Early Adolescent Program Director Liz Lucarelli has extensive experience working with kids ages 12-14 and their families in wilderness settings. Here, she explains how curiosity can help parents and children increase awareness and build connection during early adolescence.
Early adolescence is a unique developmental stage when children are transitioning out of childhood and into adolescence. This means children are starting to separate from their parents or families and begin looking to their peers and the outside world for acceptance, connection, and identity formation. This developmental shift is normal; however, it can also become a turbulent time for parents and children.
During this developmental shift, children start exploring and experimenting with their identity more. This experimentation may look like asking to dye their hair, buying new types of clothing, or starting exploring their gender identity or sexuality. Children may seek more personal power and privacy, and not always in the healthiest ways. They may want more autonomy over their phones or gaming devices, shut you out of what’s going on at school or with their friends, or respond with attitude when you ask them to complete basic tasks such as homework or chores.
Another factor that can lead to a breakdown in connection is differing interests. Perhaps your child used to like to camp or fish with you, and now all they seem to want to do is play on their phone or hang out with their friends. Sometimes just the daily grind of life can create a rift as families rush between work, school, sports, afterschool activities, or tutoring. These rifts can grow slowly, while other times they come on suddenly, leaving everyone shocked and unprepared. Either way, changing family dynamics can lead to conflict, hurt feelings, and ultimately a big breakdown in the parent-child relationship as everyone wrestles with the shift in power and influence.
So, let’s take a pause and breathe! In my experience as a therapist and parent coach, I’ve found that this developmental shift can trigger an array of feelings, thoughts, and reactions. Parents feel scared and powerless over the decisions their child is making, are uncertain of who they are becoming and what their actions will lead to in the future, and don’t know how to support and communicate with their child anymore. They feel ill equipped to handle the increased need for power and autonomy and experience embarrassment and shame because they think they are the only parent or family who is going through this turbulent time. Other times, old traumas and wounds can be triggered by the child’s actions, which leaves parents to wonder, what is wrong with me that my child is struggling? With this wondering comes a lot of judgment, self-criticism, and of course, more shame.
Sometimes judgement, shame, and criticism can lead to self-reflection and action. Most of the time, however, it leads to a vicious cycle of more negativity and fear, which parents can get stuck in. A classic example is a child getting caught cheating at school. The parent becomes anxious and afraid and starts to think about how this is going to impact their child’s ability to get into a good school or land a quality job. Out of fear and frustration, the parent lectures the child until they run to their room and slam the door. The parent is confused because that tactic worked when they were a child, meaning it worked when their parents lectured and told them to straighten up or they weren’t going to get a good job. A moment like this creates a rupture in the relationship. Over time, a rupture without repair is going to erode at the parent-child relationship.
As a parent coach, my goal is to help parents move from a place of reactivity, judgement, and fear, which breaks down relationships, into a place of curiosity, compassion, and ultimately connection.
Let’s take a moment to explore what it means to be curious and how a curious mindset can help cultivate connection with your child. Our automatic response when we have a strong or uncomfortable thought, feeling, sensation, or moment is to move into judgement, storytelling or making assumptions, controlling, or blaming. Reacting this way can create unnecessary pain and discomfort. Let’s go back to the situation where the child cheated. The parent began to assume that because their child was cheating, they will never get a good job or school opportunity. Perhaps that may happen; however, it also may not. In the process of assuming it will happen, more anxiety and fear come up, which triggers a response that hurts the relationship.
A curious mindset requires us to approach situations, people, and ourselves with genuine wonder and openness. When we’re curious, we seek to understand, and we do that by asking questions and reflecting on what we heard to be sure we’re really understanding the other person’s words and experience. We put aside our ego, judgement, storytelling, and the desire to be right. Instead, we are humble, vulnerable, accepting (which doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing), and present. Curiosity isn’t easy because it requires us to sit in uncomfortable moments and conversations. It might mean listening to our child as they tell us how our actions have hurt them. Instead of shutting the conversation down out of discomfort, parents can say something like, “I must have really hurt you when I said that. Can you tell me more?”
Many of us grew up being told that children should just respect and listen to their parents, so cultivating curiosity might mean a generational mindset shift. It may be challenging and not always intuitive. It can also take time, energy, intentionality, and sustained effort. We are ultimately changing the pathways in our brains in this practice, so be gentle on yourselves. When we are curious, we build, repair, and strengthen relationships. Typically, when children don’t feel heard or valued, they will act out. When we respond with curiosity rather than reactivity, children and others feel valued, important, and listened to, which are crucial needs for all of us.
We can use curiosity to better understand our own thoughts, feelings, triggers, worries, fears, insecurities, strengths, joy, values, and so on. It’s especially important to be curious about the stuff we don’t want to look at about ourselves. Exploring those sides of ourselves is the ticket to better awareness and self-control. Big reactions likely mean your child is pushing a button that is connected to an old wound, insecurity, fear, or a trauma of your own.
Let’s practice some curiosity in our cheating situation. The moment the parent had some strong feelings, it would be wise for them to nonjudgmentally explore what was coming up for them in the moment. A useful tool for self-discovery is the “I feel” statement. The “I feel” statement can help uncover our feelings, thoughts (which are connected to values, expectations, assumptions, etc.) and help us make a thoughtful action. Next, the parents can calmly sit down with the child and say, “Tell me about your homework. I got a call that said you cheated on it. I’m not sure what happened. Can you tell me your perspective of what happened?” Sit, be present, listen, ask questions, reflect, and repeat. Sometimes children will respond quickly to a curious approach, while others might feel skeptical of it. Stay with it despite pushback. Sometimes, difficult conversations do lead to boundaries or consequences, and parents can even incorporate curiosity into that by asking, “What do you think we should do about this situation?”
The beauty of curiosity is that you can practice this mindset even without your child being present. While your child is in wilderness, you can reflect on yourself and your relationship with them. You can also practice curiosity in your daily relationships. Ask your partner, other children, or others for feedback. If you are stuck and not sure what you can be curious about, just ask your child’s therapist or parents coach for guidance.
Curiosity is the key to increasing awareness and building connection. It fosters a sense of closeness and respect. It conveys interest and a genuine desire to understand. It allows your child to feel seen and heard. It gives your child valuable time to consider options, problem solve, and develop their own self-awareness and critical thinking skills. If we are always rushing to tell them how to think, feel, and solve problems, they will not learn how to do that on their own. Eventually, that will also backfire because children are looking for the autonomy to solve their own problems at this stage. Being curious sends a strong message that you believe in your child’s ability and your relationship with them.