It was 10:30 p.m. when I heard him coming down the stairs. I paused Poldark, put down my phone on which I’d been scrolling Facebook, and said, “What’s up, bud?”
My 12-year-old sat down opposite me on the couch, folded up his man-child legs, and said, “I’m sorry I was arguing with you so much today. And I’m sorry I was saying mean things about myself.”
We had fought about clarinet practice and the conversation had dissolved into hostility and moodiness and him saying he was a “loser” and a “bad kid who can’t do anything right.”
At the time, I shot back a rebuttal about negative self-talk, countering everything he said, saying lots of good things in a kind of mean voice. Or stern. We’ll call it stern (I’m working on it).
But at this moment on the couch, my heart gave a little jolt of compassion.
“Honey, you’re going to be talking to yourself more than anyone else will talk to you in your whole life. So it’s really important that you speak to yourself kindly. You need to talk to yourself like you talk to someone you love. Would you call me a “loser” or “a bad mom who can’t do anything right?”
“No!” he looked shocked.
“Then you shouldn’t say those things about yourself.”
Adolescence is a delicate time. I’ve realized that both parents and kids are unveiling themselves to the other, and sometimes it doesn’t go very well. Just the day before I had been trying to explain why I was in a bad mood and this same child interrupted with “No duh, Sherlock!” I had a strong suspicion that he wanted to use the word to complete the alliteration in that phrase. (This phrase did not go well for him).
So, as we sat there on the couch, I hesitated, wondering if I should risk pulling back the veil a bit.
“Honey,” I said slowly. “I spent a lot of years saying really mean things to myself. It took me a long time to stop doing that. And I still struggle with it; I have to think about it constantly.”
He looked at me, taking in every word.
“I don’t want you to struggle like that. I want you to speak truth and love to yourself. You have to fight for it. You have to think about your thinking and push out the lies. OK?”
We talked a few more minutes. Then he hugged me for a long time and went to bed.
And I sat on the couch, my show forgotten, my phone in my lap—full of gratitude and full of grief.
It’s moments like this that I know I’m doing an amazing job as a parent. I am literally shaping this boy into a man—a man who is thoughtful, sensitive, emotionally intelligent, and mentally strong.
I am doing work that I believe in with all my heart. I am sowing seeds, and I know there will be a harvest.
The grief comes from remembering. I remember being my son’s age, in the hurricane of adolescence and beyond, and completely unmoored. I did not feel there was a foundation or safety to have these kinds of conversations in my family. There was no outlet for my emotions and no one corrected my words or thinking.
I felt alone and developed very unhealthy thought patterns.
This is when my struggles with anxiety and depression began. It has taken me more than 20 years of intense unlearning and struggle, of counseling and medication at times, to come to a place of emotional intelligence and good mental health practices.
But as I sat on the couch, in the silence of my living room, as the clock ticked closer to midnight, I was filled with holy wonder because I knew that if I had not fought, and relearned, and pushed for new ways of thinking, and move beyond how I was raised, there would have been no 10:30 p.m. conversation with my son.
I see how he is struggling now. I see him because I see myself—he has inherited so many of my battles.
So I’m pulling back the veil for him, teaching him new ways of being with himself, of living inside his heart and head, of addressing what it’s like to be a highly sensitive person with big emotions, anxiety, and a propensity toward dark moods and depression.
I’ve walked in the dark alone and I refuse to let my son do the same.
Our kids may inherit our mental health struggles, but we don’t have to let this be a generational curse. We can get better. We can unlearn and relearn and find new ways to live and love ourselves and others.
And then we can teach our children to do the same.