Kids listen to what their parents say. Really, they do. They don’t always acknowledge that they are listening. They certainly don’t always agree with what they hear. And of course, they are not always compliant. But trust me; they listen. And they remember.
About fifteen years ago, I worked briefly with a 9th grader named Aviva. She came to therapy because of anxiety that focused primarily on performance. An excellent student who had never made a B or lower on a report card, Aviva took only honors-level classes, studied constantly to the exclusion of leisure and social activities, went above and beyond on papers and projects, and rarely slept more than six hours a night due to burning the midnight oil and stress-related insomnia. We worked together for a couple of months and made a little progress in getting Aviva to devote some weekend time to leisure pursuits and in improving her sleep habits. When April arrived, she became very worried about final exams and decided the time she was devoting to therapy would be put to better use preparing for finals.
I saw Aviva next almost exactly three years later. She made the appointment herself and started the session off by asking if she could pay me in cash rather than using her health insurance. She did not want her parents to know she was seeing me.
Aviva was a senior, two months away from graduation, and on course to be the valedictorian of her 500-member class. She had been accepted to three Ivy League schools. And she was 100% certain that she did not want to go to college in August. She wasn’t sure about college further into the future; but she was adamant that she would not go in the fall.
Initially, I thought Aviva had come to see me to work through the decision about college. She quickly clarified that her decision had been made and that she was confident that it was the right decision for her. She had come to request that I help her tell her parents about her decision. Aviva expected her parents to “freak out” and to force her to go. When I asked how they would force her, she explained that her mother would just cry until she couldn’t take it anymore and that her father would bully her until she gave in. I had met Aviva’s parents when they initially brought her to see me three years earlier. I did not get to know them well, but they both impressed me as kind, reasonable, and concerned parents.
Aviva and I agreed that I would call her parents, explain that their daughter had been to see me a couple of times, and invite them to come in for a family session. In the phone call, I let Mom know that I understood how curious she must be about what was going on with Aviva, but I asked her to refrain from discussing anything with her daughter before the appointment.
In the session, Aviva did an excellent job telling her parents how she was feeling. She explained that she was “burned out on school,” “completely clueless about what she wants to do with her life,” and “not up for such a huge step.” Mom cried a little. Both parents expressed surprise and asked a few questions. Dad let Aviva know that he thought she was making a mistake. Both parents encouraged Aviva to select a college and defer enrollment for a year just to leave her options open. At the end of the session, Mom and Dad both hugged their daughter. They asked me if I would see Aviva to help her create a Plan B.
I saw Aviva a couple of weeks later. She had been talking to a friend’s father about the possibility of working as a receptionist in his insurance business. She had a tentative plan to start the job in August after several weeks of relaxing. I commented that her parents had seemed pretty accepting of her decision not to go to college in the fall. To which she replied,
It doesn’t matter what my parents say now; they’ve told me my whole life that people who don’t get a college education are losers. – Aviva, age 18
Clearly, Aviva had been listening to her parents.
Much more recently, I met a young man named Peter. He was in 11th grade at the time and had asked his parents if he could talk to a therapist. Without hesitation, his parents had made the appointment. In my first session with Peter, who like Aviva was a high achieving and well-behaved teenager, he told me that he is gay. He had come to that conclusion gradually over the past couple of years. At the time, he had told only one other person about his sexual orientation, and that person was his new boyfriend.
It is not uncommon for LGBTQ (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/questioning) youth to enter therapy. Adolescence is a tumultuous, angst-filled time at best; add to the mix a sense of being different or confused and/or misunderstood and what teenager wouldn’t want a listening, non-judgmental ear? And that is really all Peter was looking for. He was ready to come out to his parents, his siblings, his extended family, and his peers. He anticipated that there would be some “rough moments” as he did so, and he wanted a safe place to process and problem-solve along the way.
Peter decided to tell his parents first. He felt a lot of trepidation about telling them which I mistakenly assumed was because he feared they would react negatively to the news. I asked, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Peter’s response:
Nothing bad is going to happen. My parents have always told me that they will love and accept me no matter what. They taught us to be kind to everyone. I am not worried about their reaction. – Peter, age 16
Clearly, Peter had been listening to his parents.
Peter explained that his only hesitation about coming out to his mom and dad had to do with the fact that once he started talking to people about his sexuality, there would be no turning back. He imagined a life in the future in which he was gay and out and surrounded by friends and family who would love and support him. He harbored no illusions that getting to that future would be smooth or easy. We used the metaphor of rowing through a rough current (coming out) to escape going over a waterfall (continuing to hide part of his identity) and to reach smoother waters (being known, accepted, and loved).
I saw Peter for about six months. During that time, he let everyone important in his life know that he is gay. To a person, every family member and every close friend embraced him. Once he knew he had a strong support system, he took the bold step of posting on social media. He kept his message short and sweet: “I’m gay. No big deal.” Even after he had come out in such a public way, Peter had very few negative experiences. Someone vandalized his locker twice, a teacher made insensitive comments that Peter felt were directed at him, and schoolmates insulted him with homophobic slurs on a few occasions. On balance, though, Peter’s coming out experience was a very positive one. He had no doubt after six months that he was better off being open and true to himself and enduring sporadic negativity that he would have been if he had continued to hide his sexuality. When we were ending therapy and reflecting on his experiences over the months we worked together, Peter commented on how lucky he is to have the parents he does. He knew how much harder his life would have been with rejecting parents.
So, moms and dads, kids listen. They listen when you are talking directly to them, and they may listen even harder when you’re not. Think about what you say. Remember that you never know who your children will turn out to be. If they turn out to be someone that you have criticized or made fun of or worse in the past, it will be very difficult to undo the damage to the relationship that your words cause. You will never regret modeling acceptance and compassion, and your children will love you all the more for doing so.
[Names and other potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy]