Albert and Leonida Mrgole have a very distinctive specialization in their work as therapists. They help parents have a better relationship with their teenage children. As you might imagine, especially if you are not a parent, “bad” teens, those who get into trouble or misbehave or are disrespectful, are almost always a product of non-ideal parenting. Just like a “bad” dog is really a matter of teaching owners how best to relate to their pet, the same goes for parents. In the heat of the moment, parents are often the worst judges of how their actions will affect their children, and what actions they should take. Thankfully, the Mrgoles are here to help. They host sell-out workshops in their native Slovenia, and penned a mega-best-seller there, which has now been adapted for Anglophone readers and is newly available under the title Connect with Your Teenager. We spoke with Albert and Leonida (Lea) about parenting, and some good tips of the “trade.”
What does it mean to be a good parent?
Lea: Any parent who is aware of the fact that they are a parent, that they have children to raise them, is a good parent. All parents make mistakes. I have learned as a parent that if I’m aware of my relationship with my child, I can correct my mistakes. I don’t think it’s okay to ignore and turn a blind eye to things.
Albert: I think that some parents are better than others, who might lag slightly behind. I’ve always lagged behind a better parent. I become aware of certain things with a slight delay.
You have four grown children and you “survived.” What did your children teach you?
Lea: They taught me to be patient and to forgive.
Albert: I learned how to connect with my own growing up. I recognized and reflected on certain things. I learned that the connection with our children is the active component of parenting. I didn’t have that, so I had to learn it.
How did the idea of this book occur? Was it before or after your workshops?
Lea: Having been married for 31 years, we agreed three years ago that we had a lot of experience, so we should write a book on relationships between partners. We talked about it, fought, and decided that we weren’t mature enough for such a book. But then the book happened spontaneously. At that time, we had four teens who didn’t cut us any slack, so the book just came about.
Albert: When we finished the book, something happened, and we said that we would just delete, it because nothing worked. Then one of our kids told us not to delete it, but add a new chapter instead. Parents tell their stories at our workshops and want solutions. We play roles. When Lea spoke about how to make kids move away from the computer and cooperate, parents took notes. We saw that parents needed someone to tell them exactly how to communicate. So we chose the stories for parents to see how to react in a certain situation.
It’s often difficult to put theory into practice. There are stories about life in the book, and everyone can put themselves in the shoes of the characters. You have several workshops. One of them has a very mysterious title—Blue Key. What is that?
Lea: That is a workshop on relationships. We both believe that, if a child lives in a family with both parents, the relationship between them is the most important factor that makes a child feel good. Our children and their needs must be the center of the world, but we mustn’t forget about the relationship which produced this child. If we do that, we can’t be the parents our children need.
Albert: When our child is born, they become the center of the world. But when a child grows up, we are 10 or 20 years older and, at a certain point, partners realize that they’ve forgotten about their relationship, because they’ve been so involved with parenting. They have nothing to talk about, apart from topics related to their children. Children produce these topics so that their parents have to go to school or talk at home about them. This is like a life-cycle, in which these relationships take place in a spiral, and we need to be aware of that.
What is the most commonly asked question you get from parents?
Lea: How do I make my kid understand?
Albert: When can we bring our kid for you to “do an overhaul” on them? They are very surprised when we say that we’d like to meet the parents first, and that parents influence the most.
Is the analogy with dogs appropriate? Namely that dogs aren’t to be blamed for anything, while owners should be?
Albert: It’s okay. I learned during dog training what authority is. I thought authority was that we are violent. When I came to dog training sessions, I asked my dog to sit, but she just looked at me. Then the trainer came, and ordered the dog: Sit. It almost made me sit. He visualized what would happen, and made the order clear with his voice and manner. I realized that authority was that I visualize what will happen.
There’s a story in the book about peanut butter…
Lea: I wanted to show with this story that parents often don’t achieve anything with kids, because we aren’t focused. For example you tell your child to take out the trash. They don’t do it, they just go away. We either take it out by ourselves or whine. We’re helpless. The child walks away and they don’t have to do what we said.
Albert: The child rebels.
Lea: Parents come and say: But my kid just walks away. And I don’t know what to do. I tell them that children always come back. Small children come back in three minutes to show you their drawing. Older children come in ten minutes to ask you something. Teens come back in two hours—when they’re hungry. Just push the peanut butter to the back of the cabinet, where they won’t see it. They’ll be shocked that you’re out of peanut butter. Then you tell them that there will be peanut butter when they take out the trash.
Certain ideas in the book are also suitable for young children. When does adolescence start?
Albert: A skill that children need is knowing about boundaries, order, respect for rules, independence, responsibility. Our children grasped the idea that I say something and it happens when they were younger. It was easier later, when they were teens. Parents have problems if they don’t establish certain habits early on.
Lea: This doesn’t take a long time. It happens in a heartbeat. You look at your child, and you get this feeling that they’ve been “replaced.” Adolescence requires us to adjust quickly. The danger is that we get a house full of teens, meaning that adults also start behaving like teens.
What does your audience say helps them most?
Lea: Practical advice. How to do something. How to preserve the connection. Parents forget that teens aren’t just people who must do things, but people with gifts, dreams, thoughts, activities. Teens have crazy ideas. Parents sometimes wonder if they are in their right minds. If we just remember ourselves as teens and our ideas, it isn’t that difficult to understand.
Albert: Yesterday, parents came who have a teen on antidepressants, with no will for school. He used to be a good pupil and athlete. Parents are also on antidepressants. They live in a bloc of flats. It dawned on me that the teen doesn’t have his space. So I seized this idea. We look for ways parents can connect with their children through practical situations.
You say in the book that children must feel that they can make decisions. That they can choose to do something and get something in return, or not to do something and not get anything in return.
Lea: It’s about the possibility to choose, about responsibility, not blame. We need to show children that what we choose is what we have. This is used instead of punishment.
Albert: One option is that a child puts in some effort and gets something, or doesn’t do anything and doesn’t get anything. For example, you say to your child that you’re leaving at 8. If they aren’t there, you’re leaving without them. So they can choose to be there or not, but also take the consequences.
It is also important that if you say something as a parent, you must stick to it.
Lea: The worst thing is that we speak nonsense when we get angry, and we know even as we speak that it isn’t going to be like that. We let kids know that we say something and this doesn’t happen.
Kids use clever tactics to try to turn parents against each other.
Lea: We have different roles, so we can’t think in the same way. That’s a myth. The important thing is that we can reach an agreement. Teens are very persistent and resourceful.
Albert: We can say to our teen that their persistence is admirable, but the decision has been made. We need to show them our parenting power.
I’m from the USA, where we tend to praise and thank children too much. But it’s also not okay if we never praise them. How do we find the right balance?
Lea: I think that we don’t need to thank children for something they must do.
Albert: Thanking or even bribing conditions the relationship. You thank children at suitable opportunities, not to motivate them. I’m not sure about the American culture, whether this is a parenting method to raise self-esteem.
It depends on where you live. What did you learn about parenting from your parents?
Lea: I learned from my father to be straightforward. I think that’s a good quality, but not many people can take it. Even Albert tells me to sugarcoat things. But I think that’s a waste of time. And I like technology because of him. I’m not afraid of computer and phones. From my mother, I learned to care for, and pamper, our kids.
Albert: I learned how not to. I also learned to trust.
When you were teens, what was the wildest or weirdest thing you did?
Lea: My mother is a control freak. She had to know everything. But teens need something parents don’t know about. You can’t follow your teen around all the time. You allow them to do things, set limits, and see what happens. I had to be home and 8. And I was. So I lived it up between 2 and 8.
Albert: Our math teacher closed the door behind her when she went in the classroom. When I wanted to assert myself, I took it off the hinges once, and just leaned them against the frame.
How do we talk about sex with teens?
Lea: If we see that our child has a problem, we don’t not sit them down, but find a suitable moment to ask them about it. We need to observe our children.
Albert: I was embarrassed when our kids came to this point, because we hadn’t talked about it at home. It was the same when I had to buy my daughter’s first bra.
If we think that our child is hanging out with the wrong crowd, what do we do?
Lea: We can’t choose friends for other people. I always let our kids bring friends to our house. If they didn’t want to meet me anymore, they didn’t come back. I call that natural selection.
Albert: If we are connected to our child, they will come to us if they have a bad experience with friends. If we aren’t connected to our child and they escape to bad company because they’re accepted there, they are alone in that.
What if we suspect that our teen is experimenting with alcohol or drugs?
Lea: Teens experiment. I ask them openly to them about this. No beating around the bush. But it’s different with every child. Just let them know that you know what’s going on.
Albert: The best prevention is that our children know that we care. Substances are not the factor, it’s about the relationship. Our fear is often counterproductive.
If the computer makes your kid happy, and we say to them that they can only have as much time on the computer as they spend with friends, won’t they resent us?
Lea: Firstly, it isn’t our job to make our kids happy all the time. They need to be out in the sun. If we can’t find the balance between the sun and technology, it isn’t good for my brains because they need to be focused. We need to set boundaries for our kids.
Albert: Kids need to hang out with peers for their brains to develop properly. We need to push them in this direction.
What should we do if your child doesn’t have anyone in their class they can connect with?
Albert: Children need to develop social skills. Parents often say that they don’t have many family friends and stick to themselves. So children don’t have a social pattern, making it difficult for them to develop social skills.
Lea: If I see my kid having problems with friends, I ask them how they feel. It’s important how teens feel about themselves. If they don’t feel well, they may choose loneliness. Parents need to focus on the child and help them develop a social connection.
Can, or should, parents demand respect from a child?
Albert: Respect stems from the relationship. We find ourselves in power struggles with our teens. When they are little, they look up to us. Later, they look down on us and want to have things their way. We need to give them space.