Parenting Teens – Hello Fear, Shame And Guilt

A few years ago, one of my teenage sons looked at me with contempt and blasted the following remark in my face:

“You just want me to do well, so you can brag about me to your friends. Well, I am not a piece of property you can shine up and show off!”

Ouch…. And I did not have a comeback ready.

Later I reflected on what he had said – and in all honesty, there was a part of me that would enjoy to join the clubs of moms and dads who take turns talking about the amazing achievements of the fruit of their loins. I hear it all the time: the chatter about what grade point average, what unachievable SAT scores and what amazing college scholarships their kids get.

Bragging rights. I guess parents have it.

And yet, my son’s comment went to the core of the make-up of my self-image as a parent. A hidden part of my parenting style that I needed to pull out in the sun and look at. Because on some level he was right – and I did not like to admit it.

Our children are such amazing teachers. Especially when it comes to checking out all the little parts of us that we take for granted. When our kids become teenagers, they look us over with a magnifying glass, we get weighed and measured, prodded and pushed.

My buttons definitely got pushed by the above remark!

And so, yes – there was a part of me that wanted to stand in the groups of parents and bask in the glow of being in the “good parent’s club”. The kind of parent, who thrives in the absolute knowledge that his or her kids are well-adjusted, well-prepared, well-tutored, well-dressed, well-trained, well-behaved and see them off into well-planned career paths.

I think there is a silent expectation in many of us as parents that our children need to grow up and show to the world, what a wonderful parenting job we have done. We live to see them stand on podiums and pick up awards and honors. We put our own needs aside, so we can help them get ahead. Some go as far as to live vicariously through them.

And when our children fall short of our expectations, it is easy to beat up on ourselves as parents. Even some of the parents who have the well-prepped and high-achieving kids dwell on their own imperfections even as they portray a glossy and superior parenting image to the world. Their children might all of a sudden turn anorexic or flip out on risky sexual behaviors, drugs or alcohol. Or they might have stress and high-anxiety. Ulcers that eat their stomach linings at night. What could have been done differently to avoid this?

No matter what route you take as a parent there are plenty of times where the voices of “should-have-could-have” turn up. And feelings of shame and guilt follow.

The truth of the matter is that most of us do everything in our power to be great parents. Whether we let our kids grow their hair long and stand out, or we insist they cut it and conform. Whether we want them to find their own path or we feel we must choose for them.

It is not rocket science. If only it were that simple!

As a life coach, I have learned to look at simply what is. Not to make things into what they are not. Often we parents catch ourselves in the “what are people going to think” trap. Or “she will never get anywhere with those grades/that hair color/that boyfriend…”  We imagine all sorts of the worst possible scenarios – and before we know it, we act upon our fears and not simply what is.

Our brains are wired for fearful responses. In our distant past, we constantly had to be on guard against wild animals, food scarcities, enemy tribes, etc. And it is natural that when it comes to guarding our young, we snap right back into this kind of primordial mental wiring: To protect our kids against danger. It is in our deepest instinctual blueprint for the survival of our kind.

Yet when it comes to being an effective parent to modern-day teenagers, a fearful reaction to their actions and choices might not always be appropriate. Fear of what we imagine might happen can be directly counterproductive.

As we step back from the situation and assess what is going on right now, we might want to delay a speedy comeback. Inserting a rash comment into a contentious moment with a teenager is like pouring gasoline on a fire. I do not think that, short of pulling our kids out of immediate danger, we ever miss something by avoiding a rash reaction over a more measured and later response.

“Ok, I am going to have to think about what you just said and get back to you”

This buys some time and allows us a moment to not lose our composure. It also affords our son or daughter a chance to reflect on what they just said.

Secondly you can take a look at your own involvement. What is pushing your buttons? What is it that this situation is saying about you as a parent? About your own past? About your own fears?  Often we just react, because we are triggered. Our own sense of failure as a parent on any level has been activated.

Thirdly, we can take a look at what might be going on for our son/daughter that might make them feel the way they do. Again with a focus on an unbiased “what is”. Not what it could turn into or what we think they should be feeling!

With this new more complete picture we can now choose to respond.

When I dug a bit deeper after my son fired off his remark to me, I realized that, yes – a part of me would love to brag about my kids’ achievements and therefore indirectly my own implied success as a parent. Yet the deeper issue was that I deeply and desperately wanted my son to connect to his own sense of ambition and directionality. I felt that he had so much inside of him that I valued. Things in him that, I felt, he didn’t show enough to others. I wanted him to find his wings and soar. Not to glorify me or my parenting style – but simply for him to experience lift-off on his own, and fly into the world with an authentic and self-directed  and capable motion. I was impatient for him.

It was my interpretation – and it was well-meant. It was just not usable to him at the time.

Yet, speaking from this level of awareness made a difference for me. And maybe in the long run it might have for him as well. Who knows…

When we communicate with our teenagers from a level of authenticity and honest reflection, with a willingness to also own up to our own issues, we have a chance to connect more deeply. We offer a model that gives them a chance to not feel at fault or misunderstood. They still might think we are full of doo-doo… A teenager’s main job after all is to separate from their parents. Yet, a foundation of authentic communication goes a long way for them to be able to feel emotionally supported as they find their way. And the benefit for us as parents is that we spend less time with those constant companions of modern-day parenting: Fear, Shame and Guilt.

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6 thoughts on “Parenting Teens – Hello Fear, Shame And Guilt

  1. Lovely post, Marie! As a new parent, I’m finding my way through this and I think of the voice of our counselor who said, “Love them and be consistent. Everything else will work out if you do that.”

    p.s. That photo at the end is one of my faves of all time!

    • Hey there, Jenny… I love it when you drop by to visit… Yes, I agree with your counselor’s advice. And I also think that being consistent is one thing when the kids are small. Another thing completely when they are teens and putting you under a constant microscope to check for inconsistencies, pushing their limits and pushing your buttons. It is useful at that time to really have done the interior work yourself and be very clear on how you parent. What parenting really is about for you and what it says about you. It takes time to focus on you as a parent – not just all the things you DO as a parent. I will be writing more about this in the coming months.

  2. Excellent article and observation. I recognize this behavior in myself. As a music teacher I am so proud of my students when they get good marks. I am bragging about it too. Wow, something to change. Thanks Marie!
    Eleonore Krullaarts

    • Thank you Eleonore. It is fabulous that you feel the pride in the work you do with your students. To rejoice in helping others succeed is worthy of celebration. And it is also about finding a balance in our own feeling of self-worth. Do we live through the success we see in the ones we help along, or do we simply want to share our joy at their success – and our role in it. What might that difference look like for you?

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