Dr. Lynn Margolies
The deadline for replying to college acceptances is rapidly approaching. High school seniors are often faced with increasing internal strife and pressure over which school to choose, with a complex array of feelings informing their leanings towards one school over another. Parents have their own biases and may believe they are “right” in their assessment of what school may open more doors in the future. The conflict between parents and teens may take on exaggerated importance for both at this crossroads, but how this decision is made may be more important than just what school is chosen and who is right.
This struggle is not unique to decision-making about colleges, or even to parents of teens, but is one confronted by parents at different times in their children’s lives. It begins early on when parents face the frustration and helplessness of not knowing what to do to get their children to behave. The struggle continues to manifest in various ways at later stages, for example, when parents are challenged by trying to get their kids to do what they think is right for them (study/homework).
The emotional and interpersonal tone in which parents engage their kids when they have strong feelings and disagree with their choices can determine whether teens (or younger children) become caught in a struggle to assert their independence and rebel against feeling controlled. When this happens, winning the interpersonal battle and protecting their autonomy can overshadow what kids naturally want and feel, even forcing them to betray themselves by choosing the opposite of what parents want. Or, alternatively, teenagers may subordinate their own will and desire in order to comply with what they feel is expected of them - in this case marking the beginning of their journey to college and into adulthood with the confusing stamp of someone else.
How do we deal with getting our loved ones to do what we want them to do? In all relationships we feel the tension created by this dilemma. The subtext of interactions between parents and children facing conflict shapes the template kids develop and carry with them, forming the basis of how they manage similar [power] dynamics later on in intimate relationships and relationships with authority figures.
For instance, the response patterns described above can create a sensitivity to being told what to do and a readiness to resist - actively or passively - in an effort to protect a sense of freedom and autonomy, even as adults when this is no longer at stake. Or, alternatively, the pattern representing the opposite side of the same coin may develop whereby automatically sensing others’ needs and accommodating others occurs at the cost of sacrificing themselves, creating difficulty in relationships and the inability to operate from a position of groundedness and strength.
Especially as children grow up it is frightening for parents to realize both their limitations in guiding them to make the best choices, and their powerlessness in being able to protect them from pain. But attempts to use force in order to promote change, even the force of one’s authority, however tempting, not only teaches the use of force or power as a means of influencing others, but it can backfire with teens. The danger of getting into a power struggle is the risk of “winning the battle but losing the war” and, at times, even losing the battle as well.
The optimal position for parents to be in with their teens is to be seen and experienced by them as a genuine and wise ally who is truly interested in understanding them, rather than a force to oppose. This position maximizes the possibility of having a real impact and minimizes the potential of inadvertently pushing teens towards having to define themselves primarily in relation to parents - either being like them or the opposite.
Only in an atmosphere where teens do not feel pressure to defend their position, is there the potential for them to be open to authentic dialogue, where they can hear and possibly take into account parents’ concerns. This atmosphere occurs when teens feel their choices will be respected and accepted, when they feel free to decide what is best for them and define themselves according to what feels right to them.
Being an ally does not mean simply holding back your opinions, while remaining privately invested in a particular outcome. It means actually working to extricate yourself from being invested in a “position”, thereby being authentically prepared to accept what may feel to you to be a wrong decision, letting go of trying to control the outcome. This stance requires recognizing the individuality and separateness of our kids as they grow up, imparting wisdom upon them and then standing by them with a leap of faith.
-Dr. Lynn Margolies is a psychologist in private practice in Newton-