Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.
~ Childhood rhyme
Whoever made up that rhyme is just plain wrong. Consider these comments from letters to Psych Central’s “Ask the Therapist” column:
- “My folks just tell me that I’m fat and stupid. They’re always telling me I’m no good.” –14-year-old girl
- “No matter what I do, my parents criticize me. I get good grades. I help out at home. My girlfriend is polite to them. But I can never do things enough right for them.” –17-year-old boy
- “Both my parents yell at me all the time. I try to stand up for myself but it only makes it worse. They say they wish I’d never been born.” – 11-year-old girl
- “I think my mom is depressed. She stays in bed all the time. She expects me to clean house, cook dinner every night, take care of my little sister, and bring her whatever she wants. She’s not a bit grateful. Actually, she complains about me to my grandmother and to my dad. Then they yell at me too. I don’t think I can take it much longer.” – 16-year-old boy
The anguish and bewilderment in these kids’ voices is heartbreaking. Some of the letters are laced with anger. Most are testaments to the pain of feeling unloved by the very people who the whole world tells you should love you — your parents and extended family.
The teens who write are essentially good kids who are doing all they can to do okay in school and contribute at home. They try to please their folks. They often do far more in the way of housework and child care than is reasonable to expect. All they want is for their folks to love them but all indications are they don’t. These kids want an explanation. They want to make it right. They wish and hope and dream that there is something they can do to make it different.
Sadly, there’s probably not a thing they can do to make loving parents out of angry and inadequate adults. Their parents are too caught up in their personal pain or too unloved themselves to comfort and nurture their kids.
If you relate to the kids in the beginning of this article, know that you are not alone. It’s not fair that you need to take charge of your own life so young. But constantly thinking about the unfairness will only keep you stuck and hurting. A better use of the energy that is born of anger and disappointment is to use it to fuel efforts to move on. The teen years do not last forever and there is much you can do to set yourself up for a happier present and more promising future.
Don’t add self-abuse to your parents’ abuse.
Cutting, isolating, failing in everything you do, abusing drugs and alcohol and attempting suicide may seem like reasonable responses to pain. But none of these tactics are likely to make you feel better or impress unloving parents. Although hurting yourself may provide a temporary distraction or relief, it won’t make your life better. Not loving yourself won’t help you find love.
Take it seriously but not personally.
It’s really hard not to take things personally when you’re the person being attacked. But when parents don’t love their kids, it’s usually not about the kids. Usually the parents have mental health issues of their own. Sometimes there is a family secret around the child’s birth (like a rape or grandparents’ disapproval) and the child gets scapegoated. Sometimes parents got so little nurturing themselves as children they haven’t a clue how to be good parents.
Whatever the case, it’s important that you refuse to accept your parents’ opinions. They are not an accurate assessment of your worth, lovability, intelligence, appearance, or potential. They are a reflection of your parents’ inadequacy.
Drop your end of the tug of war.
When parents are inadequate, yelling, arguing, debating, and defending yourself go nowhere. It only frustrates you and makes your parents more angry. In some cases, it fans the flames to the point where the parent gets violent. Give it up. You’re not going to change who they are or how they treat you. You don’t need to hear whatever they say when you get into a fight with them.
Develop a life outside of your home.
When home isn’t a place you want to go home to, it’s essential to find other places where you feel safe, supported, and seen for who you are. Join up with an organization, team or cause or get an evening and weekend job where you can hang out, where you can make a contribution, and where you can find friends and adult mentors who appreciate you. The best antidote for feeling bad about yourself at home is to feel very good about yourself in the larger world.
Be open to other older people who are ready to love you.
Some people aren’t born to the right family. They have to make one. When an older relative, a teacher, a friend’s parents, or a coach offer to mentor you, follow up. Invest some time in getting to know them. These people can give you some of the wisdom and support your own parents can’t give you. Some of these relationships can evolve into lifelong friendships.
Prepare for independence.
It may not be fair, but it’s important to be real. Unloving parents aren’t going to prepare you for independence. They’re just going to be glad when you move out. It falls on you to learn the skills you need to know to survive out there on your own. Make a list of what you need to know how to do, from doing your own laundry to managing money, and set out to learn how to do it. Get a job and start putting money away so you can rent a place of your own the day you graduate from high school. Get good grades and ask your school counselor to help you identify scholarships so you can go away to college.
If your parents move beyond criticism and belittling words to physical or sexual abuse, report to the local authorities and get yourself out of there. Talk to your school counselor or your doctor or the local children’s services department. Yes, it’s hard to give up on your family. But it can take years to recover from chronic abuse. You deserve better — even if your parents don’t think you do.