– Katlyn Hudgins
Humans are peculiar creatures. In the animal kingdom eye contact is seen as a challenge and a will to fight. Avoiding eye contact is a sign of submission. Baring ones teeth is a sign of anger, defensiveness, and viscousness. We approach a scared animal from the side, never face on. Yet, in many human cultures the lack of eye contact is seen as dismissive and rude. Not baring your teeth, otherwise known as smiling, is seen as cold.
When it comes to correcting and disciplining our children many times parents expect or even force them to stare at us in the face. If they don’t make eye contact they are met with, “look at me when I’m talking to you!” When they hang their head they are told, “are you even listening?” Especially in the western world we would see the child as being avoidant and not paying attention but what if the lack of eye contact is more complicated than them not listening? What if they are listening with their mind and not their eyes?
Half a dozen years ago I worked in a high school health office dealing with teenagers on a daily basis. From the simple things like dealing with a headache to the more serious things like teen pregnancy and drugs. So many adults seen teenagers as rude, selfish, lazy, and need to be controlled. Some of them may be these things but I see teenagers as the most passionate, altruistic, and daring age group of anyone. Teenagers are one of the greatest missing links to sharing the gospel (that’s a separate article). But I digress, one of the tasks I had to do was drug screenings. Not the normal pee in the cup type screenings but by physical symptoms: walk, steadiness, skin palor, speech, eyes (especially pupil dilation and clarity). Just by watching a teenagers behavior nine out of ten times I could spot if they were on something.
Show them who is in charge. Make them sit in chair and stand in front of them to do the assessment. Use a stern serious voice and demand eye contact. Put them in their place because you are the adult and they are the child. They will be forced to submit because you already know they are using drugs. But this doesn’t work well. This reaction makes the teens raise their hackles and forced eye contact makes them feel like they have to lie. Harsh tones put them on edge and they shut down and wall up.
Fight. Flight. Or freeze. You have now just put the teenager in fight mode and will get nothing from them. Or flight mode where they want to run away and they blow you off. Or they freeze you out. Stone wall you. They know by your behavior that they are being forced into submission if they just shut down they don’t have to give in. I watched other adults use this method time and time again with almost always the same adults.
I was young when I started this position, just twenty years old. Barely out of my teens I felt like I was stuck between these high schoolers and the middle aged adults who tried to show them who was boss. At first I received a lot more disrespect because what twenty year old has the right to try to lead kids just a few years younger than them? Students and adults alike didn’t respect me. My stern words were met with scoffing. My forced eye contact was met with eye rolls.
My approach had to be different. I started to wonder how God showed me the errors of my ways and how He gently unfolded my messes. How did the Holy Spirit speak to me in a way that made me bare my soul without question because I knew He was there to help?
Gentle. Patient. Kind. Honest.
When a kid came in for drug screening I normally knew the outcome by the shaking hands, slight smoky aroma hung in the air, slurred speech, hyperactive behavior, jitters; knowing they were on drugs wasn’t the problem but getting them to admit it was. The first thing I always said was, “I’m worried about you. I’m not here to get you into trouble and there’s nothing you could say to me to make me angry. This room is safe.” As I started the exam I always did it side by side by pulling up a chair next to them instead of standing in front of them. I asked permission, “can I check your blood pressure?” Their behavior was always started stiff and hidden. “Whatever.” But their coldness didn’t change my demeanor. Slowly I could see with kindness and gentle words and time talking shoulder to shoulder they started to soften. The stiff spine started to slump. The indignant face started to fall. The shoulder to shoulder talks became heart to heart talks.
And then came the point where I learned if the gentleness worked, even on teenagers. The very last thing I checked was eye dilation. Finally, at the end of our chats they had to make eye contact with me to check their eyes. This was the moment they would read my face and realize if it was all a ruse or I really did care about them. Did the shoulder talks work? When I am honest with them will they shut down or will their be fruit?
“Michael, your screening is positive. I don’t want you in trouble, let me help you.”
Michael reached down and slid of his right shoe. Tipping it over onto his hand a little baggie fell out. He chewed his cheek and handed it to me. He didn’t need harsh words to be forced into submission. He needed to be helped and not hurt.
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.” Proverbs 15:1
This side by side talking or shoulder talks can help lots of relationships. Instead of standing toe to toe with your spouse during a disagreement try sitting side by side, no eye contact, no yelling. Let your shoulder brush and keep your words hushed, hold hands to connect to the heart. Even for big issues approach from the side. Let your spirit listen to theirs and with tenderness and mercy perhaps their defensiveness will soften. “Honey, I love you. Can we talk? We are safe.”
It also works with younger kids. If my six year old is being defiant or angry I approach from the side to not stir up his reaction to wall me out or lie. “Buddy, I want to help you. I’m not mad. Can we talk? I’ll always be your safe place.”
Be the safe place for one another. Be willing to set down your own pride and need for control by initiating shoulder talks.