Young People Up Close

Working with adolescents

Why Parents Must Find Opportunities To Talk

We need help to disentangle, understand and bear our feelings about our children

Lydia comes into my counselling room, concerned about her son, Danny. We talk. It emerges that she’s already doing all sorts of sensible things to support him. The trouble is that she can only do so much: there comes a point at which she has to let him make his own mistakes. And that’s the agony, made worse by the fact that her own mother has always been so critical of Lydia as a parent and Lydia feels so angry with Danny and angry with his father for contributing so little. She feels lonely, she says, despite having lots of friends. And all these feelings somehow get in the way when she’s trying to think clearly about her son, causing her sometimes to over-react, to panic and despair. And then Danny thinks she hates him and then she hates herself, she says, because she never set out to be like this. “I wonder, could you see him for counselling?”

I ask her if she’s mentioned it to Danny.

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She hasn’t.

“Would he be interested?”

“Doubt it!”

I say that there’s no point in forcing him. He’s dealing with life in his own way. But I ask whether she’s ever thought of getting some support for herself. “Counselling, perhaps?”

“Do you think it would help?”

“It might…. Not necessarily to get lots of advice,” I say, “but to think with someone about your own life – your disappointments, your anger, the people who don’t support you.”

“It’s funny,” she says, “but Danny reminds me so much of myself at that age!”

Young people are often very good at getting their parents to feel their own worst feelings (their fear of the future, their anger at all the things that won’t be controlled) and parents are always likely to be doing the same thing, unconsciously getting their children to feel what it’s like to be disappointed, to feel that life is being wasted.

I don’t know Danny but imagine that, like all young people, he’s passionate about being given a second chance. Or a third, fourth or fifth chance for that matter. I imagine that he’s passionate about adults not holding grudges against him. But it can be hard to forgive our children for not being perfect, for not being like us or for being exactly like us! It can be hard to manage these feelings with equanimity, especially when we’re on our own or feel on our own.

Sometimes we need to look after ourselves in order to look after our children. Not by giving ourselves lots of presents or holidays but by getting some proper support for ourselves because being a parent can be a lonely job. We rarely feel that we’re getting it right. We’re expected to be experts on our own children when we can’t be - at least, not all the time. We’re learning as we go along, making mistakes and never getting any praise for all the good things we might be doing. “It might feel good having someone to talk with about how you’re feeling,” I say to Lydia. “It might help to keep things in perspective.”

Nick Luxmoore is a counselor at King Alfred's College, in the UK.

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