I’ve been thinking a lot about adolescents lately, perhaps because I live with one teen and one tween. As anyone who knows an adolescent, parents an adolescent, or was an adolescent knows, adolescence is a time of individuation – a time to try on new ways of talking, dressing, behaving; a time to become, at least for the time being, completely different from the old-fashioned, totally clueless people known as one’s parents (or grandparents or guardians). As this quote illustrates, teens are especially prickly about any suggestion that a parent knows what it’s like to be him or her:
My mother thinks she lives inside my head. (Rocky, age 17)
This comment was made by a wonderful young man who, like many high school juniors, was engaged in an ongoing push-pull struggle with his parents about the college application process. His mother was repeatedly suggesting colleges that were in no way places he could envision himself. After years in the suburbs, Rocky was looking for a gritty urban experience so was drawn to universities such as Temple, NYU, and Boston U. Mom, on the other hand and with the best of intentions, was suggesting schools such as Penn State (too rural), Villanova (too suburban, too small, and too close), and Amherst (too rural and too small). These unpleasant interactions with his mother only served to increase Rocky’s resistance and anxiety about an already-stressful process.
To be honest, most parents probably do have a good sense of what goes on inside the heads of their children. And certainly, parents have good instincts about what is best for their children. After all, who knows a child better than his parents? Who has watched and listened to a child more closely or more intently than her mom and dad? The problem for adolescents arises when they don’t feel their parents are respecting their “separateness.” They want to be their own selves, separate and different from their parents, and to be treated as such. When a mother implies that she knows what is going on inside her adolescent’s head, she is violating this important boundary. When Dad suggests that he knows, better than his teen, what the teen’s best course of action is, Dad’s suggestions are invariably colored by his own experiences and perceptions.
What works much better in situations such as the one Rocky and his mother experienced is for the parent to listen more and talk less. Listening doesn’t just mean sitting quietly. The discussion will go much more smoothly if Mom can listen intently to what Rocky is saying and demonstrate actively that she hears and understands his point of view. With a little coaching in my office, Rocky and his mom had the following exchange:
R: Mom, why can’t you just let me do this myself? Why do you assume you know better than me what is the right college for ME?
M: You want me to back off and let you make this decision yourself.
R: YES! I think I will be much happier if college is a whole new experience. I know what the suburbs are all about. I think I will love living in the city – if not Philly, then Boston or New York.
M: You’re ready for a change and you think you’ll enjoy life in a big city.
R: Finally, you’re hearing me.
M: I’m trying.
Earlier attempts at this conversation had ended up with Mom repeatedly trying to persuade Rocky to consider smaller, suburban campuses and Rocky getting angry and shutting her out. Mom’s use of reflective listening helped Rocky to feel heard and for his thoughts, though in stark contrast to his mother’s, to be honored. This discussion continued on for a while and reached a very healthy conclusion. Rocky was able to show his mother that he had heard her point of view, had considered her ideas, and had come to a different conclusion about what he wanted out of his college experience. Mom thanked him for hearing her out and agreed to support whatever decision he made.
Rocky and Mom are two separate individuals so it is inevitable and healthy that they not always agree. As parents, we must allow a new type of relationship with our adolescents to evolve, one that feels very different from the relationship we enjoyed when they were younger. To do this, we must recognize and honor their independence, their separateness, and their differentness. In short, we must stop trying to live inside their heads.
[NOTE: Names and all potentially identifying information except age have been changed.]