Blame Shame and Guilt
May 15, 2018 11:25 AM   Subscribe

I’m blaming myself for my child’s “failures”. How to get out of this destructive pattern?

My 17-year-old junior in highschool is floundering a bit and I blame myself. He has always been a good student but this nine weeks he has a D, an F, and a C. Today he had a poor band tryout in his instrument for next year’s placement and he mentioned wanting to quit band.

As a mother I have struggled with depression since forever but manage it with good self care —exercise, social life, good nutrition and sleep, etc. For the past several months I have been in a downward spiral and have been isolating and mostly feeling terrible mentally. I feel like my behavior has been rubbing off on my kids, especially the 17-year-old and he has been “holing up” in his room and his grades are slipping.

I tend to catastrophize and start blaming myself for his “failures”. I do feel like there is some truth to my behavior affecting the household negatively. I accept this and don’t want to continue down this path.

I’m sad that he is doing poorly and tend to blame myself— if I were more successful, he would be to. If I cared about anything he would care about something. If I nurtured him or raised him in a different way, this wouldn’t be happening. I’m not intelligent and maybe he has inherited my low intelligence.

I’m concerned that he’s not trying at anything and doesn’t seem to have any hobbies or interests outside of watching YouTube. And since I am apathetic and can’t be bothered to do anything apart from reading the internet when I’m not working I wonder why I’m surprised by this.

He has made good grades up to this point and here we are in the most important year for college applications and he’s “blowing it”. I feel like a failure and want to run or yell. I mostly remind him that he hasn’t been studying and ask him “what the hell is going on?” I want to get in my car and escape. I feel embarrassed and ashamed. Rational or not, I feel like if I weren’t in a slump and was exercising more and getting out and doing more and being more cheerful and positive he wouldn’t have these grades or apathy. If I were a different kind of mother he would be successful and happy and excel. I feel like if my husband and I had more gumption, the kids would too.

Growing up I had a lot of academic failure because my home life was dysfunctional and violent. I went to community college, and then got a BSN. My biggest hope for my kids is that they would do better than I did and not have to go to community college.

I’m comparing myself to other mothers and have to volunteer (I’m committed to a dreadful volunteer gig for one more year) with these happy mothers who have successful kids who do well in their sports, instruments, and have near perfect SAT scores. I tend to be cynical about these people but it’s probably because I feel less than and threatened.

Thanks for reading this whine fest. I do need to get myself out of this mindset and advice is appreciated.
posted by loveandhappiness to Human Relations (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are you treating your depression? Has your son been screened for depression? It seems likely that this is not your problem rubbing off on him, but rather his own issue, and you should give him the tools (therapist, doctor, etc) to manage it.

Others will have more thoughts on teens with depression, but if you haven't approached it from that point of view, I hope you can help him get treatment right away.
posted by gideonfrog at 11:38 AM on May 15, 2018 [12 favorites]

Teenagers certainly react to their parents' moods, but it sounds like your son is having a rough time for reasons that may have nothing to do with you. He's allowed to be bummed about his grades and not making band for reasons other than how these things make you feel. I know this probably comes across as harsh, but it's worth stating clearly.

What might also bother him is that you seem to struggle with understanding or perhaps respecting that your son is an emotionally distinct person from you. You can have hopes and dreams for your child, and hold them accountable too, and still understand that they're not an extension of you. I'm not sure if that's what's going on here, though.

Both of you have your own feelings about the situation that you need to pay attention to, but you really need to not make everything about you. Your son's probably old enough to appreciate some honestly from you about your own feelings, but get that across reasonably and don't make your fears his problem to solve.
posted by blerghamot at 11:53 AM on May 15, 2018 [9 favorites]

For the past several months I have been in a downward spiral and have been isolating and mostly feeling terrible mentally.

You dont mention doing anything to address this? It seems like your usual management tactics aren’t working for you right now, so the thing to do is, as they say, put your own oxygen mask on first. You may, for awhile, need to add therapy or medication to get you out of the rut youre in. Figure that out, so you can be in a clearheaded space to determine what, if anything, your son needs from you right now.

I can guarantee what he doesn’t need is the pressure of you judging yourself as a human being on whether he gets good grades or does well in auditions or gets into a good college.

Your depression is finding a way to twist your love for your son into an excuse to feeel shame about yourself, which is bad for you and bad for your kids. Treat the depression aggressively, for all of your sakes.
posted by mrmurbles at 12:06 PM on May 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

A completely different perspective, quoting my sister who has three sons: "so now the little one is going through his exams and he is worried, and I'm trying to hide that I don't care a bit". What she was trying to say was that after seeing that the two much elder brothers are doing well in spite of various periods of teenage-ness, she had realized that things will turn out fine and it makes no sense to worry, but she knew she had to let her son know she takes him seriously and that just saying everything will be fine wouldn't work for him.

Your son is doing fine. One year of low grades won't shape his life if you don't let that happen. Take him seriously, but don't blame him or yourself or anyone else. Just get on with the future. What does he need to get back on track now? Ask him in a non-blaming way, offer him your support. He'll do fine.
posted by mumimor at 12:40 PM on May 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

I agree with everyone saying that you need to find a way to take care of yourself right now - whatever it is that you need to do to moderate your depression should be your first priority. This, in part, is good modelling for your son - seeing how adults take care of their mental health is always a good lesson, particularly if you have concerns that he may have issues with depression too.

If I were a different kind of mother he would be successful and happy and excel.

Nope. It's both freeing and terrifying, but there are no guarantees of anything at all when it comes to parenting.

here we are in the most important year for college applications and he’s “blowing it”

I have often reminded my kids that there are many paths through life - some are easier to follow at the same time everyone else is (like heading off to college in your 20s instead of your 40s), but many, many people take a different path, a slower path, multiple paths... and end up just fine in the end. Speaking from experience: if he really wants/needs a college education he'll find a way - now, next year, or a decade from now.

I’m comparing myself to other mothers

Please do anything and everything you can to stop the comparisons. Yes, some of them may be delightfully happy and have children who are thriving across all parts of life - - but it's just as likely that many of them are putting on a happy face while they're volunteering, they have a kid at home who's acting out in some stressful way, they have a dysfunctional extended family... Depression makes it easy to feel like everyone else is better than you, I know, but there's a very good chance some of those other mothers are comparing themselves to you and feeling they don't measure up. We just don't have an accurate picture of other people's lives.

Your son is old enough for you to have a fairly honest, blunt conversation - if you haven't already. Tell him that you've realized your depression has kicked up and that you're working on it (and make sure you really are). Tell him that you know this is a stressful year for him and you would like to help with any pressure he's feeling. Reassure him that life is a long game - even though everything feels urgent and "make or break" right now, he can set his own pace if he'd prefer. Listen to him. Take a lot of deep breaths. If this entire year is a write-off, it's ok. It's not the end of the world, and you are still a good, loving, caring mother.
posted by VioletU at 1:36 PM on May 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

I tend to catastrophize and start blaming myself for his “failures”. I do feel like there is some truth to my behavior affecting the household negatively. I accept this and don’t want to continue down this path.

Oh, sweetheart, you are catastrophizing right now! The idea that your son isn't doing well because you are setting a bad example by having depression is catastrophizing.

The truth is that depression is heritable and he sounds depressed. Not interested in band which he used to enjoy, no hobbies except distracting ones (YouTube), isolating himself. Take him to the doctor and have him screened and treated if need be. I bet his grades will come back up.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:42 PM on May 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

Hey OP, as the depressive son of a mother with undiagnosed depression for a long time, please get help for yourself, and continue to be supportive.

Once of the best things for me was seeing my mom finally get help for herself, that told me it was ok to get help for myself, and that it wasn't me, or us, but the depression talking. While she has fallen off the wagon a bit, I've moved forward with treatment and have been able to make my life so much better than it was before treatment.

That age is tough for anyone, and depression just makes it so much worse. Please talk with him about everything going on, even if it's about what's going on with you, and offer whatever support you can. You got this.
posted by RhysPenbras at 8:06 AM on May 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I hope you don't mind if I share my experience with you, because I was in *exactly* the same situation as your son at 17... my mum had also been struggling with depression since forever. In my case I think the sudden, looming, gut-wrenching terror of "I have to be an ADULT soon, and a SUCCESSFUL one at that" really exacerbated some low-lying depression.

Mum seemed always fretful of my poor grades, lack of hobbies, etc. I felt I was failing her, and I followed through with that by failing all my exams, dropping out of school, and getting put on strong antidepressants. Mum's response was to frame it as one massive "failure", and I left home and fell into a funk for a few years where I was barely getting by.

Ten years later (recently) Mum told me that she was only worried about me, and actually frustrated at *herself*. My teenage brain didn't see it that way at all.

Anyway, eventually I got myself out of the funk, went to university via an alternative route and got top of the class. Happy ending. I dearly wish Mum had come and had a few heart-to-hearts with me about how she was really feeling when I was in those rough times. Maybe my emotionally-stunted teenage self wouldn't have been able to respond with any coherence, but it would have saved me a decade of feeling like I was a disappointment to her, which made the depression so much worse. Who cares that I dropped out; I did well in the end. That sort of unconditional love / support's worth so, so much more than grades.
posted by youhavedeadedme at 1:34 AM on May 18, 2018

Thank you all for very helpful answers and personal stories. Things are looking better already -- with my kid and myself. My kid is doing fine, seeing friends, and has already brought a couple grades up.

I think I have a tendency to project my own perceived doom onto my kids because I can get in such a bad place mentally. I think I am having a midlife crisis/hormonal meltdown/overwhelmed mother phase.
posted by loveandhappiness at 6:28 PM on May 19, 2018

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