Accepting things as they are - parenting edition.
September 29, 2014 3:05 PM   Subscribe

Can you help me accept my limitations as a parent? My child is going through a rough period and I feel like I failed them. I am not going to give any specific examples because I am looking for more general info. So, I’m looking for ideas (books and articles are also welcome) on how to deal with the fact that I cannot protect my children from unhappiness.

When my child was little I didn’t have as much trouble with this, but now that they’re a teenager it’s harder. The problems are getting bigger, the feelings are getting bigger. I’m not talking about anything huge, just the normal things that are part of life for many children. I used to hate high school and I so hoped to be able to avoid that for my child. I find it so hard to see my child unhappy. (There’s no bullying or anything like that. And there’s not much I can do about a lot of the things they’re unhappy about. It just is how it is, sadly.)

I’m not looking for ideas on how to help my child. I am already working on that, thinking about that (I also read many past askme's about parenting, including this one where many people shared what their parents did right when they were teenagers). I’m now looking for help for me, so that it is not weighing me down so much when they're unhappy. I’m also looking for balance. I feel that as a parent I actually am partly responsible for their happiness. And I really do my best in that area. I make sure that I am available to talk, I will listen to them and not belittle their worries. I have made sure to do more fun things together recently. They like cooking, so we’re cooking elaborate meals together some days, things like that. But if I feel totally responsible for their happiness, that’s not good for both of us. (I definitely wouldn't want them to hide their concerns from me because they can tell how much it affects me, for example).

I tried to search a bit about this, and found some articles about overprotective parents who try to protect their children from every single thing that might go wrong, and how that's bad. That's not what I'm talking about though. My kid losing at a tennis game, that's just how it is. Not being picked for a role they wanted at a school play, that sucks indeed, and you're totally allowed to be unhappy about that, but I'm not going to school to ask to fix that. It feels like many of the "just allow your child to be unhappy, it's good for them!" articles are about those kind of relatively minor things, not about children who just hate school altogether, or about dealing with friends who stop being friends. My child also isn't depressed. They have friends, after school activities that they love, and they're often happy too.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Everything your child is experiencing is an opportunity to teach resiliency, healthy coping mechanisms, empathy, and good sportsmanship - none of which they'd have an opportunity to learn without a little adversity and some emotional bumps and bruises. Focusing on giving support and teaching the above might help with the feelings of helplessness and failure.
posted by cecic at 3:19 PM on September 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

I had a hard time growing up, and I really didn't get along with my mom very much. One of the things she did that I loved was to take me out, just me, sometimes, for dinner, or to take me shopping for a new dress. It never cost that much, but I appreciated the time she spent with me, where I didn't have to worry about school or anything else, really. We have a much better relationship now.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:28 PM on September 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

I feel that as a parent I actually am partly responsible for their happiness. ... But if I feel totally responsible for their happiness, that’s not good for both of us.

That's a good insight. Would it help to reframe your love as something other than being responsible for your teen's happiness? To understand your new role as not one of providing, but of reflecting: that you are there to model appropriate responses to sucky situations; to be empathetic; to listen; to make your words and actions express love and confidence in your teenager (and not your own feelings of inadequacy in the face of life's inevitable "that's just how it is' situations) -- ? His or her feelings... that's his or her autonomy. Processing it with him or her is where you can help encourage resilient responses. Let your heart break with your teen, not for. Show that there's something beyond, something better after this rough experience; teach the tools for getting to the other side. Being there -- really there, with him or her in the moment -- will help (and it sounds like you're making some conscious decisions there, good on you).

This is tough territory, and I hope you find the right way *for you* to navigate it.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:33 PM on September 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

I love the comment about teaching resiliency. This is often about modeling or encouraging good coping behavior.

When you yourself have had a bad day, explain your emotions out loud: "I had a miserable day at work. Ugh. Jane was in a bad mood and then I felt tense and I just couldn't focus. I'm going to go for a run and take a long bath (or call an old friend, or go out to dinner, or read a book, or whatever you do) to take my mind off of it."

And help them think of coping mechanisms: "I'm sorry you're having a rough week, sweetheart. What do you think would make you feel better? Want to be alone for awhile? Do you want to go see a movie, or call another friend and make plans for tonight?"

If it's something structural, help them think through how to fix it. If they feel lonely, help them talk through how inviting new people over to hangout or to make plans can help build new friendships. If they are bored or frustrated with classes, signing up for different ones next semester, or getting a tutor, or making a study date with friends. etc.

It's only as an adult that I started to realize that I have control over my own moods and I need to actively seek out things that improve my mood and perspective. I wish my parents had modeled that for me earlier.

I understand you said you weren't looking for ideas for how to help them. I think this perspective on teaching resiliency can also help frame your own perspective on this. As a parent, all you can do is equip them with the tools to deal with life's up and downs - and you still have some time left to do that, before they are off on their own! Not protecting them from unhappiness, but you ARE helping them learn how to deal with it. And you're a good mom for doing that.
posted by amaire at 3:59 PM on September 29, 2014 [9 favorites]

I think it was in Scream Free Parenting that I read the line "You are not responsible for your child, but you are responsible to you child." Basically, what I take that to mean is I have no control over how my child will turn out, and very little or no control over the struggles they face. I'm not responsible for that. I can't be. What I can do is be responsible to my child. If she wants to talk, I'm there. If she needs some guidance, I give it. I parent her and partner with her however I can. Anything beyond that is beyond my control, just as my struggles are beyond hers.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:02 PM on September 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

I agree with sharing your own difficulties, within reason. You don't want to stray too far into "buddies, not parents" territory, but I think it could be very helpful to get real with your kid at this point.

When I was a teenager -- hell, even now -- I felt like my mom, in particular, was terribly fake and inconsistent. Her standards changed all the time, and it made me feel like she was being terribly dishonest even as she made the gulf between us wider and wider. I felt like I was on my own and couldn't trust her (or anyone). Meanwhile, I started seeing ways in which she ignored her own problems and, when she even acknowledged them, blamed them on other people and situations.

I can't imagine what life would be like if she shared some of her own struggles in a more honest way. Not necessarily the struggles she had when she was my age, because again that can emphasize the differences between how she grew up and how I did. (Maybe things are different with you. I sure hope so!)

Some of the things my dad shared with me about his own fears and struggles have been the most meaningful, memorable pieces of advice I've ever gotten. I feel honored that he's trusted me like a fellow adult, and I can carry the lessons from that all the way into my own adulthood.
posted by Madamina at 4:09 PM on September 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

The following might sound like it's advice on how to help your kid, but I mean it as something to remember for yourself, when your kid is unhappy.

I was an often unhappy kid/teenager, and like your kid I also had friends, was not depressed, did activities, and had caring parents. I just went through a lot of terrible things at school. From that perspective, your kid knows full well that you can't and shouldn't have to solve their problems or "fix" their life or their feelings. As I remember it, what made all the difference in the world was when adults did not dismiss my pain and my problems. What still pisses me off today, far more than the bullying or heartbreak or whatever, was when adults would imply that it doesn't really matter because X, it's not a real problem because Y. I am pretty sure that all your child needs is for you to legitimize his/her feelings, not in a "life sucks sometimes" way but in a real, serious way, the way you would with another adult who is going through something serious. And if you already do this, which it sounds like you do, just do it extra to make up for all the other adults who are doing the opposite. I'm saying this to narrow down your "job description" as a parent. You don't have to do as much as you might feel you do, simply do this. To put it another way, you're not responsible for their happiness, only for respecting them.

(Also, maybe I was just a little snot but at that age I didn't want to hear about anyone else's problems. There was just too much constant stress and fear about school in my brain for me to take in that my mom had had a bad day at work or something. I did get over that by college age, but I just wanted to point out that your kid might not want to hear about how/why you relate to them just yet.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:37 PM on September 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

From Haim Ginott's "Between Parent and Teenager":
A wise parent sympathetically watches the drama of growth, but resists the desire to intervene too often. ... We cannot prepare our teenagers for the future. We can only help them deal with the present. There can be no real preparation for the most soul shaking experiences a teenager may have to live through: being jilted by a beloved; being betrayed by a friend; being snubbed by peers; being mistreated by a teacher; being shaken by the death of a relative or of a friend. ...Secure in their parents' affection and respect teenagers must venture on their journey alone. Concerned adults serve best when with confidence they stand and wait.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:01 PM on September 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Let's say your teenager hates going to high school, just like legions of American(?) teens for the last several decades have felt about the experience, too. That's a SCHOOL problem, and a problem with the way society structures adolescence, NOT a parenting problem.

Even the "best" parents (however "best" is defined) cannot overcome a shitty school situation where their child is committed to spend 35+ hours of their week. Accept the things you cannot change, no?

Sometimes the phases that challenge us the most as parents are the exact phases we ourselves had the most trouble with during our own childhoods. You say "I used to hate high school and I so hoped to be able to avoid that for my child. I find it so hard to see my child unhappy." Of course you do! Sounds like this is maybe triggering some unfinished business for you around that phase of your childhood. You hoped history would not repeat itself, and it seems like it has, and so understandably, that is sad and frustrating for you.

Just know that not everything is a parenting issue, OP, even though it is apparently the height of fashion right now to frame absolutely everything to do with childhood in "Parenting Issue!" terms. Be gentle with yourself. A so-called "failed" parent would never write an Ask as thoughtful as yours. It's abundantly clear, to this internet stranger anyway, that you're going the best you can and I'm damn sure your kid feels loved. Who could ask for anything more?
posted by hush at 5:15 PM on September 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

It's hard when our babies grow up. You need to get with other parents to help you out. Church, volunteering at school, the roller rink, whatever. You can't go through this alone or it will cut you like a thousand little knives.

Your child is growing up. You have to distance yourself. How to do that is by setting an example for your teenager. Do things that you want them to emulate: volunteering, cooking (which you share), crafty things (which my daughter does with my granddaughter).

My Mom went out and worked and also did volleyball. She sewed. Give them some freedom by exploring something that you have always wanted to do. My folks basically ignored me when I was a teenager, I mean, they let me do what I wanted, within reason, and did their own thing. But I still had chores, we ate meals together, etc. But I could sit and read when I wanted, watch TV to a limit, etc. They basically were light hands off, as long as I didn't get into trouble (but I was the 5th, so they were old hands by that point). I babysat, worked at the local theater as a stagehand, came home at a reasonable hour, and never got arrested. I also had angst but they ignored it and I never would have wanted them to know about it, because I considered it private. My parents gave me privacy. And they led their lives and I led mine, and we met in the middle.

Go do that class that you've always wanted to do, zumba or stained glass or something. You can still be open to your child while pursuing your own interests, and yet, give them the time alone that they need to process through their emotions. Then meet up for your cooking nights.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:47 PM on September 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

God* grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

* substitute whatever noun works for you.
posted by Homer42 at 5:54 PM on September 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

The problems are getting bigger, the feelings are getting bigger.

This did not happen with my oldest son, but when my youngest son hit puberty, oh, god, The FEELS. He was pissed off about everything and just picking fights with me, his brother and his best friend.

So, one day, I sat him down and explained to him that hormones have somatopsychic effects. In other words, he was being flooded with testosterone and it was making him feel extreeeemely angry instead of just grumpy about stuff, and this was making him look around and try to figure out why. Which was making him think that because he was SOOOOO angry, I or his brother or SOMEONE must have done something really horrible to him that merited that really strong reaction. But, really, it was just hormones. It wasn't that we were treating him terribly. It was that he FELT certain things more strongly and those feelings were kind of over the top reactions.

I ended with saying "Your problem is not called my bitch mother. It's called testosterone."

After that, he was tremendously easier to deal with. When he would start ranting about something and was really over the top, I would go "Gee, you sound like some icky hormone-soaked teenager." And he would say "I am some icky hormone-soaked teenager." And he would try to keep it down to a dull roar and I would try to understand that he couldn't completely control it.

After that, his outsized hormone driven feelings were so much easier for both of us to cope with.

So, maybe part of it is that she is just a hormone-soaked teen? Maybe explaining that to her would help a bit? And maybe it will help you to think of that way? It isn't so much that things are terrible. It's that something upsets her AND she is kind of like someone with PMS only ALL the freaking time because Puberty! Because once I realized that my youngest son was just reacting differently to hormones than his calmer older brother, it was a lot easier for me to just deal with his outbursts and not feel like a terrible parent.
posted by Michele in California at 5:55 PM on September 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

It sounds a little like you're mourning the role of parent a little bit. I mean, you're still a parent and always will be, but your role starts to change around adolescence, and it can be really tough at first when your child starts becoming an adult. It's a little bit of a helpless feeling, and I'm pretty sure that never fully goes away.

You actually kind of are transitioning right now from a parent type relationship to a friend one. You can't solve all their problems, and increasingly, they don't want you to. You're starting to approach equal footing, and eventually, your relationship will be such that you are supporting that child in much the same way you'd support a close friend. You can still give advice and offer help, but it's not going to be the same anymore. You're still mom or dad, but you're not really mommy or daddy, you know? You're almost done with the initial parenting stage, and now your child is getting ready to be a grownup, and all you can do is cross your fingers and hope you did a good job.

That is a loss. It's scary and it's sad watching your child become an adult with adult problems and responsibilities, and the fact that this has always pretty much been the goal, I think you still mourn their childhood a little when it starts to actually happen for real.

And I don't know if that feeling ever goes away. I still sometimes miss being my kid's mommy, but I really like the grownup kid I have now too.
posted by ernielundquist at 6:09 PM on September 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

My son has been on a roller coaster for over a year now, and it has been very difficult for me at times, I think because his pain triggers memories of my own difficulties in high school. For better or worse, he shares his turmoil quite, uh, effectively. And a sour mood can fill the house. But it has helped to remind myself, frequently, that he and I are not the same person, and that his experiences will not manifest themselves in the kind of pain I felt, at least not exactly, and that he has more resources than I ever did for dealing with tough times. Besides, by allowing myself to revisit my highschool years while he lives his does him a disservice. His highschool mood is enough on its own; it does not need the echoes of my highschool mood layered on top. Come to think of it, I don't need it either.

It's getting better. He's almost 15.
posted by baseballpajamas at 7:14 PM on September 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

If your kid is miserable in high school, research local private schools (many have financial aid available), unschooling, and homeschooling. Heck, your district might even have a vo-tech that could improve things.

An adult can quit a horrible job and go someplace else. A kid doesn't have that freedom, but a parent can help him to liberate himself from a destructive environment. Show your child how to advocate for himself by doing it for him--this will teach him to be proactive about affecting change in his life.

Really, a decade or so in a similar environment, with the same pool of people, is resilient enough if you ask me.

If the status quo is miserable, then you really shouldn't accept the status quo.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:19 PM on September 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

Let her know it's normal (certainly in the sense of "common", and also in the sense of "okay") to not enjoy every minute of high school. There's nothing wrong with high school not being the best years of your life, and she should know that. In fact, it's OK to not be happy with how your life is going every minute of every day. Expecting anything else is unreasonable, in any stage of life. Thinking something is wrong with you for thinking normal thoughts doesn't make things any better.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:41 AM on September 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

A million yeses to modeling resiliency, both by words and by example. Teens can be very sensitive to perceived parental hypocrisy ("do as I say, not as I do"), so you have to put your heart in it.

Also yes to acknowledging feelings. These are probably kind of related themes. You acknowledge the feeling as legitimate, and then model how not to let it take over your life. You seem to already be painfully aware of this, but kid problems are real.

My parents both grew up in homes that were probably in the range of normal in the '60s but would be considered abusive today. They used to argue loudly (no violence) and I found that very upsetting, but their response was always something along the lines of "Quit your bitching, you don't KNOW from fighting." Shockingly, I did not find this comforting. It would have been a lot better if they had acknowledged that this upset me, even though it would have been unreasonable to ask them to never do it. The point of that is not to imply that you are the root of your teen's problems, just that frank acknowledgement of problems and feelings goes a looooooong way.

Finally, I'd take the comments above about hormones, and high school not being the best years of your life, and take it one step further. Explain sympathetically that she's a hormone soaked teen stuck in a cesspool of other hormone soaked teens, and that's a recipe for suck. But remind her that it gets better! So much better! Encourage her to formulate an escape plan - to think about who she wants to be at 22 and lay the groundwork for that now. Grow her wings! The It Gets Better project is targeted at gay teens facing harrassment, which is not her situation, but I wonder if it might help anyway? Knowing that It Gets Better (and it so does) would have eased some of my misery in high school.

To circle back to the question you actually asked, if you can reframe your parenting perspective from the very natural desire to protect her to the goal of helping her grow her wings as big and strong as they can possibly be (and accept that this must necessarily involve growing pains), it may help you feel better.

Plus hey! Here's a great chance to model resiliency and coping skills ;)
posted by telepanda at 7:05 AM on September 30, 2014

I think it depends on your child. I wasn't particularly mature as a teenager (although I was responsible and grounded) and I strongly doubt I would have been able to step back and say "a-ha, it's just hormones!" That is something I am able to do now, as an adult (and usually only in retrospect - I.e. "wow, that was a ridiculous thing to get mad about. That's not like me. Wait - it was the hormones! I ought to apologize.")

Anyway, my feelings felt real to me at the time and justified, and I feel like if my parents told me my feelings were just hormones, I would have been extremely irritated with that. My thought would be just to go with something sympathetic like "being a teenager is hard." And say it in a genuinely sympathetic way. But then I have not been the parent of a teenager yet...
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:05 AM on September 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

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