Influencer QA

Communicating with Apathetic Teenagers

Dear Crucial Skills,

I just watched Joseph Grenny’s “How to Hold Those You Love Accountable” video and although I thought it was good, I would like to know how to deal with teenagers who don’t see things as clearly. Both kids in the example well up in tears and seem extremely mature in their response.

What happens when you take this same approach and they just roll their eyes, say they don’t want to talk about their feelings, and to just get on with it? What about when they’ve heard it all before from adults who really wanted to empathize and they simply like doing drugs or throwing parties? They see the benefit (popularity, hot girls, easy rush, etc.) and wish the old folks would just stop nagging. They’re right and you are wrong. What do you do then?

Giving Up

Dear Giving Up,

With your permission I will speak very personally. You are asking a question that strikes at the heart of what parenting has meant to me. My opinions about your situation have been informed by twenty-seven years of learning to have intimate relationships with imperfect people. People like me.

For those who haven’t seen the video, I shared a story of a young man at an alternative high school who was addicted to drugs and was caught using them in school. I also described how one of my teenage children threw a massive party at our home while my wife and I were away. The point I wanted to illustrate is, if we try to address accountability with those we love in the absence of emotional connection, we often provoke defensiveness. However, if we pay the price to connect emotionally first, they are more likely to feel naturally accountable for the effect their actions have on others. True accountability is the fruit of emotional connection. Anything less is little more than compulsion.

Trust me, my life hasn’t been a series of photo ops. It’s been more valley than peak. I feel your pain when your best efforts seem to yield no influence. And I know the agony of watching those I love squander sacred potential. So, what do you do when, in spite of your best efforts to empathize, connect, listen, and validate others, the result is a shoulder shrug? Here are my beliefs about how to create healthy relationships with imperfect people.

1. I am responsible for influence, not results. The instant I measure my “success” by others’ choices, I am living a lie. The lie is that I can—or should—control others. I can’t. I shouldn’t. The very wish to do so is the root cause of every form of misery for myself and others. It leads to anger, despair, depression, compulsion, and pride. During our children’s infancy, we parents get seduced into the delusion that we can mold them as we please. The truth is, we are responsible to offer a worthy example, provide coaching, give support, and surrender the rest.

2. Everyone learns on their own schedule. Over the years I’ve created enormous stress for myself and family members, by unconsciously planning the lives of my children on a normative schedule. I had tacit expectations of where they should be by age eight, twelve, sixteen, eighteen, and so on. Mind you, I wasn’t aware I was doing this. It was more of an expectation I absorbed by comparing myself with “successful” parents around me. It wasn’t until one child after another deviated from that plan that I became aware I had it in the first place. It showed up in feelings of panic or discouragement. It showed up in behavior like bargaining, bribing, and criticizing. I have arrived at a very different place today. I feel an immense respect for the uniqueness of each of my children. I have enormous faith that they are learning creatures and that they each need to learn in their own way and on their own schedule. If you’ll allow a very personal aside, I also believe this learning schedule exceeds this life. I get to take part in that learning at times, but my role is much smaller than the illusory one I have so often coveted.

3. Influence can only be granted, not taken. My children grant it to me at their pleasure—and tend to do so only when they believe they can trust my intent. In the worst of cases, children surrender enormous influence because we’ve convinced them of their own incompetence. They adopt every habit and aspiration we advocate because they can hardly distinguish the boundaries of their own identity from ours. The other extreme happens when they resent your attempt to violate their agency so much that your attempts to control become the issue. You unintentionally impede their ability to learn from their mistakes because they are distracted by their resentment of your intrusions into their choices. Healthy influence happens when children are fundamentally convinced your only intent is to help them accomplish their own worthy goals, not to impose your own. This redefines parenting as a process of enabling their discovery of their own uniqueness, worth, and mission. And it gives you a small but privileged view of that unfolding. At times they’ll make monumentally stupid decisions (as did you and I). With adult children, we slow their learning when we either fight these choices or rescue them from them. Instead, our role is to help them know we believe in them, and be ready to offer feedback and counsel when—and only when—they give us permission to do so.

I hope you don’t hear any of this as glib. I know the pain of parental disappointment—and even agony. I’ve come to understand, at times, that making the choice to love is making a choice to suffer. But that suffering need not turn to misery if I understand my role. When I do, I increase the likelihood of experiencing the surpassing joy that comes from being such an intimate part of another person’s life.

With love,