I Was a Hard-to-Be-Around Adult … Until I Knew Better

Mom playing with kids at the table

Guest post from New York Times bestselling author, Rachel Macy Stafford

A few months ago, I came across a photo taken during a beach vacation with my extended family when my first-born daughter Natalie was a baby. Some beach vacation memories kind of run together, but not this one. I remember every shameful moment of that trip.

Seeing my husband’s family members standing next to me, and recalling how loving they were to me when I was so hard to be around, brought a lump to my throat.

While no one ever came right out and mentioned how difficult I was to be around during that trip… that season… that period of my life… I knew I was. I was controlling and critical; I overreacted to small things, and nothing was ever good enough.

Hard-To-Be-Around was an Understatement

I remember how my husband, Scott, kindly booked me a facial during that week in an effort to help me relax. About mid-way through the treatment, the esthetician left me alone for quite some time. Instead of viewing her extending absence as a chance to simply rest and breathe, I impatiently got up, got dressed, and left in a huff.

While recalling my behavior — that I now know was masking a deep, unspoken pain — my face burned with embarrassment.

But, as shame and regret were about to sabotage the present moment, I gently told myself, “No. You’re not going there. Today matters more than yesterday; who you are becoming matters more than who you once were.”

For added measure, I recited Maya Angelou’s wise saying, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

I reminded myself that is exactly what I’ve done over the past decade of my life. By chronicling my most painful truths and using them as catalysts for healing and growth, I’ve become the person I didn’t think I’d ever become:

Someone who is easy to be around.

And I don’t mean “easy” as in pushover, but “easy” as in accepting, open, optimistic, forgiving, and peaceful.  And as a result, my relationships with the people I love have also been healed and strengthened.

Like any positive transformation, this growth didn’t happen overnight, and honestly, I’m not sure I would have fully realized its impact on my relationship with my daughter had it not been for a late-night disaster that occurred a few months back.

I was due to deliver a keynote for an important organization that empowers young people. I’d worked on the presentation for weeks, making sure to save the document throughout the writing process. But when I went to print out the script the night before, it was nowhere to be found.

After a futile two-hour search, I walked upstairs and knocked softly on Natalie’s bedroom door.

“Is everything ok?” she said, sitting up quickly in her bed.

“I lost my speech that I am giving in the morning. I just know I saved it, but I can’t find it,” I said trying to hold back tears. “Can you help me?”

Natalie promptly took my computer into her hands and started clicking buttons, opening folders, and checking recent documents. For over ten minutes, she searched by title and various key words.

While she searched, Natalie said not a word, which gave me time to think. I remember my thoughts in that moment quite vividly:

She is not shaming me.

She is not blaming me. 

She is not doubting or dismissing me. 

She is seeing me. 

She is standing with me. 

My problem is her problem. 

I am not alone.

I can breathe. 

Rachel Macy Stafford quote

Unable to find the document after trying everything she knew how to do, Natalie reluctantly handed the computer back to me, saying how sorry she was.

“Thank you so much for trying,” I said, feeling unexpectedly hopeful.

As I walked downstairs, I realized that watching Natalie open files triggered a memory from a few days prior. I’d been working away from home and when I tried to save my presentation, I got a message saying it could not be saved unless I was connected to the internet.

I sat down at the kitchen table feeling confident that my presentation was saved in a remote location. As I searched, a text from Natalie popped up. She wrote:

“Text me if you have any luck finding it. I’m really sorry this happened. I know how hard you work to always be prepared for these things, and you do so much for us all. I’m really sorry, and I hate that this happened. If there is anything else I can do, let me know.” 

I couldn’t explain why, but her compassionate response to my plight gave me added hope and determination; I felt like no matter what resulted, I could deliver that speech in a few hours. Had I not had Natalie to turn to and had she not received me so kindly in my moment of crisis, I’m certain I would not have felt that way.

Reflecting back on that moment now, there is also this:

Had I stayed the person who was hard to be around–

A person who couldn’t be pleased,

A person who held tightly to her plan,

A person who met mistakes with exasperated sighs,

I’m not sure my daughter would have welcomed me into her room late that night… and I’m quite certain she wouldn’t be welcoming me into her own catastrophes, heartaches, and challenges as she grows.

Interestingly, this experience relates to one of the most unforgettable conversations I heard when I spoke with a group of middle schoolers last year. It was the kind of insight that fueled me to keep writing my book, LIVE LOVE NOW, even though it was the hardest endeavor I’ve ever pursued.

A few kids had gathered around a desk after my presentation, and a student mentioned that certain adults are “hard to be around.” The other kids nodded in agreement and began to talk.  I recognized myself in their comments and felt grateful to be in a position to hear – and really listen to – what they had to say without feeling defensive.

Based on their commentary, I was able to come to gather some conclusions. Here is a short list of adult behaviors that increase the chance of being invited into the sacred spaces of young people’s lives.

Easy-To-Be-Around Adults…

  • Don’t always expect conversation. They accept that quiet is needed – and even welcome or create periods of connective silence with the young people they love.
  • Don’t take bad attitudes and grumpy dispositions personally. They realize young people are coping with a lot, both internally and externally, and understand that the poor attitude being displayed is most likely not about them.
  • Don’t interrogate. Instead of peppering young people with questions, Easy-To-Be-Around Adults make themselves available and approachable. When the young people DO talk, the adult pushes aside what they are doing to listen fully and express genuine interest in what is being said.
  • Don’t judge decisions. Maybe it’s not the choice the adult would have made, but that does not mean it’s wrong or won’t result in a learning experience. Easy-To-Be-Around Adults express curiosity instead of judgment by saying something like: “I’d like to hear more about why you took that route.”
  • Don’t have all the answers. It’s hard to be around someone who knows it all, especially when it comes to one’s own personal life. Throughout a teen’s path to independence, they need a sounding board, not a know-it-all.
  • Don’t expect perfection. Easy-To-Be-Around Adults communicate that mistakes are part of life, dismissing the notion that perfection is needed in life’s journey, which is very damaging to personal growth, happiness, and wellbeing. Easy-To-Be-Around also share their own mistakes, becoming a trusted source of support when things go wrong.
  • Don’t comment on appearance. Easy-To-Be-Around Adults trust that their kids are showing up in whatever way they feel most comfortable. They accept young people “as is,” knowing that even the most well-intentioned “suggestions” regarding appearance feel like rejections of who they are.

As for the whole presentation debacle, I was able to find it very early that morning in a remote location called OneDrive I didn’t even know existed. Although it was around one o’clock in the morning, I suddenly felt awake and excited. For the first time ever, I would have the opportunity to share pieces of my new book with an audience that would eagerly embrace and apply my insights.

I expected the audience to be receptive to my honest sharing, but nothing could have prepared me for the response of one particular teen.

I was talking to a group of people after the event when she came up and put her hand on my arm.

“Can I just hug you?” the young woman said.

When we embraced, I noticed she let out an audible sigh of relief, whispering, “Thank you.”

As she held on and I held on, several thoughts of gratitude came to mind –

Thank goodness for second chances… third chances… and forty-second chances.

Thank goodness, the truth is not the end; it is the beginning.

Thank goodness, struggles shared are struggles halved.

I could not find what this young person had lost any more than Natalie could find my misplaced presentation–but simply SEEING this young woman and her pain provided the fuel she needed to move forward with hope.

“Feeling seen and heard enables human beings to reach their highest potential.”  

I’d said those exact words in the talk.

But this young person knew by the cracks in my voice that it wasn’t just talk–

I’ve lived it… I’ve practiced it.

And now, the people around me can breathe easier and so can I.

Thank goodness it’s not too late to become who you never thought you’d be.

Thank goodness we have the chance to love better, once we know better.

Final Thoughts From Amy

It is always such a precious gift to share space on this blog with my dear friend, Rachel Macy Stafford. She is a breath of fresh air to parents who feel like they are drowning, and her newest book LIVE LOVE NOW should be on everyone’s must-read list this year!

About the Author

Rachel Macy Stafford is a New York Times bestselling author and founder of www.handsfreemama.com. In Live Love Now, Rachel Macy Stafford weaves tools of her trade as a special education teacher with the daily rhythms of life and brings them to your living room. Today’s youth may very well be facing issues no previous generation has ever faced, but Rachel shows us how our homes can be safe havens, even when the world feels disconnected, divided, and uncertain. If we are willing to live a life anchored by truth, presence and connection, there is great hope.

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