A few years ago, I had what felt at the time like a Twilight Zone experience, well two actually. A family came in to see me, seemingly embroiled in a fierce battle, because 12-year-old Claudio had been invited to a coed sleepover. This was a family I knew well. About a year earlier they had come to therapy because Claudio was facing some social challenges in his new middle school. He was a sweet, quirky, brilliant boy who was slow to develop such that he seemed younger than his 11 years. Our work focused on helping Claudio to respond to unkind treatment from some of his peers, to become more resilient to the teasing, and to find a more accepting group of friends.
The crisis precipitating this particular session actually occurred because Claudio had found a peer group and was enjoying an active social life. A friend from his 7th grade class was having a Bat Mitzvah, and about 20 kids were invited for a sleepover party. About half of the invitees were girls and about half were boys. As Claudio and his parents told me about the invitation, the tension in my office built. Mom and Dad thought it was completely inappropriate that such an invitation had even been extended. According to these parents, a boy-girl slumber party was a crazy idea for 12 and 13 year olds. According to Claudio, it would be social suicide not to go. He had worked hard to fit in, had finally found a group of friends, and now his parents were trying to ruin his life.
Twilight Zone experience #1: While they seem somewhat commonplace today, at the time of this session, I had never heard of a coed slumber party for pubescent kids. In my head, I was asking “On what planet would it be okay to allow a group of hormonal middle school boys and girls to sleep in a room together?” [Despite the fact that coed slumber parties now happen with some regularity in certain communities, I still maintain that they are developmentally inappropriate for kids in middle school and high school. That’s another post.]
Once Mom and Dad left my office and Claudio and I continued our discussion, it became clear that nothing was clear. I made a reflective comment such as “You seem really upset that your parents won’t allow you to go to this party,” to which Claudio responded,
To be honest, I need them to say no. Claudio, age 12
Twilight Zone experience #2: The boy who was five minutes earlier telling me his parents were ruining his life by saying no was telling me he needed his parents to say no. In my head, I was asking “Is it me, or is something really screwy here?”
A few more minutes alone with Claudio and it all made sense. Claudio didn’t want to sleep in a room with 10 girls. He was a gawky, awkward, 12-year-old boy who had not yet entered puberty. The thought of putting on pajamas and sleeping surrounded by a bunch of 12- and 13-year-old girls, many of whom were fully developed, was terrifying to Claudio (and probably to many of the other boys invited as well). The argument with his parents was a face-saving maneuver. He needed for everyone to think he wanted to go to the slumber party so that he could blame his parents when he had to decline the invitation. He was giving such a strong angry performance that even his parents had not detected the ruse.
Once Claudio’s true feelings were out in the open, this was an easy problem to solve. I encouraged him to be honest with his parents so that he could stop pretend-fighting with them and enlist their help. He was skeptical but agreed to try it when I pointed out that he and his parents wanted the same outcome. I explained their son’s concerns to Mom and Dad, and they were all too happy to play the bad guys. All three agreed that Claudio should not go to the slumber party. Dad even offered to allow Claudio to go to the party and to tell the girl’s parents that Claudio could not stay for the sleepover due to an early morning commitment the next day. Mom, Dad, and Claudio left my office relieved and happy with the planned course of action.
Children need limits. They don’t always like them, and even when they do, they still may push back. Children raised without age-appropriate limits can’t always keep themselves on track. Without appropriate limits, children may find themselves in situations they are ill-equipped to handle. Many of the children I see who are dealing with legal trouble or substance abuse were given too much freedom when they were not mature enough to handle it. They went to parties where there was no adult supervision or roamed the streets with no accountability for their whereabouts. Frequently, their parents treated them like junior adults far before they were ready.
When your child pushes back against a limit you set, be careful not to take his protests at face value. Take some time to reflect on your reasons for setting the limit in the first place. There’s nothing wrong with telling a child that you hear her objections and need some time to consider them. There’s also nothing wrong with changing your mind about a limit you’ve set as long as your reasons for doing so are sound. If you do, make sure to communicate that you’ve changed your mind based on thinking about the situation differently and not because your child threw a fit. If, after careful consideration, you still believe your limits make sense, stick with them. Use the firmness of your convictions to help you withstand your child’s resistance.
There is a reason kids don’t leave home at 13 or 16. They need guidance, structure, and limits as they develop through adolescence into young adulthood. As they demonstrate greater responsibility, self-control, and accountability, then you can begin to relax the limits. This should be a gradual and a thoughtful process with the eventual goal of launching young adults who set appropriate limits for themselves.
[Note: Names and all potentially identifying information has been changed.]