Mindsight: Being Present with Teenagers

Every year the warm fruiting brambles of late summer draw me outside into the country lane behind the house to pick blackberries. This is something I did with my mother when I was a teenager. We would set out walking with our small buckets and find a field where the hedgerows caught the sun. Soon, we were in a rhythm of picking the ripe luscious fruits, checking, and plopping them into the bucket. She taught me to check, especially if there was mist or rain on the way, so that our berries, without worms, were ready for the pot when we got home.

This simple activity in nature holds a deep resonance of my mother’s presence in me. We often picked in companionable silence, a miracle for us at times, as our relationship had its own teenage storms. Her presence beside me, our presence together in nature, the sense of achievement when we laid out the pots of jam, all add up to a potent, visceral memory of mothering that sustains me even today. Her relaxed self, humming as she went and occasionally chatting, was a treasure. I was her oldest child, with lots of younger brothers and sisters at home, and this was our bonding time.

When I work with teenagers, I am struck by their depth and wisdom mixed with their confusion. I am aware that the way life presents itself these days sometimes makes them anxious and depressed. Their concerns for family, the environment and their helplessness in the face of world events can be a heavy burden on their young shoulders. Parents, busy with work and the other exigencies of life, want the best for their teenagers. And often, they too are confused by the depth of feeling, moodiness, the desire to be vegetarian, or other philosophical, or behavioral differences that teenagers present.

In a recent conversation with 15 year old Aine, her typical teenage anxieties ranged from worries about how she looks, fear of being judged, concerns about her struggles with friends and her performance at school. She is vegetarian for philosophical and political reasons. She spends a lot of time in her room on the phone and doing quiet activities, which her mum is not happy about. ‘I know I’m good at stuff, but I am scared too and I don’t want to burden my mum and dad with my worries’ Aine said. Her mother, juggling family and job, back to school responsibilities and an unwell elderly parent, is understandably, stressed. ‘I just want Aine to feel better’ she said, tears in her eyes. ‘But you need to feel better too, mum’ Aine retorts.

The biggest gift you give to your teenager is to take care of yourself inside and out. Science and the study of the brain shows us what works in creating good connection with our teenagers, and it is not that mysterious. There are simple ways to be together that bring down anxiety levels and allow us to find peace within and with each other. A marker of our wellbeing, is what child psychiatrist, D. W. Winnicott, describes as ‘the capacity to be alone’ comfortably, in the presence of another. We develop this capacity in our early life, when we have a chance to relax in the presence of our parent or caregiver. As our nervous system is intimately connected with that of the parent, it is important that they are also relaxed.

Stressed out, busy parents, like Aine’s mum, often bring a teenager to see me and ask me to help with the young person’s anxiety or depression. ‘This will be one less thing to worry about’ they say, with care and concern written on their faces. It is news to many of them that their child’s wish is for the parent to take care of themselves first, and relax. Children hear their parents’ ‘music’, the atmosphere around them, much louder than the words they speak. We can all remember how tuned into our parents we were when we were teenagers, feeling the vibe so that we knew if we were in trouble or not.

Being with our teenager in a relaxed and present way allows us to feel successful in reaching them. It gives the child that sense of inner soothing and attunement that is a priceless gift. This is what Daniel Siegel calls the gift of ‘feeling felt’. Across the life-span from cradle to grave, we all crave this sense of ‘feeling felt’. It is the experience at the heart of love – that feeling that assures us that our parent knows we exist, knows we have an inner life and that they are willing to make some sense of it with us. It is a skill that we can learn like any other.

Daniel Siegel uses the word ‘mindsight’ to describe the skill of bringing this quality of attention to our own inner life and the inner life of our teenager. Mindsight allows us to be present and allows the teenager to feel felt in our presence. When we develop mindsight we learn, through awareness, to interrupt the old reactive inner loops and respond with more calm in the moment. It gives us time and space to name our feelings and to be present to the feelings of others. This also leads us to be more reflective and respond with ‘openness, observation and objectivity’. Bringing these gifts to the relationship, affects the atmosphere we create, and establishes more consistency and ease. Teenagers need this calm consistency in their lives to navigate their complex world and develop into confident, competent, loving people.

Sometimes, we imagine that being busy and doing things for our children and worrying about them all day long is our gift to them. Talking to teenagers tells a different story. It is the moments of being together contentedly that they remember. Being with you doing things together, cooking, fishing, watching a sunset, taking a walk, making a quilt, mending a wall, offers you the opportunity to build relationship and passes on physical and emotional skills in a natural way. Then, when inevitable differences arise, about bedtimes, curfew, what to eat, homework or household chores, you have a solid, loving foundation from which to negotiate.

Lest all this sound very theoretical, let me say that my mother did not know she was practicing ‘mindsight’ with me. As we walked among the blackberry bushes filling our buckets with future jam, she was present to me in an easy, responsive way that I felt deeply. That sense of her feeling my presence allowed me to work beside her with the certainty of her interest and understanding. I took this feeling in deeply, and it became part of a pattern of love on the wall-paper of my inner life. When you are present and aware of your teenager’s inner life with openness to them, they learn, through mindsight, the ability to be present and calm. It is a gift that keeps on giving.

About the author: 

Margaret O’Connor is an educator, group facilitator and psychotherapist, working in the soul’s landscape, for 35 years. During her many years in the US she has degrees in Education, Psychotherapy and is passionate about the new thinking available in the fields of spirituality, neurology, addiction and the art and science of inner and outer relationship. She lives in rural Ireland and rural USA.