Confining adolescents to the basement can be a deliciously tempting idea at times.
Melissa feels she’s losing control of Carly, her 12-year-old daughter. Of greater concern: She fears she might be losing her altogether.
“We used to be so tight,” Melissa said in our counseling session. “My worst nightmare has been that Carly would someday resent me the same way I resented my own mother.”
Friction between Carly and her mother began about three years ago. “She just wouldn’t listen anymore,” Melissa complained. “If I said, ‘No,’ she would argue with me. Since I wasn’t about to give in, she would storm off screaming and crying.”
The problem has only worsened over time.
“You must learn to be pliable,” I said. “Your rigid parenting style is not only encouraging her to defy you, it’s also alienating her—the very thing you don’t want.”
Many people equate flexibility with being weak. Flexibility isn’t as much about changing the household rules as it is about changing your approach. Rather than “bringing the hammer down,” flexibility welcomes open discussion, mutual cooperation and, possibly, negotiation. It’s important that a teenager’s ideas are listened to and considered. We all need a sense of having some influence over our day-to-day lives. Rigidity only breeds resistance.
Flexible people strive to understand, listen and be fair. Their desire is to collaborate—not to control. How they impact others matters to them and they’re willing to change their style for the sake of the relationship. After all, a parent has zero positive influence if the relationship is in need of repair.
When adolescents defy authority, there’s no need to panic.
They’re instinctively preparing for the self-reliance and independence that will be necessary in adulthood. We should view resisting authority as a natural aspect of growing up.
I asked Melissa, “What did you most resent about your own mother?”
Melissa responded, “She didn’t seem to care how I felt. She could be cold and detached. There was no sympathy.”
After sharing several painful examples, I remarked, “You needed to feel her caring heart, didn’t you, Melissa?”
Her silence and bowed head spoke volumes. Suddenly she looked up with concern.
“Carly feels like I don’t love her, just like I felt with my mom. I never meant that!”
“Melissa,” I said, “instead of being worried about Carly resenting you, be more concerned that she will suffer the same way you suffered.”
There was a pause.
“Sometimes she even says she wants to kill herself,” Melissa said. “But I know she doesn’t mean it. She’s just trying to get my attention.”
“Well . . . could be,” I said, “But, you make that sound like a bad thing.”
The truth is, Carly is showing how profoundly frustrated she is. Undoubtedly, she has learned that words won’t make a difference, so saying she wants to kill herself may be her one and only way of expressing her immense sadness. It’s a cry for help . . . to her mom.
My advice to Melissa was to focus on repairing the relationship. She needs to start out by telling Carly what she’s learning about herself as a mom. Admitting her mistakes and expressing the fears she conveyed in our session is vital for laying the groundwork for a new connection. Then she must listen to Carly’s response while looking warmly into her eyes. Never interrupting, never becoming defensive. Carly will have a lot to spill out—including emotion. I instructed Melissa to resist getting hooked and to see it as part of the healing process. Convey comfort and understanding.
And in going forward, when the old pattern returns—and it will—to simply ask Carly, “What do you want me to understand?” For it to work, I suggested she apply the same listening skills she learned earlier.
This approach will give you a much better relationship with your adolescents than consigning them to the basement. 🙂
Names are changed to honor client confidentiality..
(c) Salee Reese 2018