Long-term memory is a great asset for a parent to possess. Just when Mom is about to pull her hair out because her children won’t pick up after themselves (see Swooping and The Real Reason Bedrooms Have Doors), she remembers that she, too, was a slob during her childhood. When Dad is ready to scream in frustration because his academically gifted daughter is getting mediocre grades because of her minimal effort (see All Work and No Play and The Homework Tree), he reminds himself that, as a teen, he was far more interested in girls and sports than Geometry and Spanish. Fortunately, when parents don’t readily remember what they were like at their children’s ages, a few leading questions from me are usually adequate to jog their memories:
Thinking back to when you were a little kid, how much did you value a tidy house? Did you clean up spontaneously, or did you require lots of reminders from your parents? Despite your messy beginnings, have you learned to keep a tidy house?
Remember high school? What did you value most as a teen? Did that change at some point?
There is one part of youth that parents do not seem to remember. Perhaps it was just too painful and embarrassing a time to hold onto. Even my leading questions are often met with blank stares. This time is early adolescence, and the following story from a client in the throes of this challenging developmental period illustrates my point well.
The family had come in to see me about a month after their brand new house burned to the ground due to faulty wiring. The fire occurred during the school/work day, so no one was hurt, but the family lost virtually everything they owned. Their community had responded by donating clothing and household necessities, and the family was settling into a temporary apartment. Everyone seemed to be coping surprisingly well under the circumstances – Mom, Dad, and 8-year-old twins – except 13-year-old Hank. He was sullen, angry, refusing to go to school, and much to his parents’ dismay, very unappreciative of the generous donations from friends and strangers from their schools, workplaces, and church. In one of the early sessions with Hank and his parents, Mom commented, “We can’t understand it. We didn’t raise him to be like this. He keeps demanding that we take him to the mall and buy him a whole new wardrobe. He won’t wear any of the donated clothes and he got angry when I bought him clothes at Target.” When Mom finished, Hank turned to me and said:
My parents want me to commit social suicide. Hank, age 13.
He went on to explain that “no one buys their clothes at Target and the kids that do are complete losers.” (Bless Mom and Dad; they did not point out the contradiction!) Hank feared being called names if he wore clothes that were not purchased at one of a small number of expensive stores. Mom became tearful and Dad angry. Given what the family had been through, clothing brands were completely inconsequential. To Mom and Dad. Not to Hank.
Here is where that long-term memory comes in handy. Remember how important it was during middle school to fit in? Remember how you wanted the same haircut as your best friend? Remember how there was only one acceptable brand of sneakers to wear? If you do, then you probably remember your parents lecturing you about the value of money and how companies such as Guess and Jordache should be paying you to advertise their names across your chest. If not, then join the club. Many parents I meet in my office have no recollection of that developmental phase called early adolescence when being just like everyone else is of paramount importance – the time when the approval of peers outweighs virtually all other considerations including the pleasure of one’s parents.
This developmental phase, which I will admit has been one on my least favorite as both a child and as a parent, is a necessary precursor to the exciting stage that comes next: the gradual emergence of a strong, stable, individual identity. It’s as if middle schoolers need to feel completely secure that they are just like everyone else (just as smart, just as attractive, just as cool, etc…) before they feel confident enough to experiment with being different. During the next developmental phase, kids try on various personas, not all of which parents can readily embrace (see The Kid You Got). A kid like Hank, who during middle school was obsessed with name brands and fitting in, may go through a second-hand-clothing-only phase. The kid who used to be accused of brown-nosing with teachers as a 7th grader may experiment with being a smart alec with her 9th grade teachers. It’s all part of growing up – all normal, all good, but not necessarily all easy on parents.
So what about Hank and his parents? My goals with this family were three-fold. First, I wanted to provide a safe place for all members of the family to talk about the experience of losing their home and all their belongings. This was easy; everyone, including Hank, was ready to talk about the experience. Second, it was my hope that I could help Hank’s parents develop a genuine understanding of the unique challenges the trauma created for their young adolescent son. I’m not sure they completely “got it,” and neither could remember a time when they had been “so superficial,” but they were relieved to hear that Hank’s preoccupation with fitting in was developmentally normal and did not predict anything awful about his furture. Finally, I believed there was a collaborative way to address Hank’s desire to wear name brand clothes while honoring his parents’ values around money. After a somewhat arduous problem-solving discussion, the family came up with an excellent set of solutions. First, Hank’s parents returned the clothes to Target, gave the money they got back to Hank (but no more), and took him to the mall to buy clothes at the stores of his choice. He was able to purchase many fewer items than his parents had bought, but he was much happier with fewer name brand items than he had been with an abundance of lower-cost items. Hank also requested that his parents take him to a local thrift shop where he was able to purchase many name brand items at very little cost to fill out his wardrobe. Hank and his parents all felt comfortable with the outcome.
If you take nothing else away from this post, I hope you will think to activate your long-term memory when you are going through a challenging time with your child. When your typically immodest daughter starts locking her bedroom and bathroom doors, ask yourself, “Did I do that at her age? Did I really have something to hide or was it all about privacy?” When your son no longer wants to be seen within a mile of you at the shopping mall, think about yourself at his age and why you considered it totally uncool to be seen with a parent. If you can put it into an appropriate developmental context, you will handle the parenting challenges more effectively and you will feel less hurt and distressed by your child’s behaviors.
By the way, there are many great books out there about teenagers. If you are only going to read one, I recommend Get Out of My Life, But First Can You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? by Anthony Wolf.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed.]