I don’t have a very exciting or intriguing story for you today. The young person I will describe could be just about any young person. The problem that brought her to therapy is not very interesting or unusual. The point this teenaged client will illustrate, however, is a most important point, indeed.
Lisa was brought to therapy by her mother because, according to Mom, “My gut just tells me something’s wrong, and Lisa won’t tell me what it is.” Mom went on to describe vague concerns that could signal trouble or could just be signs of ordinary adolescent development, behaviors such as spending most of her free time alone in her bedroom, saying very little about what was going on socially or academically at school, and appearing apathetic and mildly irritable during family meals.
After sharing all of these concerns, Mom readily left my office, fully aware that Lisa was more likely to open up if she were not present. I made some type of general observation such as “It sounds like your mother doesn’t know whether to be concerned about you or not.” To which, Lisa responded
I can’t really talk to my mom. To be honest, the person I talk to most is my cello teacher. Lisa, age 16
Kids, especially teens, often seek out the listening ear and counsel of an adult other than Mom or Dad. Instrumental teacher, soccer coach, 10th grade adviser, aunt, grandfather, best friend’s mother, AP Biology teacher, acting coach – they all have one thing in common. They are not Mom or Dad. Even if they have children of their own, to the young people they teach, coach, advise, or just hang out with around the kitchen table, they are not Mom or Dad. A consistent and trusted adult, one who possesses this essential quality – of not being Mom or Dad – is just what many a young person needs in his or her busy, challenging, and oftentimes confusing life.
I rarely tell stories about my own experience here, but I am thinking about this post as both a way to share an important point about parenting teenagers and as a way to pay tribute to Mrs. Higginbotham (yes, that’s her real name), my 11th grade English teacher. I was a sullen 16 year old, much like Lisa. I was in boarding school where I very much felt like an alien among Earthlings. It was hard to talk to my parents about this, in part because I had begged to go to boarding school and I did not want to hear that they had told me so. Also, I didn’t think they would understand. I enjoyed close relationships with both of my parents, but neither could be the sounding board I needed during this tumultuous time in my adolescence. And that’s where Mrs. Higginbotham came in. She allowed me to talk about why I was unhappy, to share my observations of my peers and how differently I saw myself, and to rant about teachers and classmates I found irritating. I often credit Mrs. Higginbotham with “saving my life” with one simple comment. At my lowest moment (which was normal adolescent angst but felt like the lonely end of the world at the time), she said “If you are so unhappy here, then perhaps you should make a change.” I loved her for this. She did not tell me what to do. She did not tell me my experience was normal. She did not say “I told you so.” She did not point out that my parents were spending a fortune on my private boarding school education and that I was being ungrateful. All she did was listen and then gently put the responsibility for improving my situation onto my shoulders where it belonged. This was both terrifying and empowering. A year later, I had discovered that I had enough credits to apply to college, applied to three universities, been accepted to one, and was a 17 year old freshman feeling much happier and more sure of myself and believing that I was in the right place. I seriously doubt that my beloved teacher is still alive, but just in case, THANK YOU, MRS. HIGGINBOTHAM!
Now, back to Lisa. It turned out that she was, in fact, upset about something. There had been some drama among her close group of girlfriends involving – what else? – a boy, a boy that Lisa had like-liked since 6th grade. Mean comments had been made via text, and Lisa had been excluded from some outings by these girls. Lisa was fully aware that these were not huge problems and that they would blow over soon enough. Still, she was feeling blue and alone.
There were a couple of reasons that Lisa did not want to turn to her mother for support. The main reason was that the boy in question is the son of Mom’s best friend. The other was that Lisa did not fully trust her mother to hear the story without overreacting (see Don’t Go Back to Middle School). To make matters worse, this all happened during August when Lisa’s cello teacher takes a break from giving lessons, so Lisa felt she had nowhere to turn.
Mom totally understood that she could not always be the person her children talked with about their troubles. She herself had once been a very private teenager who did not want her parents knowing the details of her life. Mom had turned to her best friend’s much-older sister when she needed a sounding board.
I saw Lisa for a month of weekly appointments. She talked a lot about the struggles in her relationships with her friends and about her feelings for the boy. I did a lot of listening, asking clarifying questions, and reflecting back. In our final session, Lisa really had nothing to discuss. Not coincidentally, she had resumed cello lessons that same week.
It is not always easy to accept that your own child – the one you have loved since before he or she was even born, the one you would give your life for, the one whose pain you feel as if it were your own – cannot or will not share the goings-on of his or her life with you. Just know that what is important is that there is an adult – a not-Mom, not-Dad adult – on whom your teen can count for a listening ear and good counsel. Respect the sanctity of that relationship. Trust that down the road, you will very likely be the one your young adult child calls in times of need. It will be you who receives the midnight phone call after a college romance goes sour. It will be you your young adult child will text with the great news of a promotion. And, it will be you awoken at 3am by a panicked call because your grandchild’s cough sounds like a seal’s bark.
For now, it may be Mrs. Higginbotham or the cello teacher; in the long run, it will be you.