I'm the mom of 6 teenagers. For me, witnessing is the most underrated parenting tool.

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The author.Courtesy of the author
  • I'm the mom of six teens ages 17, 16, 16, 16, 15, and 14.

  • My partner of 10 years has two boys and I have four girls, including a set of twins.

  • I think witnessing is the best tool when it comes to parenting teenagers.

I peek around the dividing curtains, searching for my daughter's pale face with dark lashes. Though she's 14, she looks tiny in the big hospital bed, tubes snaking around her body. The surgery went well, but within seconds she starts crying and shaking. I can't take the pain away, so I just hold her and breathe.

Parenting six teenagers — including a set of twins — is a struggle, so I focus on deploying one highly underrated parenting tool — witnessing. Being fully present without trying to change anything is much harder than it sounds.

Watching my children suffer can feel so torturous that I'm tempted to dismiss the pain to protect my kid from difficult feelings — "It's not that big of a deal!" — or jump into anxious-intervention mode — "Don't worry, I'll fix this."

But what actually helps kids become resilient is experiencing a parent's presence when they're unafraid of big feelings and they model how to move through them. "I'm here. This sounds so hard. I believe you."

Inner work leads to better parenting

My mother never allowed me to play with Barbies because she didn't want me to have body-image issues. However, watching her in front of the mirror pinching her belly and calling herself fat had a much bigger impact on me. If we don't do inner work, it will negatively impact our parenting.

Everyone's got childhood trauma, stress, and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Growing up with addicts, I experienced disordered eating, anxiety, and depression, resulting in control issues and people-pleasing tendencies. I'm grateful for therapy, journaling, and attending addiction-recovery meetings.

I often preferred trying the latest parenting technique when I needed personal transformation instead because inner work is time-intensive and painful. However, it's by far the best parenting decision I've ever made.

Regulating my nervous system

The kids used to prefer driving practice with Dad over me because I "freaked out too much" and made them nervous. They picked up on my anxiety regardless of how well I controlled my voice or body language. I've found breath work highly effective for regulating my nervous system, getting out of constant fight-or-flight mode, calming my anxiety, and relieving hypervigilance. I also lift weights, sleep enough, and spend time outside.

My kids open up to me more frequently and with more important topics like drug experimentation and bullying when they sense I can regulate my own emotions and thus hold space for theirs.

Choosing priorities

The honest answer to "How do you do it?" is forgetting about most parenting advice and doubling down on my priority — being their witness, space holder, soft spot, and first call in the middle of the night if they're at a sketchy party, need Plan B, or have suicidal thoughts.

It's impossible to schedule these moments of connection. They often come at inopportune times: Late one Saturday night when one daughter confides in me about her breakup or after school in the middle of a work project when the youngest grieves getting ditched by her best friend. Even if it's inconvenient, I've found that making the connection for a few minutes right then is often more powerful than scheduling one-on-one time later.

Pain isn't the worst. Loneliness is. Because I've prioritized connection through witnessing, it's not an imposition but an honor when my kids open up to me.

After surgery, my 14-year-old asked me to squeeze into her twin bed, half my butt hanging off the mattress, my neck kinked against the wall. Her sweaty head rested against my chest as our breathing deepened.

Everything was not fine, but we were together.

Juliane Bergmann was born and raised by a German hippie mom and US Army soldier dad in a tiny village in Bavaria. She lives in Montana with her blended family of eight and writes about psychology, recovery, parenting, and relationships.

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