I met her last May, when I was talking to a large group of middle school students about school, anxiety, and mental health. We were just wrapping up, and I asked them to share a few things they would like me to tell their parents at the parent assembly that night.
She snorted a suppressed laugh and replied, “That they don’t have the slightest idea who we are. They think they do, but they don’t.”
“Well, how can I help with that?” I asked.
“Tell them I’m not this perfect person they want me to be. I’m doing my best, but they don’t believe me.”
With that, the floodgates opened. Another girl shouted out, “Tell them I’m not my brother!” “Yeah! And I’m not my dad!” added a boy sitting nearby. The bell rang, but I heard repeated variations on this theme as they filed out of the auditorium and off to their next class.
These middle school students, like all adolescents, are on a long and arduous journey of what’s called individuation, a normal and necessary process of becoming one’s own person, of constructing a sense of self that’s theirs and no one else’s. Becoming this person, whoever that may be, can be painful, particularly when the emerging adult does not match the parents’ vision.
You should be smarter. You should smile more. You should be thinner. You should have a passion. You should be more driven. You should be more like him, more like her, more like me.
We offer the “shoulds” because we want the best possible lives for our children, but when we focus all of our effort on who they should be, we inadvertently invalidate who they are.
I teach English and writing in an inpatient drug and alcohol facility for adolescents, and I often ask my students to identify, then write about, the people who impact their lives in a positive way. Without fail, they describe adults who make the effort to see them and hear them, who take the time to discover what makes them special.
These are “growth-fostering relationships” essential to healthy development, says Rachel Simmons, author of Enough as She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives. In them, kids feel free to express their true thoughts and feelings. This helps them deal with conflict and manage change more effectively. In short, to mature.
The good news, according to Simmons, is kids want to be known for their authentic selves, and when they are, they will be more likely to turn to their parents when they need help. Simmons points to a study she designed for the nonprofit Girls Leadership, in which “77 percent of high school girls said they turned to their mothers first for advice to achieve their goals; 86 percent said parents, more than friends, helped them be braver.”
Boys, too, want to be known as their authentic selves, but may express that need differently, says Phyllis Fagell, a counselor at the Sheridan School in Washington, D.C.
“An insecure boy might be the one yelling out non sequiturs in class, or hiding behind sarcasm, or shutting down completely,” Fagell says. “When boys are figuring out who they are and whether they are good enough, they will have a much easier time communicating with parents if they feel accepted and loved unconditionally.”
Admittedly, seeing kids for who they are rather than the people we wish they’d be can be terribly difficult, especially when the combined pressures of grades, sports, and college admissions, not to mention the weight of our own hopes, dreams, and regrets, cloud our vision. It’s important to recognize these moments, however, to question whether the goals we have for our kids are truly for them, or for us.
“It’s hard to back off and not want to mold your child in your image, yet it’s so incredibly important for kids’ mental health,” says Jennifer Hartstein, a therapist and author of 2011’s Princess Recovery: A How-to Guide to Raising Strong, Empowered Girls Who Can Create Their Own Happily Ever Afters. She advises parents who have trouble separating their fictional, aspirational children from their real ones to “start by checking in with yourself. What’s causing you to want your child to be something other than who he or she really is?”
I have children who tend to come right out and tell me when I’m overstepping, and when they do, I’m usually the one who needs a timeout. Fortunately, this is just what Hartstein recommends. She advises parents to slow down, breathe, and remember that our kids are not our opportunity for a do-over. Our children are not a report card for our parenting, and when we claim their successes as our own, we rob them of their hard-earned victories and formative experiences. They are more likely to find mental and emotional contentment when we support their dreams rather than ours.
Next, keep in mind that your kids change, especially during periods of dramatic physical and emotional growth. We have to remind ourselves that they may very well start to like school, or yogurt, or someone they seem to fight with all the time, if we just give them the space to grow.
Finally, remember that our children’s achievements don’t define our parenting. What does matter in the final accounting is our children’s trust in us to support and love them as they become their very best selves, no matter who that turns out to be.
Jessica Lahey is a teacher in Vermont and the author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.