This column is part of a series of vignettes representing themes common to families and adolescents. Different sides of a dilemma are presented – the parent’s point of view and the adolescent’s view. Then a psychological perspective is offered, integrating the views of both the adolescent and the parent in order to help family members understand the situation differently and learn ways to improve the quality of family life.

The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.

Mom’s Perspective

Courtney’s mom, Jill, was beside herself. While Courtney was away for the summer at camp, Jill found a collage Courtney had made and hidden in her room. As a piece of artwork it was impressive – complex, creative, colorful and artistic. But the content was macabre, suggesting fascination with drug culture, dark music, piercings and tattoos. By now, she was expecting and hoping for more from her daughter. This was exactly the type of thinking that led her into trouble in the first place.

Overwhelmed with anger and disgust, Jill destroyed the collage. She would not be made a fool of and have these images in her house. Courtney had started getting help last year for drug and alcohol abuse and cutting herself – and according to all measures seemed to have made tremendous progress. Jill was fairly certain that Courtney had been clean and had been doing well, even feeling excited to return home.

Courtney’s Perspective

Following this discovery, Jill confronted Courtney over the phone and told her to be prepared to find her collage gone when she got home. Courtney freaked out and became hysterical. “I always knew you wanted to get rid of me. All you care about is how you appear. Sorry you’re so ashamed of me and couldn’t have a daughter you could brag about. I hope you’re happy. Even David (past drug dealer) cares about me more than you. Maybe I should just go live with him…”

Mom’s Perspective

Courtney’s mom was devastated by this comment, and took it as a personal affront. She vacillated between tears and self-righteous anger. She was mortified by Courtney’s behavior and admitted that she was ashamed of her. “I’m at my wit’s end. Nothing ever changes. She had the nerve to make that collage in my house… And now she seems to prefer that drug dealer over her own home and family…”

Psychological Assessment

Both Courtney and her mom felt rejected and abandoned by one another – and hopeless. Jill wanted what was best for her daughter, but on a deeper level was driven by the need for Courtney to behave according to what would make her feel proud as a mother. The more Jill needed Courtney to make her feel good about herself, the more alone, ignored, and cast aside Courtney felt, and the more likely Courtney’s behavior would be propelled even further away from mother’s values.

The collage was a window into Courtney’s world. This time, instead of acting out her feelings, Courtney used restraint. Through artistic expression, she was able to give voice to and channel her feelings without harming herself. This was a psychological achievement and showed real progress. By getting rid of the collage and showing contempt for what was in it, Jill unknowingly turned her back on Courtney and communicated to her that she couldn’t stand to see or know what was inside her. Now Courtney’s inner world (and pain) was driven further into secrecy and shame, and further from help.

Though Courtney appeared angry in her comments to her mom, she internalized Jill’s view of her and was left feeling self-loathing, shame, badness, and despair. To her, throwing the collage in the garbage was tantamount to throwing her away with it.

It’s true, Courtney had never been the kind of daughter Jill had wished for and tried to get her to be. Interestingly, Jill experienced disapproval and criticism from her own mom – who also had always wanted a different kind of daughter. Though she was highly accomplished, Jill never felt good enough and never felt her mom was proud of her. No matter what she did she could not make herself into the person her mother wanted.

This was how Courtney felt too. The same dynamic was playing out in the next generation, though not immediately recognizable to Jill because the script was different. Jill never would have dared to be openly hostile or blatantly self-destructive and defiant like Courtney.

What should Jill have done in the first place and what should she do now? How can we tell whether our reactions are legitimate or coming from our own unresolved issues?

Clues that our own issues are rearing their heads

  • When our feeling reactions (anger, self-righteousness, shame) are powerful and require immediate release
  • When we are certain we are “right”
  • When feeling the need to “teach a lesson”
  • When taking our children’s behavior personally
  • When finding ourselves being repetitive or in a repetitive cycle with our children
  • When finding ourselves lecturing
  • (See also Guidelines for Parents (CALM) in Prom Primer: Know Your Limits)

Jill’s hasty overreaction caused her to miss an opportunity to get to know her daughter, be close to her and help her, which is what they both really wanted. Had Jill not come to rapid judgment and panicked, she might have been able to praise her daughter for expressing her feelings in an artistic way and been curious about the collage – how it affected Courtney to make it and what it meant to her. The collage could have served as a conversation piece to bond them. It offered a medium, as art, film, and literature can do, to talk about the images and feelings in displacement, and what led her into that world of darkness – potentially providing enough distance to buffer the topics.

Though at first Jill was certain and thought it was obvious that destroying the collage was the right thing to do, when she came to understand that the collage was symbolically a part of her daughter – an expression of her pain and struggle – she began to feel saddened by how she reacted and less entrenched in the struggle. She loved her daughter and did not want to hurt her or contribute to her feeling bad about herself. She was surprised to learn that although she and her daughter were different in many ways – a chronic source of disappointment to her – they may not be so far apart in some ways. Jill saw that her daughter was feeling how she often felt growing up in relation to her own mom. Something clicked inside her and she felt for Courtney in a new way. She understood what it was like to feel ashamed and exposed. As an adult this vulnerability from her past resurfaced both in relation to Courtney and when faced with disapproval or judgment by an authority figure whose opinion mattered to her.

Jill felt regret and sadness as she recognized that in an unconscious effort to banish shame inside herself she was unknowingly passing it on to her daughter. In becoming aware of this process, Jill was able to talk to Courtney with compassion, rather than blame her, and take responsibility for her own reactions. That allowed a healing process to begin between them.