I remember when I was a young woman, for a fairly long time, every word my mother spoke triggered an automatic alarm system in my body. It became hard to even listen to a simple “hello” or request to “pass the salt” without feeling like a siren was being sounded. Why? She wasn’t doing anything “wrong,” she wasn’t yelling at me, inordinately demanding, or deranged. Yet, her voice stimulated me in the most intense ways. It’s taken me years to understand and three teenage children of my own raised to figure out some of what this was about.
Why do teenagers (emerging adults) need to lash out? Is it due to the fact that they are experiencing radical hormone surges? This is part of the picture, but not all. My experience as a parent and former emerging adult has shown me that the lashing out occurs as a direct result of their profound need for space to emerge into new beings; much like a butterfly from its cocoon.
Around me all the time, I see and hear stories about parents and emerging adults clashing and creating cycles of wounding words and great harm. I’ve lived this story from all sides. Reasons and recriminations won’t necessarily change the patterns. There may not be a traceable reason for behavior. There are currents and rivers and underground waterways that rule the lives of a young person as they emerge from the domain of their parents. These waterways are anything but subtle, controllable or understandable and they are usually impossible to see or have perspective on while you are in the midst of them. One minute you think you are on dry land and then suddenly you find yourself sinking in a whirlpool. This is how it unfortunately feels to parent an emerging adult and also, how it feels to be parented for that same emerging adult. NOT MUCH FUN!
I have friends and family who no longer speak with their children or parents, siblings or other family members. We are so primed in this society to take everything personally and to HOLD onto all the hurt. Kids will say things like “I can’t deal with you very much at all because you are mentally ill and your parenting of me reflects this,” or they will swear and scream and run out of the room or house. They will sulk and storm about. They will not acknowledge birthdays, mother’s day, father’s day, or any number of important things that used to be shared and celebrated. As parents we will go through a full range of emotions and not always or even frequently be able to maintain our equilibrium in the face of all the changes and challenges. This wild ride doesn’t just end when kids move out either. Patterns and problems can emerge now that have very long trajectories.
Also, our children will remember every slight or mishap we make. They will amplify it and remind us of it. This will undermine us if we don’t find ways to address the wrong we did and move through it or on from it and not have it be a broken car horn blaring at all times. When others see us acknowledging mistakes and sincerely apologizing and aiming to shift or change, even if it seems like nothing is shifting, our correct and proper actions do make a difference. Just because an interaction is flawed does not exempt us from attempting to correct the flaw or take responsibility. That’s our job as the parents, to be ON TOP OF IT, not to expect our kids to know or figure it all out. Yes, they need to grow and change, but we set the tone for the way things happen.
Support from others is critical to survive this period of time. When my friends and I speak we go over the incidents or problems we’ve had with our children and remind each other of patterns and what worked or didn’t work with us in similar situations. We give each other the necessary perspective and jettison the brutal words and junk like ballast that has be be emptied so the boat can right itself. We each parent differently and have our own techniques as well. To parent successfully, at this time, requires all the personal skills and reserves a person can find as well as the support and help of others. The goal is to have a relationship with your child, when you are done parenting. It doesn’t mean it will be peachy keen all at once or that it will be easy, but something that allows for a future together is the ideal. That goal is not always achievable, no matter how hard one works, but finding a way through this territory mandates support, lots and lots of support and some kind of fundamental trust and hope, even when there is no reason to be hopeful or trust.
It’s a huge challenge. My own daughter started the process several years before I was ready, way before I even thought I needed to think about this stuff. She has always been at full speed ahead, I call her my comet girl. Yet, for some reason, I was still surprised when things got complicated before she even hit the teen years. I remember one incident where she was screaming at me in our driveway about what a terrible person and mother I was and how I never took proper care of her or understood her or did anything correctly at all. This may have been in response to trying to get her hair dealt with, I have no memory of the actual triggering event. My daughter is now almost 30, so this was quite some time ago. She may have been ten or eleven years old at the time.
My husband told me to walk away from her tantrum. He’d sit there with her in the driveway. I was a wreck, snot and tears falling in equal measure down my face. I had zero perspective on this situation. I was roped into her pain and it was all I could see, the sense of myself being a failure was huge, epic. Later, when she’d stopped screaming and was resting in her room, my husband came and told me I absolutely had to learn to not take her rantings personally. He reassured me that I was a terrific mother and that even though he didn’t understand at all what was going on with our daughter, he knew that my mothering of her wasn’t the issue. My husband is someone who has a very different perspective on parenting than I do and he has MUCH better boundaries. He was hugely helpful in this situation for me and continuously reminded me to not take the ranting personally. I still did, but the reminder also found room inside of me and over time helped.
I cannot honestly say I figured this all out while my kids were in their emerging adult phase. I actually just turned a new corner this year around long standing issues with one of my adult children. So, I don’t want to pretend this is simple or easily shifted. I have spent years in therapy, off and on, addressing the many layers of pain in my life and in my children’s lives. There are lots of “reasons” for folks to have issues, but everyone’s stories are different. Some kids respond very slowly or very deeply to things; you may not even know they are upset for years, others are sparky and shoot off all the time. The trick is to keep saying and reinforcing your love for them while and through whatever intensity or ugliness is unfolding.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that I don’t use the word teenager and prefer emerging adult or emergence. I’d rather be overly cautious and aware about the feelings of others and how we frame these situations and dilemmas can often affect their outcomes. There isn’t anywhere to go with a teenager. They are by definition, frivolous, prone to emotional and physical outbursts and generally regarded and treated as troublesome immature aliens that one has to endure. Most often parents sigh when they say the word and all the making fun of them that goes on in the media only further cages them and our perceptions of them in.
When I say emerging adult, something different happens. There is an implicit acknowledgment that something is growing or emerging. These words are positive and they also support the young person’s desire to be seen, heard and respected. They also reinforce the idea in our minds that our children are practicing and just like their adult parents, they will make mistakes and blunders. If we don’t give them the room they need to do this, we risk the following:
tampering down a volcanic amount of emotion so that it has to explode (this happens anyway, but there are ways to minimize it)
creation of all kinds of strategies to avoid interacting with parents because said interactions are painful and unpleasant for all parties. Not acknowledging the ugly nature of things won’t make that ugliness go away, i.e. Let’s pretend everything is fine and all go out to dinner or to visit gramma… This is a recipe for a disaster.
unhealthy eating and other habits developing as a further way to create space. If meals become a source of conflict then eating disorders may emerge and this pattern can and often is set way before kids are in their teen years
feelings of complete and utter failure and dejection about their ability to ever successfully navigate or complete anything
feelings of shame for their behavior with no idea how to apologize without giving ground which their initial behavior was about creating
increase in secrecy in areas that have previously been out in the open as well as new ways to conceal themselves or their activities which can include and lead to drug use and unsafe sexual practices, diseases and pregnancy
This list could go on and on and it clearly sobering. I want to take a minute to talk about this need for space and the need for boundaries. There is no magic formula here. If you are respectful, have good boundaries, clear, kind and give space you won’t automatically get the results you are aiming for. This whole time in your life and your child’s life is a gigantic adventure and growing experience for everyone. The trick is to find a way through it like characters in a good novel, not a sitcom or murder mystery. We’re aiming for functional adults and relationships that can endure the changes and challenges of life on this planet.
You are allowed and indeed need your own boundaries about what is acceptable behavior. These are the hardest boundaries in the world to maintain and create. They also need to be somewhat permeable so that if they get broken it isn’t the end of the relationship, “pack your bags” and “you’re on the street” kind of thing. That feeling is natural for a parent to have.
As parents we’re acutely tuned to our children’s pain, growth, processes and their attunement to us seems nil. This is where the biggest mistakes occur. They are also attuned to us, but in a different way. Every breath we take and tear we shed looms very large on an internal screen within them. I tried to describe this to my mother twenty years after we very roughly navigated those years together. Her emotions and her voice and her breath even registered for me as if the volume was turned up on the highest setting all the time. I had to physically not hear her voice or be around her in order to hear myself think.
Not everyone has this experience with their parents, but it is true that after a certain number of years living with them, you know their voice patterns, their usual responses and you may naturally feel a little irritated or tired of them. It’s our job as the parents to not get our feelings hurt all the time and take it so personally. It’s a kind of stretching out of the cocoon and since we are all so close together in there, it is inevitable that they will bonk and bump into us in the process.
I will share more about this in the future, but wanted to get this out into the Nicole Zone, for those of you starting this journey or in it now. I cannot say I did it right or even perfectly. I can honestly say that I have relationships with all my parents and all my children and that there is communication and love there. There are also times of stress and confusion, but we have managed to weather those and remember and affirm our love of one another and our ability to be present for each other. My mother has file folders full of all the nasty horrible recriminating letters I wrote her and she also has the ones full of my love. At some point in the future, we’ll probably have a burn the nasty letters day, but both she and I are creators and archival material is valuable and hard to let go of.
I share this to point out, that my mother who is 74 and myself, almost 50 have weathered some VERY serious storms and managed to still emerge in relationship. My daughter and I as well and my older son too have had bumpy rides. It’s all unfolding still, which is the whole point, the long perspective, not the short term when you are looking at family is the one you want to remember, especially when the immediate situation can be very fraught.
I’ll end by sharing a beautiful and very helpful teaching from a friend of mine. When things were at their worst for me with my daughter, my friend Akiva, told me to practice meditating on a future time with my daughter, where she and I would be laughing together or having tea together or making a meal together. Basically he said to focus on any future activity that would be something joyful or at least not miserable. This idea, at the time, seemed a little crazy to me, but it really helped. It set aside a space in my heart and mind for the possibility of a future that I really wasn’t sure would ever happen. I can say that I have laughed with my daughter and made tea and dinner with her many times now and this was not something I thought would be the case when we were in the middle of the storm.
So, dream a little dream or a big one, of yourself and your parent or your child and you finding space and time together that is joyful and less stressful, even if it seems impossible, create that hope and that trust inside your heart and see what opens out from there. Practice and have faith/emunah!
From my Open Heart and Open Hands I wish you great good luck and skill as you venture out into the wild waves!