Christa Santangelo Ph.D.

Hope and Empowerment

Your Teen Is Not You

Essential parenting realization number one.

Posted May 21, 2019

Source: photography33/DepositPhotos

A well-meaning dad in my practice came into my office at his regular time, his eyes wide, perched at the edge of the couch. He wanted to share something; he could hardly keep it in.

“I realized something this week,” he blurted breathlessly.

I waited, wondering which of the many tangled moments had just been unfurled:
“My son is not ME!”

This may seem obvious from an intellectual standpoint; we all know this is true. In my experience over 30 years of seeing parents and families, and as a mother myself, I know that most of us act as if it were not true—that, in some way (much of the time) our teen is us.

How do I know? Because we have so many well-formed ideas, of which we are sure, about the way their life would best be led.

The many years our children depend on us contribute to this illusion.

They start out (if we’re mothers) inside us. Then they are nearly attached at the hip, and slowly, they find their distance. But the unhealed patterns we maintain, not this extended period of dependency, are the true culprit of this fallacious stance: My Teen And I Are One.

“What’s the problem with this?” you might ask.

Well, as Byron Katie likes to say, “I like reality, because it always wins.” So, reality dictates that we and our teens are not multi-bodied organisms. Indeed, we are separate bodies.

So when our teenage daughter isn’t concerned about proving that she is popular, and we worry that this will make her unhappy like we were, or that our tween son, an artist at heart, would really be happier if he played basketball because sports were the key to our happiness, conflict will arise. Or maybe we insist on manners at the table because our mother was very aware of what the neighbors thought about our family and made that clear. So, we make sure our daughter always looks her best; so she wouldn’t be worried about what others thought like I did.  Maybe working hard helped me feel safe in the world so I discourage my free-spirited teen – for whom traveling is a passion — from straying too far from the well-traveled path.

All our beliefs about what might make our teen happy may have a shred of truth or even a large dose of helpful hints. But as one mentor reminded me, that best way to alienate our friends and loved ones is to share our Helpful Hints for Daily Living. The same goes for your teen.

Their pushing back against everything you say is part of their developmental rite – so parents will nod in acceptance of certain distancing behaviors, deep inside, we all still struggle to make our child in our likeness. It’s just what we do.

I don’t highlight this because it’s all bad. I just see so many parents suffering under the influence of “Hopium,” as a teacher called it. Put down the pipe!, she would say as I would hope that my daughter would find her passion or hope that she would marry someone who would treat her well. When under the spell of Hopium in my daughter’s presence I lost sight of her and then, feeling this, she would lose sight of me.

In my attempt to teach my tween how to be happy, loved and successful in life (at least according to me) down to how to put the fork in her mouth not this way but THIS WAY, I was off on a boat on my own island. And she on hers.

We’re all well-meaning – we don’t think we want our teens to be us. In fact, we want them to not suffer the way we did. Yet, we unconsciously entangle them in the stories we heard:

  • “Do well in school; education is the key to life.”
  • “Never give up; don’t be a quitter”
  • “I want him to reach his potential; he could be trying a lot harder”

Maybe teens need space because they are brewing ideas that are bigger than we can imagine. Maybe they hear a song in the distance whose melody matches something invisible to us.

And if we just give them space and time and a quiet smile, they just might find their own North Star.