I seem to write a lot about the importance of parental acceptance. This is by far the most common theme that arises in private conversations with child and adolescent clients. They know that their parents love them. They see this as inevitable. After all, they were all once tiny, adorable, and 100% dependent on their parents. Kids believe that all parents fall in love with their babies, and with an extremely small number of exceptions, kids are right about this. But what happens when the child grows up to be something other than what the parents envisioned? What happens when a boy hates sports but loves fashion design? When a girl wants pink hair and a dog collar? When a teen puts little effort into homework but spends hours in his room composing rock songs? When a girl is only comfortable wearing cropped hair and baggy jeans and tee shirts purchased in the boys’ department?
I’ve seen all of these kids, just in the past six months. They are all memorable, but none more so than a girl I saw ten years ago who gave me today’s quote:
When you sign up to be a parent, aren’t you supposed to love whatever kid you get? Lauren, age 13
Lauren’s family had relocated to a Philadelphia suburb from Chicago the summer before she started high school. Her parents worried that she might have trouble making friends, in part because she was young for her grade, so they decided to enroll her in an independent school rather than the local sprawling public high school. Her previous school had been a sprawling urban public middle school with an emphasis on creative and performing arts. Needless to say, Lauren was quite unhappy about the move and particularly unhappy about the school which she described as “full of spoiled white rich kids.” Her response to the situation had been to move in the opposite direction from her classmates. She wore shabby thrift shop clothes that fell just within the school’s dress code. She dyed her hair a different color every month or so. Despite maintaining excellent grades, she acted sullen and apathetic in her classes.
The school Lauren attended required that all students participate in at least one visual or performing art, one sport, and one club. Lauren, who was a talented pianist, decided to take up the drums. Even though she had years of soccer experience, she chose co-ed wrestling. When she couldn’t find a club that interested her, she asked her history teacher to help her organize a Socialist Club. Since it was Lauren’s intention all along, it was no surprise that her parents disapproved of all of her selections. They were so upset, in fact, that they brought her to therapy for “rebellious behavior.”
In my sessions with Lauren, it was clear that there were two problems – an easy one and a more difficult one. It was not hard at all to help Lauren begin to let go of her anger at her parents for making her move to “the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania.” All she needed was someone to give her time and space to talk about her feelings without invalidating them. When Lauren said “I miss my old life so much,” I didn’t remind her that her family had relocated because her father had been offered a great new job with a bigger salary and more prestige. I didn’t tell her that her anger was getting old and it was time to get over it. And I certainly didn’t try to convince her that Sellersville, PA was a really great place to live. Within a few weeks, Lauren had lost the scowl on her face and the edge in her voice and had become, according to her parents, “a little easier to live with.”
The harder problem to address was Lauren’s claim that her parents did not accept her for who she is. She actually gave me a second great quote: “It’s like they decided who I was going to be before I was even born.” In Lauren’s estimation, she needed to be a feminine, preppy, classical piano-playing, excellent grade-making soccer goalie who painted her bedroom walls pale yellow and baked cookies from scratch in order for her parents to approve of her. Like most young people, she did not question her parents’ love; it was all about acceptance. Lauren couldn’t bear the thought of trying to be the daughter she believed her parents wanted. She had decided her best option was to lean into her own identity and as far away from her parents as she could comfortably go.
I worked with Lauren’s parents to help them understand the functions of adolescent rebellion and to put Lauren’s actions in a larger context. I wanted them to see that, while it was uncomfortable for them, her rebellion was pretty mild. She wasn’t sexually active, using drugs, getting into legal trouble, or sneaking out of the house at night. She was not getting into trouble at school and was maintaining excellent grades.
I also tried to help Mom and Dad understand the effects of their disapproval. It was clearly not working to bring Lauren’s behavior in line with their wishes. On the contrary, their daughter was pushing back and moving further and further away from their expectations. I expressed concern that, if the dynamics in the parent-daughter relationships did not change, Lauren would experiment with more worrisome forms of rebellious behavior.
Sadly, this story does not end well. After several sessions with Lauren’s parents, they thanked me for helping their daughter feel less distressed about the move from Chicago. They told me that they did not accept my view that children need to be given a lot of freedom during adolescence to establish their own identities. In fact, they held an opposite view: that adolescence is a time to step up limits and control because it is the last opportunity parents have to insure that their children turn into good, productive citizens.
I often wonder what happened to Lauren. My gut tells me that she is doing just fine. She was a smart, motivated, engaged, and confident young teenager with a lot of talent and strength of character. I imagine that she is now a young adult with all that and more. I like to think that when/if she becomes a parent some day, she will not decide who her baby will be before it’s even born. Mostly, I like to think that she will love and accept whatever kid she gets.