May 10, 2021

Ep. 39 – Michelle Mitchell – The Grumpy Teen Toolkit

  • The brain biology behind the behaviors and beliefs of tweens and teens.
  • Four characteristics of high-quality conversations between parents and teens.
  • Seven practical and easy-to-use ‘tools’ for connecting with our kids - when they don’t seem to want connection

In this episode, adolescent specialist Michelle Mitchell explains why maintaining a solid connection with teens is essential but not easy, especially when they’re grumpy! Through her books and speaking, Michelle Mitchell offers compassion, knowledge, and practical tools for keeping connections and conversations positive and strong between tweens and teens, and the adults who love them. Michelle is an award-winning author and speaker and her resources are used by psychologists, social workers, and parents around the world.

Episode Guest

Ep. 39 - Michelle Mitchell - The Grumpy Teen Toolkit

Michelle Mitchell

Michelle Mitchell is an educator, best selling author and award winning speaker. She provides resources to psychiatrists, social workers and psychologists for helping teens, and the adults who love them, within the complexities of family life and the ongoing journey of growth and development.

Michelle compassionately cares for kids who are not coping in school or just navigating day to day challenges of adolescent life and is well known and appreciated for her ability in finding successful outcomes for struggling teens. Michelle is a mother to 2 teenage boys and she and her family live in Brisbane, Australia.

Additional Resources:

Ep. 39 - Michelle Mitchell - Parenting Teenage Girls

Our girls have been born in a unique time in history...

They have been given experiences and opportunities which former generations could have only dreamt about, but they are also facing challenges which have not confronted any other generation in the same way. Entitlement. Irregular emotions. Obsession with social media. Disrespect. Premature discovery of sex. These are just a few of the issues that parents raising this generation of girls are dealing with.

In this book, teenage expert and author Michelle Mitchell draws upon decades of experience to reveal her top parenting strategies in response to the biggest issues impacting today's teenage girls. These strategies have been developed on the frontline of Michelle's extensive work with families and schools across Australia. Featuring straight forward and honest advice that really works, this book is a fresh and empowering resource for parents of teens and pre-teens.



Transcript: Ep. 39 – Michelle Mitchell – The Grumpy Teen Toolkit

Rachel Cram – Well, Michelle thank you so much for visiting with us today for this conversation. We had a little bit of a kerfuffle getting here because of time changes and some confusion. But you’ve been so patient and I’m so appreciative of this conversation.

Michelle Mitchell – I’m so excited to be here. This is like my all time favorite podcast. I listen to it all the time. I recommend it to families. So it’s such a pleasure to be with you, Rachel.

Rachel Cram – Oh, thank you so much. And thank you for recommending us to your clients, to your families, that means a lot. You’re actually our third Australian conversation in this last year. We’ve kind of caught the Australian current and your work is a important part of that flow. I love what you’re going to bring to the table. Our other two conversations were with Maggie Dent and Alison Davies? Do you know either of those women?

Michelle Mitchell – I do. And Maggie Dent’s like is she just she’s amazing. And Alison, she’s got such a lot of swagger and spunk, and I love her as well.
So we have so many amazing professionals in Australia. It’s a great place to be.

Rachel Cram – Well, you really do. I almost hesitate to ask you that question because I know when I travel abroad, people will say, “Oh, Rachel, you’re from Canada. You must know so and so.”and you’re like, “Oh, it’s a big country.”

Michelle Mitchell – Yeah, yeah.

Rachel Cram – But those other women and pretty prominent, as are you. So,

Michelle Mitchell – And we don’t just have great kangaroos. We actually have great professionals as well. So,

Rachel Cram – Well, I’d love to come to your country one day, but in the meantime, it is so wonderful to speak with you and you have so much information. I don’t even know how we’re going to start to cover it today.
But we’ll find a way.

Michelle Mitchell – I can’t wait.

Rachel Cram – OK. So before I start conversations, I’d like to start with a question just to give a little bit more background to who you are so that our listeners can relate and get to know you better. And this is the question; Michelle, I’m wondering, is there a story or experience from your childhood that has shaped the woman that you are today?

Michelle Mitchell – Hmm. I had such an unusual childhood. My father was a pastor or a minister, but our home was like an extension of the church. So it was not unusual for people to drop over at our house at 10 o’clock at night needing counseling or for me to wake up in the morning and arrive at the breakfast table and have random people sitting there.

We had people for dinner almost every night, and sometimes it was business people and politicians, and other times it was people who were recovering drug addicts or women who were working the prostitution industry. And there’s so many people whose stories I really remember. There was a man that used to come every Sunday for lunch and he had Parkinson’s disease. And I think my father eventually did the funeral. So we had like a couple who had twin boys. And I remember their boy was two, but the other twin had died. So for me as a little person, my life was like a big reality television show.

I would be put to bed at like seven thirty and I would sneak up and I would sit behind the banister and I would listen to heartache and hurt and I would listen to wise counsel and hope. And I would, in my childish mind, pretend what I would say, you know, like what my answer would be. And I really learned that you don’t need a degree to be an important person in people’s lives. In fact, all you need is an open heart. And my parents really did believe that love was the answer for everything and that community was there to support people.

Rachel Cram – Hmm. What a rich childhood. You know, when you hear of families of faith, which yours obviously was, you so hope that they would be people like you’re describing. That’s amazing.

Michelle Mitchell – Yeah. It was full on. But my parents were incredibly genuine. And I think I learned a huge amount. You know, as a child, I never remember anyone sitting down and telling me what a drug addict was. But I just knew. And there was this, I guess, intuition that developed in my life that I’m really grateful for.

Rachel Cram – Well, as you’re describing that, that makes a little bit of a pathway, I think, that would describe your career because you started off as a schoolteacher, I believe and then you moved into working with troubled teens.

Michelle Mitchell – What I really cared about is how young people viewed themselves. And I realized that how they viewed themselves had a big impact on education. And so at 24, wanting to change the world and make a difference, I started a charity and I started running small great programs in high schools for girls who are at risk of dropping out of education. And I learned so much on the job.

Rachel Cram – Well I know you as an incredible resource for working with teens, ones that are experiencing trouble, but then also ones that are just going through the regular complications of growing up. You have some beautiful books and we’ll certainly put links to those on our website. Today the conversation I’d love to lean into you with is how to have conversations with teens, because I know for myself as a parent, our children, when they’re young, they’re filled with this wonder, this animated chatter, this adoring desire to want to talk with us, sometimes more than we want to talk, and then as they age, often that starts to ebb away into this inconsistent trickle of conversation and suddenly we want more. And those are such important years for conversations. And you are an expert on this.

Michelle Mitchell – I love it. I love young people. I love teenagers. But I also love giving parents insights to help them just stay connected at a time when connection is everything and so oftentimes we forget that we have such little control over our kids, but what we have is a lot of influence. So when we lean into that connection, it’s really powerful. And I think the first thing we’ve got to do is get our expectations right from the beginning. We see our kids like a bank account. We’ve invested, we’ve invested and we’ve invested. I mean, we’ve taken them to ballet lessons and we’ve provided a good school and we’ve taught them their manners. And then those teenage years come and we’re expecting to see a return on the investment. But all of a sudden, they look like a volatile month on the stock market. And we start to wonder what went wrong and nothing went wrong. It’s just their brains are needing to go through a really important change. And it’s critical that this development happens.

Musical Interlude #1 8:06

Rachel Cram – Would you be able to describe what happens in a brain? Maybe starting off with when a child is in their preschool ish type of years, then moving into that tween years. Tween? When you’re saying tween, that’s kind of meaning like 10, 11, 12, is that right?

Michelle Mitchell – Yeah, that’s right.

Rachel Cram – OK, and then moving on to a teenager brain, because I think that gives a sympathy to it, when we understand there’s a biology behind the behaviors.

Michelle Mitchell – Yeah, it does. And because we know so much more about the development of the brain, it allows us to have more compassion and empathy.

Rachel Cram – Yeah. And that understanding really has just come in the last few decades, hasn’t it.

Michelle Mitchell – It’s very new. And whereas we used to see children as a product of us or something that we could mold or shape and we thought that behaviors came from their conditioning, we now realize that development has got a lot to do with teenage behavior. And that’s an insight that’s powerful and really changing the way that we parent kids.

Rachel Cram – Yeah, we’ve just got to give them that time to grow up.

Michelle Mitchell – We do. Can I take you inside a grade seven or eight or nine classroom with me?

Rachel Cram – I would love that.

Michelle Mitchell – Because they’re often just as scared about the whole process as parents are and I think they deserve an explanation and they deserve to really understand what’s going on.

So when they’re younger, let’s say those eight and up years, their brain wants to grow widely. It wants to grow diversely. But there comes this moment when they hit puberty where the brain changes its priorities and it actually wants to remodel. And I call it the big tidy up. So when I’m talking to young people I talk to them about a wardrobe.

I want them to think of their brain like a wardrobe that hasn’t been tidied up for twelve years and it is stuffed full with clothes and those clothes represent the neurons in their brain. And at that moment where they hit puberty, that prefrontal cortex takes responsibility or begins to tidy up that brain and it begins to throw away the neurons that it no longer needs. It organizes the ones that need to be used all the time and puts them right up the front so we know how to find them. And there’s this restructuring that happens. And essentially the neurons that are not being used actually get withered away. And the ones that need to be used all the time get strengthened or there’s a priority on them.

Rachel Cram – Can I ask how does the brain decide what it’s going to keep and what it’s going to throw away?

Michelle Mitchell – It’s a use it or lose it principle. And I like to really reassure young people that your brain’s not going to chuck out or get rid of things that are important.

Rachel Cram – Like your favorite sweatshirt or something.

Michelle Mitchell – Or the ability to breath, young people can be so literal.
What is going to be pruned in my brain?

Rachel Cram – Well, understandably,

Michelle Mitchell – Yes. So I want them to know. It really is just clutter. It’s stuff that’s too small for them or got holes in it or worn out and not able to be used anymore. Things that aren’t important. But really, what they do during those teenage years makes a really big difference to the adult they become because that’s the pathways that get strengthened.

Rachel Cram – Well, as a parent, I think listening to this, you could think, “Well, what if they haven’t used perhaps something like responsibility enough to keep it or if they haven’t used gratitude, or integrity, like being true to themselves. You know, I think a parent can wonder. I think a parent can want to get in there and help clean up.

Mitchelle Mitchell – That is so perfect, Rachel. And I do talk to young people about the importance of partnering with adults during these years because you can borrow their prefrontal cortex, when you know yours is a little bit lacking.

And I talk to parents about being that gap filler. Our kids are like one big, undeveloped, wonderful package of magic and strength. But in that undeveloped-ness, sometimes can come the challenges. And when parents realize that there’s no one that’s going to be able to compassionately walk into that gap like they will, then that just becomes a really precious and sacred place in our kids lives.

Rachel Cram – I love that. I think as parents, two of the stumbling blocks can be; one, that often they look like an adult, so we can forget that there’s not an adult brain in there. And two, I think sometimes reflecting back on our own teen years, remembering the tumult that we experience, but also the intimidation that we often experienced from other teenagers and maybe even still feel. That it can feel a little bit intimidating stepping in, especially when they roll their eyes or they don’t talk or they grunt. It can be hard to move past that barrier.

Michelle Mitchell – And I talk to parents that teenagers have a cover and they have an inside story and their cover is that ‘cool’ them? It’s the person that they want people to think that they are. And so oftentimes, I think parents get quite distracted by their cover. They get concerned about the blue hair or the change in clothes or the ear piercing or the cheeky mouth and it’s all part of the facade or the ego that actually comes with young people trying on identities and growing up. But inside of there is an inside story, there is such a big difference between what we see on the outside and what’s really going on. And often kids feel quite guilty and even ashamed for the measure that they feel like they need to push back to find their own identity.

And we’ve got to realize that we do need to step back, stop asking questions all the time. Kids don’t like being interrogated and just give them room to breathe and trust that every step that they take is taking them one step closer towards their adult self.

Rachel Cram – Michelle, I recently read an article you wrote and in it you said this, you say “Communication between parents and teenagers doesn’t always come naturally. Maintaining a solid connection with teens is something that most parents have to work hard at.” I’m wondering, can you give some tips? I think most of us want to work hard at this. Where do we start?

Michelle Mitchell – So there’s so many things we can use when we’re actually talking to young people to help connect. But I think one thing we have to be really mindful of is, a good Friday night often looks like doing the washing to us, but a good Friday night to them,

Rachel Cram – Not so much.

Michelle Mitchell – It’s a fancy dinner and some games and, you know, spotlit around the house. And it takes energy.

Rachel Cram – Spotlight around the house. What’s that? Is that an Australian thing?

Michelle Mitchell – Yeah, I have two boys. We turn all the lights out and we get the nerf guns and run around the house and shoot each other. And apparently that’s fun. Rachel.

Rachel Cram – You are such a cool mom.

Michelle Mitchell – See, the thing is, is that we get boring. Would you agree?

Rachel Cram – OK, well, can you blast off a few other cool parent ideas then to do a teen’s? Nerf gun fights in the dark around the house. What are a few others?

Michelle Mitchell – They don’t respond to small gestures. So it has to be big gestures. So if you’re going to go for a walk, it has to be barefoot, in the dark, in the bush. You know what I mean? Up the ante on everything that you do.

Rachel Cram – OK, a few others. That was good.

Michelle Mitchell – An element of risk in everything you do is fantastic. And so let me think about it. So, instead of going at it seven o’clock at night, young people probably love going out a little bit later where it just feels a little bit different. And having surprise adventures. So you don’t know where you’re going. You just get in the car and you just randomly choose as you go. Structured. Ordered. It comes across too boring.

Rachel Cram – Oh ok. I saw this coming. Oh, goodness. All right. These are great ideas.

Michelle Mitchell- But I will say there’s something precious about the predictable as well for young people, those routines and connection points where they know that we’re going to be in the car with them every Saturday, going to football. Or they know that we’re accessible every night before they go to bed for the last hour.

I had one parent tell me once that his son was really struggling and had completely shut down. And what he did is he started taking his son to chop wood every Saturday morning. And instead of focusing on the conversation, he focused on the activity and the connection. And I think this is a key point, because parents are always saying to me, “They’re not talking to me, they’re not talking to me,” like talking the answer to everything. But the reality is that if we are close enough for long enough when they need to talk, they will. And we need to prove ourselves dependable.

Rachel Cram – Prove ourselves dependable. Dependable for what?

Michelle Mitchell – That we’re going to show up wholeheartedly and openly, regardless of where our teenagers are at emotionally. So that Saturday woodchopping experience is going to happen regardless of how challenging that child’s behavior was that week. And isn’t that a powerful message to bring to kid’s lives? And sometimes the drive in the car might be silence, and sometimes the drive in the car might be full of powerful, meaningful conversation and sometimes it might be somewhere in between. But regardless, we’re actually telling our kids that I’m okay. I’m okay with where you’re at and I’m okay with wherever our relationship is at. I’m showing up regardless.

Musical Interlude #2 18:30

Rachel Cram – You started this conversation saying that it requires effort on the part of parents and teens to stay connected, forgoing our exciting Friday night laundry plans and all. And I get a sense that that’s what you’re describing with these, what you call them, spotlight activities or fun activities or being in the car. It’s something that brings you together but gives you space for a conversation. Is that kind of what you’re saying?

Michelle Mitchell – Yeah, and it takes time. And the first 20 minutes you’re with a young person, all you’re seeing is their cover. And so that can be really off-putting and it can actually make parents lose their confidence. But we have to remember, we do our worst parenting when we’re not feeling confident. And being able to hang on to that confidence and really ground ourselves in the fact that we’re an important person in this child’s life and not buy into the cover, is really important.

Rachel Cram – Michelle, is there anything else you want to say right now about that connecting part, or do you feel like we want to move on?

Michelle Mitchell – I think that’s good.

Rachel Cram – Well, you talk about wanting to have high quality conversations with our teens and with all of our kids. And I don’t think we expect them to be constant, but we want them to be once in a while so we can feel that connection. And you have some really important considerations to get us to those kinds of conversations. And I’m wondering if you can share them. I can think of four in particular, and I’ll lead you to them because I want to hear all of them.

Michelle Mitchell – OK. Um, We’ve all had poor quality conversations with our kids and they’ve either been driven by fear or started late at night. And they’ve normally ended up in frustration and tears. And at the end of it, neither of us feel connected. Neither of us feel closer for the conversation.

It’s got to be a high quality conversation. And you can have a high quality conversation about a burger or you can have a high quality conversation about a friendship drama. But if you’ve had high quality conversations around low risk things, then you’re more likely to be able to move into that space when the stakes are a little bit higher.

Rachel Cram – So the burger would be the example of the low stake conversation, perhaps.

Michelle Mitchell – Absolutely. And it’s during those times where we’re practicing with our kids, you know, how do we talk about the burger when they’re moody or sulky or didn’t want the burger? And the stakes are pretty low, really. It’s a burger.

But then there might be some conversations that come up during those teenage years and we don’t know what challenges they’re going to face. But there might be some really significant friendship issues or bullying or they might have gotten asked to send a nude. Then we’re talking about areas that..

Rachel Cram – What was the thing that you just last said? They might have been able to, what?

Michelle Mitchell – Send a nude or be asked to send a naked photo of themselves? Like sexting?

Rachel Cram – They might be asked to do that.

Michelle Mitchell – Yeah, absolutely.

Rachel Cram – Ok, I’m just interested that that’s top on your list, right up there with those other challenges. Ok.

Michelle Mitchell – Isn’t that interesting. But I guess I’ve worked a lot with teenage girls and during that course of time I always say to parents, if you’ve got a teenage girl, then you need to assume that in the course of her high school years. She’s going to have to learn to say that word no. And she’s going to have to learn to put some protective things in place. And if she learns to say no in the same way she says no to you when you ask her to clean her bedroom, she’s going to be just fine. But it’s helping her channel that sass which is really important.

Rachel Cram – OK, that was surprising to me, though, that that came up so high on the list. What about for boys? Are there any of those surprising things that parents might not realize that they’re experiencing pressure under that that you might see is common with all your experience?

Michelle Mitchell – Yeah, I’m scooping gender right off the table these days because I think the things that our boys are experiencing are very similar to what our girls are experiencing and probably delving into the realms of mental health and self-harm. There’s a lot more open discussion around those things. And so, yeah, we need to see these things not in light of gender, but really in light of how they impact whatever child that we have the privilege of raising.

Rachel Cram – OK, You were going into high quality conversations on these high stake items and I was surprised by how high the stakes were. So I will bring you back to that. And I know your first point and I’m just going to keep driving this agenda because I think your points are so good. You say high quality conversations have joy. What do you mean by that?

Michelle Mitchell – OK, so think of this 80/20 rule. Even if we have to talk about something really intense with our kids, if 100 percent of the conversation is intense and there’s no pause for a smile or a joke or a story or icebreaking discussion, we’re not following that 80-20 rule. So we really need to be 80 percent, okay, 70 or 60 percent in some cases, we need it to be positive because our kids don’t want to come back to things that are completely intense all the time. So it’s being very deliberate and very strategic about how we do that.

Rachel Cram – Well, if you’re talking about something like your child been asked to send a photograph of themselves nude. So you’re saying that you can find what you say about 60 to 80 percent positive with that? Can you give a little example of where, I am right now struggling to think where would I find the levity?

Michelle Mitchell – No, no, no. Let me take you into the journey of it. Some kids that I have worked with have said to me, “I can’t tell my parents they’re going to kill me.”

And I look at them with a smile and I say, “They might kill you, but after they kill you, they’re going to love you a lot.”

Because that’s what great parents do. Now, we don’t want to do anything that constitutes our kids perceiving that we would kill them, but the reality is, a lot of parents would have an emotional reaction to that and their kids would then get that sense of, you know, shame and fear going on. I want to be mindful of that, OK? And I’ve seen parents handle these types of scenarios amazingly.

So when we’re talking about an 80/20 rule or let’s even say 60/40, 70/30, when it comes to talking to a child about being asked to send a nude or something to do with sexting, we might need to have a conversation that’s quite to the point and serious and intense. But when you look at it over the course of that twenty four hours that you’re with your child, we need to recognize that it’s really important to pad that with a lot of connection and a lot of hope and a lot of love and even a little bit of fun. And to be able to do that as parents, we need to step back and realize that, you know, kids make mistakes and that during those times we want to lean in with the type of compassion that says “I’m okay with you.” So maybe we might hit and run praise. That’s what I call it.

Rachel Cram – Hit and run. Hit and run praise did you say?

Michelle Mitchell – That’s it? So we might have had to address something that’s really serious with our kids. Right. Like sexting. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t notice other positive, wonderful, amazing things about who they are during the day. It doesn’t mean you can’t walk past them three or four times and say, “Gosh, I love you.” Or, “You are growing into an amazing young man.” or “Look, thanks for being so open about that conversation.” Or, “You know what? There’s nothing we can’t get through together.”

And so we’re recognizing, 80/20, you don’t go back to a restaurant with lousy food. If it’s a lousy connection and communication and conversation, teenagers are not going to want to come back to it in an open hearted way.

Rachel Cram – That totally makes sense to me. Yeah, you’re right. We don’t go back to lousy restaurants. Can I just jettison that shame comment back into here as well? I know we’re staying on sexting and obviously people can extrapolate this into whatever their situation is. What in a parents mind would you want to avoid in an intense conversation like that? When you’re wanting a high quality conversation, you’re realizing there has to be joy in it for your child to want to stay there and come back to your restaurant. What do you want to be aware of with that shame filter? Are there things to avoid?

Michelle Mitchell – OK, so there, actually, Rachel, can I do something?

Rachel Cram – Yes, you can.

Michelle Mitchell – I’ve got a… hang on.

Rachel Cram – Yeah.

Michelle Mitchell – All right. I have the most wonderful list in this book.
OK, here we go. Now remember when young people’s limbic system is in charge, they don’t have the help of their prefrontal cortex to interpret our body language sometimes. So they’ll often really misinterpret cues.

Rachel Cram – You mean our body language as the parents?

Michelle Mitchell – That’s right. So they can think, “She’s really angry with me.” This is really common with teenagers. Or, “My mom’s just like, she’s just so, so mad at me.”

Where the mom’s like, “Look, I’m upset, but I’m not so, so mad at her.”

And so when it comes to teenagers, you need to really clearly reinforce exactly how you’re feeling and exactly how you’re showing up and not assume that they can actually interpret that correctly because where their brain’s at they don’t have the capacity to.

So young people can be in their rooms all night brooding and feeling like their parents are rejecting them and don’t love them anymore. And it can be so far from what their parents are trying to communicate to them. And so reinforcing the connection and the positives and the I love you is so important because our kid’s minds during those teenage years will naturally very intensely gravitate to their most negative thoughts.

Rachel Cram – Wow, that would make it very difficult for them.

Michelle Mitchell – Yeah, it does, and back to your question, Rachel. There’s some really specific things that we can say as parents that would probably trigger a conversation the wrong way. And I’d love to give you some examples of that.


You know, “There must be something wrong with you to do this. Why are you doing this? I think that you’re doing this to get attention. If you don’t stop, I’m going to have to punish you. You’ll end up in hospital or worse.”

I’ve heard parents threaten their kids with that one when they’re possibly self harming or taking drugs. And it doesn’t help the situation. It’s not bringing light and hope to it. “Tell me where you’re hiding those things that you don’t want me to see. How long has this been going on and why haven’t you told me? I bet all your friends are doing this and that’s why you’ve started it.”
And all those things come with that element of blame and shame. And they’re going to shut kids down really, really quickly.

Musical Interlude #3 29:37

Thank you for listening to family360 and our conversation with adolescent specialist, author and educator Michelle

In our next episode we’re with Dr. Deborah MacNamara, talking about why kids fight and how we intervene, which we thought might be a helpful topic for many of us as families as we head into year 2 of COVID restrictions and isolation. Join us!

And now back to our conversation with Michelle as she continues to describe ‘characteristics of a high quality conversation’.

Rachel Cram – I can see how we can trick ourselves as parents into saying those statements. I’m even thinking the last one you said about all your friends doing it, I think you can think to yourself while I’m putting the blame on your friends then. I’m saying that I think that you have been influenced. This isn’t about you. But you’re saying all those things qualify as shame.

Michelle Mitchell – Mm hmm. And sometimes our kids behavior is actually a bit of a cry for us to be curious about them as well. Do you know that picking a fight with someone is the quickest way to get their attention, like really going in with both both both barrels. It’s the quickest way to get someone’s attention. And sometimes our kids are really looking for us to stop. and they’re looking to see if we will be curious enough to really understand what’s going on in their hearts and in their lives.

Rachel Cram – An amazing, amazing discussion that I really appreciate that. High quality conversations have joy. And you’re saying it’s up to us as the adults to bring that joy so our kids will want to return to our restaurant. Your next point, you say high quality conversations have calm.

Michelle Mitchell – Yeah. When their chaos meets our calm, something powerful happens. There’s a New Zealand psychologist, Nigel Latta, who used to say, “Be the rock and your kids are going to be the sea.” And so it’s this kind of concept that if we stay firm and dependable and reliable, they’re going to flow in and out in life and they’re going to know that we’re there. Calm helps our kids plug in internally and when they plug in internally, they are often able to draw out of themselves that next best step.

Now, teenagers are maybe not so great at finding the next best step for a year time or five years time or 10 years time. But we have to trust that inside of them is their next best step, if they can be calm enough to fine tune their ears to their inner voice. So oftentimes as parents we want to tune their ears to our voice because we want to be the moral compass and we want to be the director and we want to keep them safe. But we need to sometimes stop talking so they can tune their ears to their inner voice. And when they plug in internally, it actually helps them externally as well. The very first step though, is getting calm.

Rachel Cram – What if you don’t feel like you have the capacity to be a rock. What if you’re not feeling very calm at that moment.

Michelle Mitchell – Yeah, you do need to ground yourself. The things that we’re saying to ourselves internally are either going to trigger more anxiety in us or help us really lean into the flow and the groove of adolescence. And I often used to say to myself, say my child was being a little cheeky, a little disrespectful, I used to say to myself, “I can hear his man’s voice. It’s a little undeveloped. It’s going to need a little work. And it’s that man’s voice that he’s trying to assert right now that I am going to champion as his mom.”
And I found that bringing that respect to the table for him as a person really helped me move into a space where I could compassionately teach him rather than shame him for feeling this need to be independent and assertive and sometimes aggressive and kick the other way.

The other thing I found that I really needed to do is channel my nervous bystander energy.

Rachel Cram – Oh, what do you mean by that?

Michelle Mitchell – When you watch your kids play sport and they go to kick a try or they go to shoot a goal, inside of the pit of our stomachs we get nervous because we want the best for them and we want them to do well. And we may even feel like shouting out our recommendations from the sideline.

Rachel Cram – Which parents sometimes do.

Michelle Mitchell – They so do.

Rachel Cram – Not advised by coaches. Coaches do not like that. Anyways, keep going.

Michelle Mitchell – Because they can’t contain themselves and when I get that nervous bystander energy, the first thing I need to work on doing is containing that and realizing that if my fear trumps their fear, I’m actually going to trip them up in life.

So one thing I’ve learned to do with that nervous bystander energy is deliberately take a step back and then ask questions like, “What can I do to support you?”
You know, there’s been times when my kids have said,”Just stop talking so much Mom.”

Rachel Cram – Fair enough

Michelle Mitchell – My grade 12 was on exams and he’s like, “Mom, just stop talking so much. And could you help me make my lunch for the mornings for the next four days?” And it gave me a place to channel myself because I want to be helpful and I don’t want to shut down that enthusiasm to support them. But I have to be careful where I place it.

Rachel Cram – Well, and if you ask that question, then I guess you need to be open to whatever the answer is.

Michelle Mitchell – And I tell you what, it’s amazing what they say they need. And it can be very different than what we think they need because they’re shifting and they’re changing and they don’t need us to hold their hand as they cross the road anymore. In fact, they want to be different than us.

Rachel Cram – Well, and then I think it’s also trusting them and believing that the answer that they give is what’s right for them, because it can be so different than what we think is right for them.

Michelle Mitchell – And again, it’s the right next best step, because from that step they learn and they grow and then they make another step and then they learn and they grow and they make another step. And even the steps or the decisions that we go, “Oh, no. That didn’t get them from A to B quickly enough,” we need to realize that this journey is theirs and that those little detours and those little steps are actually really powerful.

Rachel Cram – I love what you were saying about it might take a year or five years or ten years. I think that when we think of our toddlers, for example, we can be very frustrated when they won’t toilet train. But deep down, we know they are going to eventually toilet train. They’re not going to be still wetting themselves when they’re 10, 15. And it’s harder to remember that when they’re a teen, again because we’re looking at what looks like an adult body and we can think this is the finished product. Like this might be the end of the road,

Michelle Mitchell – That’s right and it’s not.

Rachel Cram – And it’s not. And I think that is such a deterrent to calm because you start to panic and that’s what makes you say the things like the shaming examples that you gave because you’re worried that they’re going to stay there.

Michelle Mitchell – And we catastrophize and we start thinking that if this is what they’re like at 14, what are they going to be like when they’re 20? And we think that this is going to build rather than they’re going to walk through it. I cheekily say to parents sometimes, “Look, they’re very unlikely to be giving you the finger when they’re 30, but they might be asking you for help to borrow money for a new house.”

So the challenges will change but it’s very unlikely they’re going to stay in that same place of development.

Rachel Cram – OK, so high quality conversations have joy, high quality conversations have calm. Then you say high quality conversations have magic.

Ok, before you answer that, did you say everything you wanted about calm?

Michelle Mitchell – Yeah, I did. About calm. Like the only thing I can say is, a moment of stillness, a gentle hug, a very deliberate nod, a moment in just peaceful acknowledgment or a reassuring voice can all be calm. And I used to notice that my kids would go down and actually sit and watch television with my husband at ten thirty at night when they were going through a difficult time at school. And they would just sit next to him in close physical proximity and they would just sit and no words were exchanged. They were just borrowing his calm because emotions are contagious. Now, the beautiful thing about that is my husband, normally after ten o’clock, we call it cave time. He has a special time on his own where he just decompresses and just zones out. And my sons felt comfortable enough to intrude on that time because they needed to borrow his calm.

Rachel Cram – Well, that gives us all the more reason to sit and watch television at night.

Michelle Mitchell – Just stay still for a bit. It does help our kids. When we stop, they feel like they can access us.

Rachel Cram – Yeah, stay still for a bit. That’s not always easy. Great reminder. So is there anything else you wanted to say about calm?

Michelle Mitchell – No, I think that’s perfect.

Rachel Cram – OK, well, then your next point is high quality conversations have magic. What do you mean by that?

Michelle Mitchell – In the chaos of family life, we’re often forced to have conversations during times where we’re at our lowest or we’re not our best selves as parents. So we’re rushed and we’re pressured. And I wonder if there’s a way to really capture our enthusiasm and our love for our kids at a moment we’re in our best self. And for me, that’s late at night and sometimes late at night I’d write a little note and stick it on my kid’s bed or I’d just randomly pop into their room with a hot chocolate. But at those moments where we feel like we’re inspired to really bring that love and connection around our kids’ lives, I wonder if there’s a way to capture that that’s just a bit magical that they can remember, possibly even keep. That’s when magic happens.

Rachel Cram – When you’re saying things like writing notes, I think for myself often that happens when my kids aren’t around me because it gives me just the headspace to start dreaming about them. I know something’s in the moment I can feel like I just got to get away from them. I need to get away. I need space, but it really sometimes only takes about five minutes and I’m like, “Oh, I love them so much. I miss them so much.” And that’s maybe the moment to put that magic into it.

Michelle Mitchell – That’s so beautiful Rachel. That’s exactly what happens.
And sometimes when we have that breathing room as parents, it just recharges us. I think something we could bring up, too, is this importance of ‘in-charge-energy’ when our kids are teenagers. It takes a lot of energy to parent kids well and sometimes when we have to say no, it actually takes a lot of energy to follow through. And we want to say yes as often as possible.

Rachel Cram – Yes we do.

Michelle Mitchell – Yeah, but when we really have to say no, we need to make sure that we have the in-charge-energy available to us so we can kick that over the line. And we know when that in-charge-energy is getting a bit low when we have less tolerance for the emotional journey of teenagers. We start to be quite unrealistic with our expectations. And we’ve got the bar too high and we’re expecting them to act like adults when they’re actually a chaotic mess. Or we just lack that presence that says, “I want the dishwasher unpacked and I need it done now. And the only answer I’m going to accept is, Yes Mom.”

Rachel Cram – You use the phrase, we lack that presence.

Michelle Mitchell – We do.

Rachel Cram – What does a helpful presence look like?

Michelle Mitchell – I used to teach in alternative learning schools for young people who were disengaged from school and had been expelled or withdrawn from school for often behavior challenges. And when I would walk into those classrooms, if I did not have in-charge-energy, they would mow me down. And by in-charge-energy, I mean a presence around me that said, “This is the direction that we’re going as a class today. And the only answer,” you know, and have one beautiful boy in front of me who possibly was smoking pot the night before. And I’d say, “Jake, the only answer I want today is what?”

And he’d say, “Yes, miss.”

“So I want you to pick up that pencil. You’re hearing me Jake?”

“Yes, miss.”

You know, and it was a little bit of a game, but I also wanted them to realize that, ‘Hey, I’m the captain of the ship.’

Rachel Cram – Well, and I see you tying in the joy that you talked about before with that, you know, kind of tongue in cheek. You’re bringing an energy with you and a calm and I’m sure those tie into that presence as well.

Michelle Mitchell – That’s exactly right. It’s the attitude and the intent that we approach these things that young people pick up on. They pick up on our heart more than anything else. They know when we’re well intended.

Musical Interlude #4 42:54

Rachel Cram – I love the information you’re giving us on the characteristics of a high quality conversation and I just see them as so valuable but there’s times when it just seems so difficult to get there because our teens, for the lack of a better word, they can be so grumpy.

Michelle Mitchell – They can.

Rachel Cram – Do you know what I mean?

Mitchelle Mitchell – Yeah, I do. And grumpiness, it’s not overly harmful, it’s just really difficult to live with.

Rachel Cram – It is. So I’m wondering now, how do we set a groundwork so that we have access to those high quality conversations? I know that they’re not going to happen necessarily every day, but how do we, how do we prime our environment so that there is a way forth into those kinds of conversations; even to build our child’s trust to want to have them with us?

Michelle Mitchell – I think when kids know that we’re recognizing when they’re heading into territory where they feel overly emotional and very intense, and we can step in and be that really big person that helps diffuse things, they know we’re doing it on purpose and they know that we’re doing it because we really love them. And we’re actually helping them bring that prefrontal cortex back on the job. Were actually helping that integration happen.

So when we can see mood’s getting out of control in our house, why not have a range of strategies, say six or seven, that are tools in your toolbox that you can call on just to help break the storm before it builds?

Rachel Cram – OK, I love that idea. Can you maybe just quickly blast off five or six tools to have in that toolbox?

Michelle Mitchell – Let’s do it. Let’s blast off some ideas. So the first one is hitting and running praise like a magpie. So swoop in, hit them and get out of there. Don’t wait for the eye rolls. Don’t wait for them to say, “I love you” back, swoop in, hit it, and move on as quickly as you can. And try and do that regularly through the day because it can help balance out some of that really intense internal dialog that they’re actually battling with.

Rachel Cram – Ok. Number one, hit and run praise. Got it.

Michelle Mitchell – The second one is why not let them hear you bragging about them? So that means you might get onto the phone to a friend or grandma or your partner. And dramatically describe the details. What did they do? How did it make you feel? Who else noticed it? When have they done something similar? Really dig into it and make a story out of it and let them just kind of witness that you really, really saw them and saw where they were at.

The third thing is this, why not share stories about their childhood? I’ve often had parents with really grumpy kids and I said, “Look, go and get some baby photos, go and get some bits from their childhood, put them in a box and just leave them on the kitchen bench. Don’t unpack it for them. Wait until they notice it and wait until they ask questions and then move on in with the most beautiful stories that you can find. Fun stories, funny stories. I mean, who doesn’t like to hear about themselves? But that can be a beautiful way to reinforce their history.”

Rachel Cram – I’m loving these. The forth one I see in your article here is, Just Add Water. What’s that about?

Michelle Mitchell – Just add water is a funny one, isn’t it? But there’re so many creative ways that we can circuit break intense emotions by using water, making a cup of tea, running a bath, taking a shower, watering the garden, playing with the sprinkler, washing the dog, even just walking near the beach. But water has an amazing, soothing, refreshing way of interacting with us.

Let’s try this one. Try the unpredictable. Have you ever thought about saying to your kid, okay, look, I hit one hundred dollars in your room, clean it up and you’ll find it.

Rachel Cram – Have you ever done that? Have you ever left a hundred dollars in your kid’s room?

Michelle Mitchell – Yep, Yep, Yeah.

Rachel Cram – See, I’d be worried that they would be hunting just for the money and not cleaning up, so.

Michelle Mitchell – Oh, they are. But that’s that’s the whole point. Big rewards motivate teenagers, not little rewards Rachel.

Rachel Cram – OK. So this is not about the product, it’s about the process. I got it. Ok, I miss that sometimes.

Michelle Mitchell – And it’s about having a bit of a laugh and having a bit of fun with what is motivating them.

Rachel Cram – Ok, Got it, what other tools are in this grumpy teen tool kit?

Michelle Mitchell – Look, if things get intense or they get grumpy or rude, a simple ‘let’s start over’ and recognizing that their brain needs about twenty minutes to calm down. So some separation might be a good idea sometimes. And then when you reintroduce that conversation, come with a cup of hot chocolate, like make it a warm gesture.

And the last one, at moments where things are tense, I have often looked at my boys and I’ve said, “Hey, I need a hug.” And in those times they’ve looked at me and they’ve said, “Oh, mom, don’t be ridiculous.” You know, like, what’s that going to fix? And then they’ve like potted over and patted me like I’m a pet. But in those moments where I say ‘I need a hug,’ what I’m saying is the argument doesn’t matter to me, who is right or wrong, doesn’t matter. What matters right now is that you and I stay connected. And I think that can be a just a beautiful one liner that actually really does diffuse things if it’s heading in the wrong direction.

Rachel Cram – Well, and that brings us right back to what you started with, talking about the importance of connection, even though it often feels like hard work, because we’re all learning and our teens are cleaning out their brain closets and need the help of our finished brains.

Michelle Mitchell – Absolutely.

Rachel Cram – Michelle, we’re going to have to start wrapping up the conversation, which is sad because I know you have so much more that you could offer. So perhaps a second interview at some point in time would be necessary here. As I think back on the conversation that we’ve had and I know I’m about to end it with you and then go home to my family. When we’re not in the room with our kids, in theory, this can sound just so amazing, but in practice, it can be pretty exhausting.

Michelle Mitchell – Yeah, and I don’t want to minimize that. That’s true. It’s actually, we choose connection over our comfort. So that game of fortnight with our kids, or that late night walk, or that messy kitchen because you’re letting them cook in it again and it’s eight thirty and you’ve just cleaned up. You’re actually saying to yourself, “I choose you over comfort. I choose connection over comfort.”

And when we do this, our kids actually know that we’re doing it. They know that we are putting ourselves out to be in their world and their space and champion where they’re going. And that’s a powerful baseline for them to be able to launch into the world.

Rachel Cram – I love that. The choice of connection over comfort. I love that as a wrap to this conversation because it’s that gift of our time and thought that we really want to give to anyone but of course to our children.

Michelle Mitchell – Yes. My father gave me a poem when I was a teenager and I was going through a really difficult time and he was super great at connecting with me. And he walked into my bedroom. He didn’t say a word. He put the poem on my bed and he left. And that to me just sums up everything that we’ve talked about today. It’s not necessarily about what’s said. It’s not necessary about making a child talk. It’s finding those special moments of connection that say, “Hey, I’m here for you.”

Rachel Cram – What was the poem that he left for you?

Michelle Mitchell – It was, yeah. Don’t Let Anyone Steal Your Crown. I have to look it up to get the rest of it. It was beautiful. It was basically saying, “Run your own course, Michelle, and you’re going to be just fine.”

Rachel Cram – Ooh, that sounds great! We’ll look that up and maybe finish the episode with it.

Michelle Mitchell – Oh, it’s beautiful.

Rachel Cram – I want to interview your dad.

Michelle Mitchell – Oh, he’s amazing. He’s out there, Rachel. He’d be great. He’d be great.

Rachel Cram – OK, excellent. OK, I’ve got to stop talking to you or else I’ll be here with you forever. Ok, here’s my ending. Let me thank you.

Michelle, thank you so much for your conversation. You’ve had so much practical wisdom in here and wisdom that we know comes from your years of study and experience. So thank you so much for spending the time with me. I’ve really enjoyed it.

Michelle Mitchell – Rachel, what a delightful hour. And thank you for having me. And to those who are listening, I’m sending all my love to your home.

Rachel Cram – Oh, thank you, Michelle. Goodbye to Australia.

Michelle Mitchell – And the Kangaroos say goodbye. And goodbye to Canada.

Episode 25