I want to begin my clarifying: not all teens will break their mother’s heart. I do not believe such a rift is absolutely inevitable. But it happened to me, and it might be happening to you. If so, I need to share this.
In going through my blog’s archives, I found this post I wrote in 2008. My oldest daughter was 14 years old, and we had just entered a very difficult phase with her. That phase would last for over three years. It was so hard. I cried a lot. I worried about her and for her. I selfishly mourned the idea that we would never be close again.
But that’s why I’m sharing. You may see something familiar in our story of “then.” But please make sure to read our story of “now,” and take what good you can from it.
For a long while now I have refrained from blogging much about my teenage daughter, feeling that her privacy trumped any need I had to vent. It is foolish, though, to suppose I would be able to completely remove the impact of her choices, experiences, and behavior from my day-to-day life and struggles of being a mother.
Increasingly, parenting this child has started to affect everything I feel about being a mother, even to my younger children. Her story is starting to change my story, and in response I need to express a little of how that makes me feel.
I am, first of all, fairly dumbfounded. I think I have expressed this here before – my complete wonder at how quickly my daughter seemed to erect a mean, thorny wall to keep me out. I didn’t see it built in stages, it was almost an overnight construction. I have always been reluctant to subscribe to popular Child-Rearing Inevitabilities to explain or excuse unacceptable behavior (I especially hate phrases like “boys will be boys”), and I felt – with effort – we might be able to navigate through the teenage years with relatively few scrapes. I laid the groundwork early; I talked often and openly with my daughter. Our communication was something others would often recognize and praise. I myself felt a righteous pride in how hard I worked to be a good mother, how much I thought about her feelings, her perspective. I never wrote her off, I always treated her with respect and taught her to respect herself as well. I am not saying I was perfect – I sometimes yelled, was less than patient, not always very charitable. But overall, I really felt we had built a strong foundation.
Now I’m hoping that foundation will weather the storm currently raging within our relationship. For the past 8 months she has attempted to systematically push at every boundary we’ve ever placed as our expectations for her. The way she behaves towards us, her siblings, her commitment to school, her commitment to living church standards – all have suffered from her deliberate attempts to either toe the line as closely as possible, or simply step over them altogether. Her choices have left her almost unrecognizable to me at times. It has hurt and confused her siblings. It has left a spirit of animosity and contention in our home.
If I had expected some challenge to boundaries (and I did…I am not a *complete* Pollyanna when it comes to parenting!), I definitely did not expect her reaction to our attempts to discipline her. Even when all we are trying to do is sit down and talk with her, she turns cold as ice. She will not respond when asked a question, she will not comment or share how she feels. She looks past us with a glazed look, or when she does meet our eyes, her attitude is totally dismissive – like we are little, tiny, inconsequential ants. I cannot tell you how that kills me. I would almost rather her yell and steam and rail against us. That would at least mean she was connected to the situation, that she was engaged, and that we were located somewhere with her on that rope in tug-of-war. But as it is now, she’s nowhere near us when we try to communicate with her. She is beyond feeling. I have retreated to my closet in tears so many times because of this.
There are moments when I see small glimpses of the girl I knew. Without being asked, she will do some random chore at home and then make sure that I know it was her. I don’t think she draws attention to herself to solicit praise – I think it’s her way of saying, “*I* did this for *you*.” And I still see some very tender exchanges between her and her siblings – moments when she forgets her self-absorbtion and shows that she values these relationships. Very infrequently – but still, I treasure the occasions – she will actually show signs of attention while we are reading our scriptures or having Family Home Evening, and she will make a comment or ask a question or share a thought. And she still shares trivial tidbits of her day with me every afternoon after school. It’s never very deep or personally revealing, but I always listen intently, because I’m eager for anything she is willing to share without prompting or prodding.
I know there are easily-said words of encouragement to fit this situation – “it will pass,” “it’s just a stage,” “it’s totally normal.” I’ve said these same things to myself a thousand times, and though they sound almost hollow by now, I still believe they are mostly true. It’s just that it doesn’t help much with the daily manuevers required to keep the peace with her. I get mentally and emotionally exausted trying to balance all that I am to her – I want to be stern, yet loving. I want to teach her to do Heavenly Father’s will, yet allow her the right to free agency. I want to guide her without restricting her spirit. I want to attend to her without leaving myself drained for my other children. This is unbelievably hard work.
In some ways, it is liberating to admit that we are having such a struggle at home. But honestly, it’s a little embarrasing, too. I feel like such a failure some days. Why can’t I anticipate every small situation that must be met or averted or undone? Why can’t I reach her when I try to talk to her? Why can’t I seem to figure out what will get her to connect, to speak to us, to help her get outside her own head?
I spend an inordinate amount of time feeling sad about this whole situation. I feel I’ve lost someone I knew and loved – there is a strange grieving process I’ve entered. I am sometimes tempted to take the situation at face value, and I wonder aloud if things will ever change dramatically for the better. These are admittedly some pretty pathetic thoughts.
On days when I’m feeling much more optimistic, I think of things I’d like to try in an attempt to change tack: listen more than I speak, be more forgiving and choose more carefully what situations NEED to be addressed, be less critical, be *much* less vocal to the other children about my troubles with our daughter (they do NOT need to feel like they have to choose sides!), pray, pray, pray, and pray, and simply love this child to death. Refuse to let her push me away. Express my love to her frequently, be affectionate even if it seems unwelcome. Include her in family activities (don’t let her use some lame excuse to get out of it). Put her in places where she will feel the Spirit. Praise her worthy attributes. Recognize her efforts to help others. Give her opportunities to serve.
The challenge for me is to be stronger than the hurt I feel, the confusion that consumes me, and the insecurity I feel about my ability to actually succeed with her. Gone are the days of the ready praise for me as “the best mom on earth!” No more scribbled drawings of me and her holding hands, a big, wobbly heart drawn around our scene. It is infinitely harder these days to get a giggle or even a sincere smile from her, and a vanilla cone at Sonic does little to serve as a bonding experience. The stakes are much higher now, and however my heart breaks, I need to believe that I still have some influence over her story, and mine. I need to believe that it will still end with a Happily Ever After.
Though I often lost hope during our hard years, I worked diligently at loving my daughter unconditionally – it was something I had to consciously choose, not something I took for granted or assumed would be natural as her mother. I worked hard at trying to understand her, and most importantly, at not making the situation about me. I practiced patience. And sometimes I just kept my head down and waited for time to pass.
It was around my daughter’s senior year in high school when the tension started to lift. It was a series of subtle changes that seemed to lighten the air in the room, I finally felt I could breath a little bit. She seemed more settled in herself, more open to us, things didn’t feel quite so fragile anymore.
We went through some major family changes her senior year and shortly after graduation, and I remember feeling tentative, hoping we wouldn’t backslide in our relationship, but we tread carefully forward. When she left for college, I knew I would genuinely miss her.
This daughter is now married with her first child on the way. She lives in another state, but we talk or text almost daily. I miss her dearly, and love to spending time with her when we’re able to visit.
I often forget we even went through a difficult phase with her, and in a way, I’m grateful I recorded it. I think it shows how important it is to press on, have faith, and look back to gain perspective and learning from your own life.
To all the brokenhearted mothers of teens – have courage. Love your child. Be kind to yourself in this struggle. Hold on and weather this storm until you can get to the shore, and look back to see how far you’ve come. My daughter and I are cheering you on!