Rabbits & Teens. A Strange analogy I know but stick with me…
Our beloved Fluffy died a few months ago after 9 years, a good innings for a rabbit. Not knowing how smart rabbits are we kept Fluffy contained for most of his life, until around age 5 when he became our free range furry friend. He was always happy to be cuddled and would hop with joy around our feet. So it came as a surprise to us, that our new furry friends Bill & Ben, were not quite so friendly. We have spent a lot of time chasing them around the yard to get them back into the cage. Then they started fighting when our girl rabbit, Milly, came onto the scene.
This started my research. One YouTube Rabbit expert explained that every rabbit has the potential to be as loving & friendly as a dog, but the difference is that they are prey animals. They are born with the instinct that they could be hunted down at any moment. Dogs, cats, foxes, birds and sometimes people; all could potentially be eating them for dinner if these rabbits don’t keep their wits about them. Survival is purely dependent on them being on constant alert.
Rabbits also have very long memories. So one ill treatment of them, they will likely hold it against you for a very long time. They are so smart and they are watching, looking for the ones they can trust.
This rabbit-studying time coincided with a difficult period that Sime and I were going through with our teens. Simply put, we felt like we were losing them. It felt like one long break-up. Sime found it particularly hard, like he was losing his buddies. They were, and are often still not, responsive to our old ways of connecting. We were missing them, and lamenting the old days of being able to easily reach their hearts as children. Yes I have done all the research on the adolescent brain, I knew exactly why they were pulling away. I have even written a blog on it. It’s a perfectly normal, healthy stage of development. Knowing why is helpful, but it doesn’t make it any less painful.
One night, after a few terse discussions and door slams, I was having a teary. Everything we said to them felt like it was being flicked away like an annoying fly. WE felt like we were being flicked away like an annoying fly. It was just haaaard. And to think we had another five, on top of these three, to get through the teen years!! It was then I realised just how similar teens and rabbits are. When the teen years roll around, so do those brain transforming hormones. They go from carefree children, barely self-aware enough to bother looking in a mirror, to suddenly becoming excruciatingly aware of their image and identity.
Basically they turn into prey animals, pretty much overnight. For most, childhood is as carefree as a puppy in a pen, safety is expected. For teens, it’s like waking from a peaceful dream, to a world that suddenly seems unsafe. One wrong move or word in the social scene, can tarnish their reputation for years ahead. Their reflection can become their obsession, not because of vanity, but because their brains are now being wired towards comparison; where they fit in the pecking order of life. To top things off, changes are happening to them inside and out, almost too fast to keep up. It’s a tall order, and when I step back, my heart breaks for all they have to navigate. And don’t get me started on the extra pressure of social media, a blog subject for another time.
What is the point of this analogy? Well up until lately I knew the why behind their behaviour. But I needed to know what our game plan was to be within it. I may understand why their brains are frazzled, but I still need them to pick their clothes up off the floor. I understand why their image is high on the priorities, but their siblings need to use the bathroom too. I am still nagging them on both (and more) fronts because life is still life. I have, however, changed my focus.
With our rabbits, we have stopped the chasing, getting annoyed and forcing them to get used to us. Instead we will sit near them daily, gently offering them treats to eat from our hand. We are consistently proving to them that we are safe and it may take time. We have taken the same approach with our teens, that even though the same boundaries must exist, we are trying to daily communicate that we are safe.
Practically what does that look like? Here are some examples from our household;
- Not overreacting and jumping into problem solve when they do reveal something to us.
- Showing grace when mistakes are made.
- At least once a day speaking into their identity and their strengths.
- Words of blessing at bedtime, no matter how brief.
- Finding one moment in the day to connect. It could be over dinner time but it could be just a simple TV session at the end of the day and/or foot massage.
- Little gifts that shows them that you know their tastes. It could be a simple as their favourite hot drink, or chocolate bar at school pick-up.
- Not peppering them with questions after school. High School can induce stress hormones that are similar to a war zone. Always give them time to decompress…..yes even if it means being on their phone.
- Be clear about boundaries and consequences, but don’t get drawn into an argument when implementing them. It’s the yelling and insults that harm the relationship, not the consequences. Believe me, I am still learning with this one.
- Expect that you will need to repeat yourself again and again and again. Their brains and processing are having a full excavation at the moment.
- And lastly….DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY!! Their rejection of you actually has nothing to do with you.
Let me assure you, we are VERY imperfect on this teen journey, but this refocus has helped. It’s all about the long game. You know what I said about rabbits having long memories? It’s exactly the same with teens. It’s no coincidence that us middle-agers can’t remember much from the last ten years but our memories of our high school years are as clear as day. I bet you can all remember the name of that bully right? And that first crush? And that humiliating day? Well that’s because the pathways in a teen’s brain are actually being hard-wired (called myelination), especially if the memory evoked a social-emotional response.
With this in mind, I believe this gives us a unique opportunity as parents to constantly, gently and PATIENTLY prove to our teen that we are a safe-place. Despite the nagging and pleading, we are here for them no matter what, and that we are more than the tech-cop and frustrated presence.
Compassion is the key and time is our friend when earning the trust of our little prey animal/teens. If we can just be present and consistent enough, we may very well have established a relationship where they won’t run when they have the chance. Our hope is that they believe home is safe, we are safe and the tether of our hearts is not frayed.
Well that’s enough from me, and my strange analogies, I hope I didn’t lose you at the first line. Enjoy the wooing of your rabbits. They are still those cuddly little furry characters underneath, who love nothing more that being close to those who the trust. Be one of the ones they can trust.