationship Center