If you are a parent whose family unit has been impacted by an affair, whether you are the person who had the affair or not, there is a lot of consider when it comes to your role as a parent. Are you having trouble communicating with your teenager, and feeling as though he or she has lost some respect for you? Being a parent is complicated, and many families deal with a great amount of stress within their daily lives.
If you chose to keep the knowledge of the affair private from your child, this may reduce the level of reactivity that has an impact on your child. However, older children and teenagers may become aware of the affair by a number of avenues, or may guess that one has occurred. Just as an affair marks a disruption in a marriage, it marks a disruption in the family unit of your child or teen. Please read my article concerning parenting after and affair for more information about whether to disclose to your affair to your children.
It is normal to see some acting-out behavior when a family system has been disrupted. However, it can feel really overwhelming as a parent when we try to work toward making things better in our relationship with our kids. Parenting a teenager when there is conflict within the family means you are likely dealing with reactivity from the people around you, as well as having a shorter fuse yourself.
Here are some great tools and guidelines that will help you to reconnect with your teenager.
These are useful for all parents, but especially if you are having trouble after there has been mistrust in the family (such as in the case of an affair).
When fighting begins… Understanding the Gift of Conflict
Conflict can either be viewed as damaging to a relationship, or an opportunity for growth. You have control over which perspective to take, and that impacts at least 50% of the interaction that you have with your teen (you!). Remember that it is okay to take the time to calm down before you address important issues with your teenager. In fact, it is crucial that you make this a regular practice. Keep in mind that just because something is important does not necessarily mean that it is urgent – meaning that there is always time to take at least 20 minutes to calm down before a discussion, especially taking into consideration that this increases your chances of success.
When it comes to heated arguments and harmful words, a skill that’s just as important as prevention is repair. Repairing the relationship after an argument or disagreement requires careful assessment of the situation; a teenager may feel as though his or her boundaries are being crossed if you insist upon a follow up conversation before he or she feels calm. Be careful to assess whether you yourself are ready for a follow-up apology or repair. You can check-in with yourself to be sure that you are not trying to prove that you are right, but trying to help yourself and your teen understand each other better.
Conflict may be an opportunity to grow within yourself (how you approach difficult situations) and between yourself and your teen (how you show him/her that they are loved even when you disagree or cannot accept specific behaviors without consequence). These opportunities are a gift; use the time wisely.
When the arguments continue… The Role of Conflict in the Family
Conflict within the marriage, whether behind closed doors or in front of the child/teenager, impacts the relationships between everyone in the family. If you are frustrated with the responses that your teen has toward you, take the time to look at yourself first. This may actually help you feel more hopeful because it may become apparent that there are in fact ways you can influence the situation in a positive way, even though you have felt helpless in the past.
For example, it may be possible to see challenges in a new light if you take time to express your own feelings in a healthy way with a support system outside of the family (a close friend or a therapist), and take time for simple self-care (a daily walk, a new project where you can work with your hands, etc). In order to keep conflict constructive and non-damaging, it is important to be taking time for your own personal self-care.
Also, it may be useful to observe that arguing is a tool that we often use to keep others away when we are feeling unsafe. Whether it is intentional or not, your teen may be stirring up hostility because he or she feels unsafe as a result of the uncertainty that exists in the home. Uncertainty and instability can make someone feel very unsafe. This can be healed with time, if the reactions are met with calm and appropriate responses (offering time to listen, maintaining clear boundaries and rules, etc).
When it gets out of control… Understanding the Emotions for Teens (and you)
Your teenager’s relationship with you is complex because he or she is working through a transitional stage that requires him or her to build an individual adult identity. Because of this, your teen is more likely to respond in a reactive way, so he or she may show a lot of anger toward one or both parents, or start displaying more passive behavior such as staying out late or letting grades slip in school.
When a person is sad or angry, we tend to narrow our view of possible constructive choices in a given situation. This is particularly true for many teenagers because they often experience emotions more intensely and have less of an ability to maintain a neutral stance toward stressful situations. If you take the time to consider it, you are likely familiar with the turning point in a discussion when your teenager is no longer communicating in a rational way.
Identifying this time is important for you, because it gives you a cue to check-in with your own emotions and be sure that you are not becoming reactive. It also may give you a clue as to whether the best choice at a certain time is to disengage and pause the discussion. It is your responsibility to use this “break” to relax, rather than build more hostility. Growth may happen as a result of this, because remember, repair will be your goal (see above).
When I want to gain respect and heal a relationship… Allowing Space, While Maintaining Role as a Parent
It may take a lot of patience to allow a safe space for your teenager to express his or her feelings. Offer some time that is just for hearing out your teenager – and really mean it. Don’t chime in unless they are done and ask for your input. If they don’t ask for your input, wait for later and request that they provide a listening ear at that different time. Also, take the time to consider what feels appropriate for a discussion and inform your teen (i.e. being angry is okay, but no yelling or name-calling). Be sure that you are ready to stick to this yourself.
Being a firm but caring parent is a tough balance. Clear, external rules (not thought up spur-of-the-moment) are key, and it is important to collaboratively establish these (at the very least with your co-parent, and ideally with your teen as well). While it is important to listen to teens about what rules feel appropriate to them, ultimately it is your task to maintain the rules in a consistent way (as they will almost always be tested once they are made). “Do this because I said so” parenting has never worked the most successfully.
Working with a therapist can be really useful if you are sorting through your role, values, and goals as a parent. Reach out and find parenting classes and support groups. It is great to learn from professionals as well as from parents like yourself, and you may find that you have some great tips to offer, too!
About the author
Kristine Gottesman is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern who offers psychotherapy to individuals, adolescents, families, and couples. She specializes in working with parenting issues, transitions of adolescence and young adulthood, anxiety, stress and depression. Her private practice office is located in Sherman Oaks, CA.
Kristine is under the supervision of Mary Kay Cocharo, LMFT, and offers a sliding fee scale. Please visit her website: www.kristinemft.com