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Acceptance of Our Adolescent Children
by Celia Straus
"The belief that puberty is a kind of magic wand that turns otherwise delightful children into a crazed and alien species is another one of those idiotic human beliefs that must be consistently refused admission into consciousness."
~ Mothering As A Spiritual Journey,
Ann Tremaine Linthorst
As I started this New Year I resolved to try to look at my two teenage children and see them for who they really are. I want to accept who they are, and not who I think or wish they should be. We believe we want the best for our children, yet at the same time we are reluctant to admit that what is best for this beloved person who is testing independence and developing a sense of self may not coincide with what we had in mind. Often, with the best of intentions, our biases still blind us to what is really going on in our child's experience of life. Instead we focus on judging his or her life (or rather behavior) as either good or bad, according to our standards. We may not take their need to separate from us into consideration, or, even more important, honor their spiritual integrity.
It took me until Julia left home for college to accept the fact that she and I would never agree on the definition of the word "mess", as in: "Your room is a mess" and, "It's not a "mess". I know where everything is. Anyhow, it's my 'mess', so leave it alone". This could have been a minor issue within the context of the important things in life; however, I ensured that it become major, plaguing the two of us for her entire adolescence. Our pattern of behavior went like this:
Step One: I nag her about either hanging up her clothes in the closet or putting them in the dirty clothes hamper, about making her bed, about putting CDs in their holder, and, of course, about generally cleaning up her room (throwing apple cores, empty soda cans and scrunched up wads of paper into the trash can and taking dirty dishes back down to the kitchen) on a regular basis.
Step Two: She "fine, fines" me, but continues to put her clothes away, clean or dirty, in one large pile in the middle of her bedroom floor, and line up juice glasses, a quarter filled with chocolate milk next to her bed.
Step Three: I give in and up, and, while she is at school, put everything away so her room is no longer a "mess" but looks the way I want it to. I feel martyred, yet back in control.
Step Four: She returns from school to find her space has been invaded and, while the room looks tidier, her personal "mess" is gone including random but important homework assignments and crucial cell phone numbers written on scraps of paper. Moreover, her favorite T-shirts, while now clean, have shrunk. Angry, she calls me, "a neatness freak who is obsessed with throwing things away". I tell her she's "over-reacting". We end by repeating the lines, "Your room is a mess" and, "It's not a 'mess.' I know where everything is. Anyhow, it's my 'mess', so leave it alone".
Step Five: I feel guilty, because I am "a neatness freak". For instance, I can't imagine sitting down at the computer with dishes unwashed, beds unmade, laundry undone--and so on. Sure, I have stacks of papers on the floor of my basement office, but they are very neat stacks. I have been known to rearrange the trash. So, why couldn't I just accept the fact that my personal tolerance for "mess" was different from my daughter's without judging the difference? Julia wasn't demanding to have her lips pierced. She wasn't "doing drugs" or failing out of school. She didn't have an ex-con boyfriend with a full body tattoo. All she was asking was that I accept this effort to become her own person.
How many times have I ignored the beautiful and unique truth of my children, and focused on petty annoyances? How often, do I refuse to give up personal control over their lives by declaring the following to be unacceptable:
Staying up past bedtime, staying up until dawn, eating pizza for dinner seven nights straight, talking on the phone "too long", forgetting where they left the phone, wearing too much makeup, wearing too skimpy a tank top, being disorganized, playing loud popular versus soft classic music "to think by" while doing homework, buying too many CDs, using bad grammar and slang such as "like", waiting until the last minute to - study, make social plans, shower, walk the dog, fill in the SAT application, fill in any application, tell me that it's their turn to provide the team breakfast or snack, get directions, RSVP, walk the dog, buy their friend's birthday present, pick out a dress for homecoming, walk the dog.
This does not mean that in order to maintain an open loving relationship with our children, we must accept behaviors that are life-threatening, unhealthy, unethical or unwise. Driving and drinking, binge dieting, willful hurting of another person, being inconsiderate of other family members, cheating, stealing, or going to a party at a friend's house when their parents are out of town all come to mind. Acceptance does mean, however, that we might think about being a little more tolerant of behaviors that demonstrate their need to stretch, to take risks, to come up against her weaknesses and to discover her strengths. We might try to put aside our worries that we will lose both our authority and their affection and just let them be who they are. Here are just a few of our worries as parents:
- "I worry that my children will get in with the wrong people and get into drugs and drinking."
- "My biggest fear is that I will repeat the mistakes my mother made and she will hate me."
- "He will judge me and find me a bad mother."
- "I will fail as a mother."
- "What if I can't stop the pain and hurt my children must suffer just to grow up?"
When we struggle with these fears, we need to remember that acceptance requires understanding that this person is experiencing their life, not yours, and that he or she is not dependent on your interpretation of what's going on with them or between the two of you. Acceptance means trusting that there is Divinity within your child, and within you, that is unfolding unerringly, no matter what you do. Acceptance demands respecting their ability to accept their fears and being open to the concept that an adolescent has adolescent needs that are just as valid as yours.
In Spiritual Parenting, Hugh and Gayle Prather remind us that, "It doesn't matter how we make our children act if we don't also teach them to respect their own reading of the choices before them and apply the innate values of their heart. Because the heart is connected to God, to that which lasting values are not taught, they are awakened. Over and over the wise parent has encouraged the child to look to the stillness and peace of the heart and now the child has a resource that he or she can call on even in the most confusing of circumstances." In other words, accept, not only your child's spiritual integrity, but also help her draw on it when she needs to. While your child may be changing on the outside, inside, his or her spirit remains whole and true.
Seeing your child's spirit is easier if you look for those values or qualities that you delighted in and awakened when your adolescent was two, three, six, eight and ten such as an affectionate nature, playfulness, honesty, grace, generosity and courage. Your child has not lost them by simply becoming a teenager. See this person for who he or she really is by looking below the surface to rediscover what makes up their core, the heart which is good and connected to the Divine. Showing your child that you see their "innate values of the heart" will help them trust in them as well.
So many children email me that they are convinced they are disappointments to their parents, and have "let them down". If I was able to email back to the mother instead of the child, I would urge her to take a moment to think about a wonderful quality of her child , a part of their inner spirit that remains constant as they change from child, to adolescent to young adult. When I think of Julia, the first qualities that spring to mind are her sense of humor and her creativity which blossomed when she was a toddler. When I think of Emily, I am struck by the graceful way she embraces life and her determination, both qualities she was born with.
This doesn't mean that it isn't honest, and even spiritual to admit to yourself that there are times when your teenager is not someone you like -- to talk to, look at, or be with. It can be dishonest and destructive to maintain a relationship in which the two of you are only acceptable to each other when you both assume the persona designed to meet the other's expectation of what you "should be." Yet, as the Kabat-Zinns point out in Everyday Blessings, "We need to continually find ways to remind them that we are on their side, that they are as precious to us as they were when they were adorable, red-cheeked cherubs." Our acceptance becomes even more critical because this is the time when peer relationships can be cruelly judgmental and difficult to maintain with integrity of self. Although she had many girlfriends all through secondary school, Julia never found a friend she could "be herself with" until she went to college. Of all the thousands and thousands of emailed requests for prayer-poems over the past seven years, yearning for unconditional acceptance by a friend is one of, say, five, I receive the most. I usually email back:
need a friend to talk to
To share my hopes and fears.
I need a friend to be with
To share my jokes and tears.
I need a friend to give me
The honesty I seek
To listen and to offer
Her strength when I feel weak.
give her all my secrets,
Our love will know no bounds
I'll treat her as a sister,
A partner in life's rounds.
Our talks will be so precious
Yet never really end.
I'll not be truly happy
Until I have this friend.
~ Prayers On My Pillow ~
How might we, as mothers, be this friend? In Everyday Blessings, Myla and John Kabat-Zinn suggest, "viewing our children in a more non-judging, compassionate, and open manner allows us to remain their ally and keeps a heartfelt connection with them even when we don't like how they are acting." Of course our children need friends who are their peers. I could not nor did I ever try to be both Julia's mother and her best friend, a substitute for the peer "best friend" she was looking for. However, we can offer all the sustenance described in this prayer, if we demonstrate our trust, respect, and most of all, acceptance.
Patient with my weaknesses
Proud of my strengths
Respectful of my feelings
Trustful of my instincts
Loyal to my beliefs
Gentle with my pain
Encouraging to my hopes
Soothing to my anger
Sensitive to my needs
Loving to my soul.
Prayers On My Pillow ~
When I stand
Facing the world
And am judged.
I do not speak
But take responsibility
For my Self.
Be with me then.
Prayers On My Pillow ~
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