TRIGGER WARNING – this may be unsettling as I share a recent loss and my experience with suicide.
On November 17th I lost a friend. A man who seemed larger than life with a heart for serving others, spontaneous adventure and childlike play through sports and outdoor activities. He desperately wanted to be a reliable employee and team member, the perfect husband to his loving wife and a safe, kind and caring father to his three children.
In his mind, he fell short of those things and his pain and anguish became too much.
I remember that pain at a cellular level.
At 17 my life was falling apart despite trying desperately to hold it together the few years before. I’d been a straight A student my whole life – winning athletic awards, leading student counsel and large assemblies (because microphones!! LOL!) as the student teachers liked and the child parents wanted.
I liked her too. I knew how to be her, achieving external performance measures for attention and positive feedback. Although not perfect, she kept me in a safe shell where no one could see the truth.
She was drowning.
Her capacity to deflect hurtful, shaming comments, was waning and with mounting evidence they were becoming her truth, relentlessly screaming every waking moment. A photographic memory was no longer enough to ace her classes, puberty brought weight gain that impacted athletic performance and her lies used to create a life she wanted and cover the one she had became too much.
Failing at taking my own life felt like the ultimate failure, an irony not lost on me.
That level of self-hatred is difficult to describe. We all have a line where living with hard things, unbearable things, is still doable and the reasons for staying are greater that going. When the pain and anguish reach a tipping point and the line is crossed, there’s no hope and only one conceivable way to be free.
You think you know your teen.
Even though you raised them, watched them grow and learn, cheering them on through each step, they aren’t your child anymore. Their brain is growing new hardware and developing new software at the same time. They don’t even know who they are as their self-identity rewrites itself in a more complex way. Assuming you know removes curiosity and lowers
It’s not what you see, it’s what you don’t.
In my experience, there’s 2 avenues people take when they’re struggling. Sometimes one leads to the other or they swing back and forth.
1) Build a façade – Be best possible version of themselves, the person everyone admires and wants to be with to feel lighter, more ease, and earn external affirmation to temporarily soothe the internal pain. Pretending allows them to feel ‘normal’ by living in denial, avoiding questions and scrutiny even from those closest to them.
Although the façade is coping mechanism I tried myself, I became a master at suppressing my feelings and abandoning myself in order to remain loveable at all cost. It only amplified my pain as I constantly fell short of the unachievable standards I’d created and what I thought everyone else wanted as I fell further into despair.
What I wanted was to know that failure was safe, a part of life, and I was lovable regardless of external performance measures I thought defined my value.
2) Begin self-sabotage – Be the worst version of themselves, the person no one wants to be around, creating greater, negative reactions to draw out anger, shame, and punishment. Those create the external validation and reinforcement of the self-hatred going on inside – ‘if you really knew how awful I was, you’d hate me too’.
When my façade crumbled, I needed to prove how unlovable I was, so I acted out – skipping school, more drinking, trying drugs, promiscuity, failing classes, all of it. I needed my outer reality to match my inner dialogue for anything to make sense as a twisted way of creating authenticity.
What I wanted was someone to tell me they saw my worth when I couldn’t, and no amount of brokenness or crappy choices would change their mind.
Don’t be fooled by your teen’s behaviour.
If I had I dime for the number of parents who’ve said, “I had no idea!”, and a dollar for every teen who told me their parents have no idea who they are or what’s really going on…
Your teen’s behaviour is only part of the equation and not an accurate reflection of their truth. The only way to know is through connection starting with my tips below.
- Only when it’s safe to fail is it safe to try – Make failure safe by sharing your messes through short stories dripped in over time to remove the unspoken expectation of perfection and unconditional love.
- Listen over lecture – Your teen’s raw feed may have some alarming statements but that doesn’t mean they’re going to act on them. They’re processing what they see, feel, and think to find what’s true for them and need you to listen without judgement, fixing or correction. Interrupting their stream of unedited thoughts to launch into the dangers and immediate wrath you’ll bring down doesn’t change their mind. It simply assures they won’t process with you, let alone ask questions about it later.
- Ask open-ended questions rather than inserting statements:
- What do you think/feel about that?
- What’s important to you about that?
- Tell me more about that.
- How did you come to that conclusion?
- What do you think might happen?
- What are some other options?
- What’s it like to be you right now?
- Affirm character traits and reward effort over external performance measures like grades or athletic achievements
- Talk openly about mental health challenges and normalize getting support
- Different isn’t wrong or bad – Your teen doesn’t need to be like you to have a connection. Learning to understand how they see the world and find common threads while appreciating your differences avoids subtly punishing your teen by unconsciously withdrawing.
- Avoid making up you’re an amazing parent if you have an amazing teen or you’re a failing parent if your teen is struggling. Neither are true or helpful.
No matter how incomprehensible or tragic another person’s behaviour choices are, it’s not your responsibility or your fault.
Connecting with your teen can feel like walking a tightrope over the Grand Canyon while trying to solve a Rubix Cube with a mosquito buzzing in your ear. It IS hard!
I’m sharing my top connection tips starting January 10th in my next LIVE Challenge – 5 Days to a Better Relationship with Your Teen. But you don’t have to wait until next year to start.
I’m LIVE twice every month in my private parenting group, The Empowered Parent Community, to answer questions and give personalized strategies to connect with your teen in whatever challenge you’re facing. Connection is the most common topic of conversation because without it you experience more conflict and less communication. Click below to join my safe, supportive community today!