Bonding with Your Teen: A Hidden Opportunity
Dr. Lynn Margolies
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.
Courtney’s mom, Jill, was beside herself. While Courtney was away for the summer at a therapeutic camp, she found a collage Courtney had made - hidden in her room. As a piece of artwork it was impressive - complex, creative, colorful and artistic. But the content was macabre, suggesting fascination with drug culture, dark music, piercings and tattoos. By now, she was expecting and hoping for more from her daughter. This was exactly the type of thinking that led her into trouble in the first place. Overwhelmed with anger and disgust, Jill destroyed the collage. She would not be made a fool of and have these images in her house. Courtney had started getting help last year for drug and alcohol abuse and cutting herself - and according to all measures - seemed to have made tremendous progress . Mother was fairly certain that Courtney had been clean and had been doing well, even feeling excited to return home.
Following this discovery, Courtney’s mom confronted her daughter over the phone and told her to be prepared to find her collage gone when she got home. Courtney freaked out and became hysterical, "I always knew you wanted to get rid of me. All you care about is how you appear. Sorry you’re so ashamed of me and couldn’t have a daughter you could brag about. I hope you’re happy. Even David (past drug dealer) cares about me more than you. Maybe I should just go live with him..."
Courtney’s mom was devastated by this comment, and took it as a personal affront. She vacillated between tears and self-righteous anger. She was mortified by Courtney’s behavior and admitted that she was ashamed of her. “I’m at my wit’s end. Nothing ever changes. She had the nerve to make that collage in my house… And now she seems to prefer that drug dealer over her own home and family…”
Both Courtney and her mom felt rejected and abandoned by one another - and hopeless. Jill wanted what was best for her daughter, but on a deeper level was driven by the need for Courtney to behave according to what would make her feel proud as a mother. The more Jill needed her daughter to make her [mom] feel good about herself, the more alone, ignored, and cast aside Courtney felt (and the more likely Courtney’s behavior would be propelled even further away from mother’s values).
The collage was a window into Courtney’s world. This time instead of acting out her feelings - Courtney used restraint. Through artistic expression, she was able to give voice to and channel her feelings without harming herself. This was a psychological achievement and showed real progress. By getting rid of the collage and showing contempt for what was in it Jill unknowingly turned her back on Courtney and communicated to her that she couldn’t stand to see or know what was inside her.
Now Courtney’s inner world (and pain) was driven further into secrecy and shame, and further from help. Though Courtney appeared angry in her comments to her mom, she internalized mother’s view of her - and was left feeling self-loathing, shame, badness, and despair. To her, throwing the collage in the garbage was tantamount to throwing her away with it.
It’s true, Courtney had never been the kind of daughter Jill had wished for and tried to get her to be. Interestingly, Jill experienced disapproval and criticism from her own mom - who had also always wanted a different kind of daughter. Though she was highly accomplished, Jill never felt good enough and never felt her mom was proud of her. No matter what she did she could not make herself into the person her mother wanted. This was how Courtney felt too. The same dynamic was playing out now - here in the next generation, though not immediately recognizable to Jill because the script was different (since Jill would never have dared to be openly hostile or blatantly self-destructive and defiant like Courtney) - and because of a blind spot.
What should mom have done in the first place and what should she do now? How can we tell whether our reactions are coming from our own unresolved issues versus “legitimate”?
Clues that our own issues are rearing their heads:
When our feeling reactions (anger, self-righteousness, shame) are powerful and require immediate release
When we are certain we are “right”
When feeling the need to “teach a lesson”
When taking our children’s behavior personally
When finding ourselves being repetitive or in a repetitive cycle with our children
When finding ourselves lecturing
(For tips on talking to your teen, please also refer to Guidelines for Parents (CALM) in “Prom Primer: Know Your Limits”)
Jill’s hasty over-reaction caused her to miss an opportunity to get to know her daughter, be close to her and help her, which is what they both really wanted. Had Jill not come to rapid judgment and panicked, she might have been able to praise her daughter for expressing her feelings in an artistic way - and been curious with her about the collage - how it affected her to make it and what it meant to her. The collage could have served as a conversation piece to bond them. It offered a medium (as art, film, literature can do) to talk about the images and feelings in displacement, and what led her (or the artist) into that world of darkness - potentially providing enough distance to buffer the topics.
Though at first Jill was certain and thought it was obvious that destroying the collage was the right thing to do, when she came to understand that the collage was symbolically a part of her daughter - an expression of her pain and struggle - she began to feel saddened by how she reacted and less entrenched in the struggle. She loved her daughter and did not want to hurt her or contribute to her feeling bad about herself. She was surprised to learn that although she and her daughter were different in many ways - a chronic source of disappointment to her - and bone of contention between them, in fact she could see that they may not be so far apart in some ways. Jill saw that her daughter was feeling how she often felt growing up in relation to her own mom. Something clicked inside her and she felt for Courtney in a new way. She understood what it was like to feel ashamed and exposed - as an adult this vulnerability from her past resurfaced in relation to Courtney and when faced with disapproval or judgment by an authority figure whose opinion mattered to her. She felt regret and sadness as she recognized that in an unconscious effort to banish shame inside herself - she was unknowingly passing it onto her daughter. In becoming aware of this process, she was able to talk to Courtney with compassion and take responsibility for her own reactions, rather than blame her, thereby allowing a healing process to begin between them.