A parent of a newly minted high school student recounted a story to me today where his daughter cussed at him for the first time. It was a relatively mild cussing event, but it upset him. He pulled her aside, talked about the issues he has with cussing, and encouraged her not to do it again.
Now I’ll admit, cussing doesn’t bother me as a parent in the least. I might be surprised if my kids (6 and 10 years old) cussed because they haven’t before. As a response, I would try to give them guidelines on times when it would be wise not to cuss (around one of their grandmothers in particular) and I would want them to know that other people may perceive them differently if they cuss so that they can make informed decisions about their word choices. But ultimately? Their words, their decisions.
However, all parents have things that bother them. Little things, big things, red things, blue things, we have buttons and our children and teenagers generally know how to push them quite effectively. When our buttons are pushed, it is important that we take a moment and rather than respond to the surface communication or interaction that bothered you, try to understand the message that our young people are really trying to get across. It is particularly when our buttons are being pushed that we respond by pushing all the way through that immediate reaction to a place of insight and calm.
My conversation from this morning about cussing is a particularly good example of this. The father responded to the words his daughter chose to use, rather than responding to the underlying message. When I asked him what his daughter was trying to say, albeit in words that he found distasteful, he was able to summarize her feelings quite effectively. She was frustrated with the higher level of demand she was experiencing in high school, but she wanted to navigate it herself rather than with her father’s assistance. These are very real feelings that deserve respect and attention, but the dad did not directly respond to them (although he had contemplated them internally). I suspect that his daughter left the interaction feeling like her dad did not understand her or her frustrations because he focused exclusively on her words rather than her meaning. But that wasn’t true, he did understand! If he had been able to respond in that moment to her meaning rather than her words she would have benefited greatly. I hope that he returns to the conversation – or at least the implied meaning in the conversation – soon.
When are buttons are pushed, around cussing, sexuality, peer group devotion, identity development, and so many more issues that young people experience, these are golden opportunities for insight. So take a deep breath, listen with all of the insight and knowledge you can manage, and let go of the details of the way your young person is bringing their questions, emotions, and reactions to you. Your relationship will be all the better for it!