Right before I was married, my mom told me that she read a letter I sent to my college-aged brother when I was around 13-years-old. In a card with a Dilbert cartoon on the front, I wrote that it was hard being at home without him because our mom embarrassed me and wasn’t like “other moms”.
My mother told me she cried for three days after reading it. She made a tremendous effort to connect with me and provide the fun teenage years she never had, and even though she knew we were going through typical pains associated with teenagedom, she didn’t know how I truly felt.
As I listened to her words, I felt the heat of shame creep up on my cheeks. Of course, I apologized. I attempted a feeble apology for my behavior during those years and claimed that it must have been my hormones.
But even though decades have passed by and we have an amazing relationship now, I remember feeling that way. I remember feeling embarrassed by my mother and wishing I could be a little “cooler” than my family could manage.
Luckily, that was a short phase, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was acting like an idiot, and my mother was a living, breathing saint. God and karma had the last laugh, however, and blessed me with three daughters.
I think about that story a lot when I am in the weeds of parenting three teenage girls, which to be honest, is every day. I think about how I broke my mother’s heart, and how she told me she course-corrected a lot based upon my attitude with her.
If I was belligerent, she knew it was often something going on with my friends. She let me get away with a little bit more then.
If I was exceedingly obedient, she knew I was guilty of something, and she tightened the reigns.
When I lashed out at her, she knew she needed to reel me back in a little tighter.
But to think that I didn’t hurt her during these times, to think that she didn’t take it personally, well, I could tell by her face that she carries a little bit of that pain with her to this day.
It’s this knowledge that frustrates me sometimes when experts say, “Don’t take what your teen says or does personally.”
I mean, I understand it in theory. They will make bad choices that are not a reflection of your parenting. Sometimes they just want to get a rise out of you. It could just be hormones or “hanger” or simply them slowing breaking away.
But my relationship with my children is the most personal thing in this world to me, and during this tumultuous time, their words and actions often shatter my heart.
I tell myself that I’m too emotional, too invested, but I don’t know how to parent any other way. I’m not even sure if I would want to.
But instead of telling parents not to take it personally, let’s start acknowledging that there are going to be times your teen strikes you where it hurts, perhaps even where you are most vulnerable. Let’s start admitting that watching your teen make poor choices is gut-wrenching. Let’s start supporting each other through those times when our teens break our hearts.
Because every one of us is going through it, feeling it, trying to figure out what we’re doing wrong. And if you’re not, consider yourself lucky.
It’s all personal.
I’m not glad I hurt my sweet mom, but I’m glad she kept feeling my emotions. I’m glad she didn’t respond in kind, and instead parented the kid in front of her at any given moment. I’m glad she called me out when I acted like a brat and lost her temper because I pushed too hard and coddled me when I needed it most.
She simultaneously felt every emotion as I went through it, and loved me through it all. It was personal to her and part of our story.
I wish the experts would say, “Your teen will break your heart, but I promise you’ll survive. In fact, one day, if you’re lucky, your relationship will be stronger because you felt it all—the good times and the bad.”
Because I’m no expert on raising teens, but that’s the one thing I know.