Many parents feel constrained and controlled by their teen’s irritability, anger, and fragility — circumventing necessary communications, problem solving, and limit setting. The need to steer clear of dreaded reactions can become a driving force in parenting with unintended consequences for both kids and parents.
This issue is a common dynamic in families, especially with kids struggling academically or otherwise. Honing in on a vicarious sense of shame, disappointment, or failure felt on a teen’s behalf, parents lose their grounding and become immobilized by a “protective” instinct to avoid saying or doing what’s needed — depriving kids of realistic feedback, self-discovery, and containment.
Parents’ avoidance is also self-protective — out of fear of triggering familiar angry meltdowns associated with approaching certain topics. Such scenarios have played out with parents suddenly finding themselves on the hot seat struggling to fend off angry accusations that their feedback, help, or attempts to hold teens accountable are evidence that they don’t trust or believe in them, and are trying to control them. Somehow the topic of something remiss with teens (often involving failure to take responsibility) ironically morphs into parent’s own culpability and teens being mad at them. But trying to avoid conflict backfires because being stifled causes a build up of frustration and resentment — leading parents to have impatient, angry reactions of their own.
Dylan, 22, lived at home and worked a minimum wage job while figuring out his next step — an arrangement that was regressive, conflict-laden, and tense. Ultimately, it was decided that getting Dylan his own apartment would be better for everybody, but it meant supplementing his income.
Living apart was better, but certain dynamics continued. Dylan had a history of difficulty tracking his spending, using avoidance to banish awareness of areas of weakness, and a general tendency towards being unrealistic. Dylan’s dad gave him their credit card — and, in good faith, Dylan agreed to a specified monthly spending limit. But every month he exceeded it — necessitating repeated conversations with his dad and practical suggestions. These discussions caused Dylan to feel talked down to, becoming impatient and angry.
In family therapy, Dylan complained that his dad bringing up this problem, made him feel hopeless and bad about himself. “Why do you always think I’m gonna fail and don’t know what I’m doing?” he said angrily. “That’s not true, we think you’re smart and don’t think you’re going to fail…,” said his mom reassuringly. “Oh right…(eye roll)! You make me worse. Don’t even talk to me!” Dylan retorted angrily.
Dylan sniffed out his’ parents’ hidden anxiety, which resonated with his own — enabling him to attribute his own exaggerated fears and negative self-perceptions to his parents — and diverting his energy to “outing” them.
Dylan’s parents secretly felt frustrated, trapped and hopeless. His mom cycled through feeling mad, bad for him, then guilty. Privately she exclaimed, “I just don’t know how to talk to him without him getting mad or giving him the impression that I think he’ll fail and don’t have faith in him.”
But she did think he was going to fail. Covering it up, reassuring him, or co-opting his need for her to have faith that these repetitive scenarios would magically play out differently — Dylan’s mom unconsciously aligned with his wishful thinking and defenses against seeing himself realistically. When parents conspire with their kids’ need to abolish awareness of a feared part of themselves, an unhealthy twinship develops, characterized by mutually contagious anxiety/dread, loss of perspective, and confusion about whose feelings are whose. Further, it may feel protective, but it’s hurtful to contribute to deluded thinking and not prepare teens for experiences they will encounter in the world.
But how can parents be truthful in the context of teens’ fierce denial, defensiveness, or fragility?
Parents have to be able to do the hard thing and say what’s true when it’s conspicuously the issue, rather than basing parenting decisions on teens’ possible reactions. To be released from feeling controlled or having to control teens, parents must be able to tolerate being present with their teens’ emotions — regulating themselves — and maintaining a separate state of mind. Then they can be a regulating presence: using a matter-of-fact approach, owning their statements as their opinion, and giving teens the space to disagree and not have to admit anything.
Alternatively, with teens like Dylan who cannot yet tolerate hearing the truth, or aggressively reject it, parents can refrain from being explicit or calling teens out, and simply make decisions that limit what can happen — allowing teens to discover themselves experientially. This approach allows teens to be autonomous within defined boundaries, and use denial as needed to modulate their feelings, but reality will intrude instead of parents.
Dylan needed his parents to set a boundary for him. Neglecting to establish effective boundaries in the context of a teen’s established inability to limit himself or perform up to a desired standard sets teens up to fail. The timing of boundary setting occurs at decision points when kids request something or embark on something new. Limits are determined by predicting how things will play out given established patterns and vulnerabilities, and implementing a plan that prevents the unwanted behaviors within parents’ control. In this example, the solution involved eliminating any option for Dylan to go over the spending limit. The therapist suggested a debit card containing the allotted amount of money for the month. Though his parents feared he would get angry at this suggestion, Dylan seemed relieved.
It’s counterintuitive but true: Limits help teens behave better and act less angry even if they have an immediate reaction.
Here, Dylan was released from having to be monitored and exposed. The plan guaranteed success, as defined by not spending parents’ money he wasn’t authorized to have (provided his parents could back off the issue and also refrain from rescuing him if he needed money). Most importantly, this solution allowed Dylan the experience of managing on his own and being responsible for himself. Additionally, it freed up Dylan’s relationship with his parents for more positive interactions.
Setting boundaries contains kids when they can’t contain themselves, protecting them from acting out and the resulting shame, as well as protecting parents from imploding. Boundaries also liberate parents from having to micromanage — allowing teens to develop autonomy, recognize themselves, and sort out their own issues from those imposed by parents involvement. Without containment and unimpeded autonomy, teens cannot be held accountable for failing to take responsibility.
Walking on eggshells is not only oppressive to parents but sends a message to teens that parents are seeing them as fragile, reinforcing a feeling of weakness and shame. At the same time, being able to untether and/or intimidate a parent has the effect of unbounding kids’ anger, compromising respect for parents, further increasing feeling out of control and bad about themselves and derailing the focus to parents’ role in the problem.
Whether a misguided instinct to prevent kids from feeling like a failure — or parents’ own issue with conflict, separation, or need for validation from their kids — overcautious holding back driven by fear/anxiety/guilt impacts parents’ judgment and enables the very defenses we want to discourage in teens, while adding insidious stress for parents. Further, this regressive dynamic obstructs development — interfering with natural opportunities to recognize and face the actual issue or develop the motivation to seek help and/or learn the skills they need to grow up and launch. Setting boundaries can be a way to allow teens the space to disagree, be independent, and discover things about themselves they would otherwise be shielded from — while protecting parents from feeling trapped themselves and being responsible for enabling maladaptive patterns.
Tips for Parents to Overcome Fear of a Teen’s Anger and Despair
What to do:
- Practice tolerating teen’s anger (or shame): imagine your teen being angry at you (or feeling bad). Envision a physical boundary around you. Stay steady and calm — maintaining your own separate state of mind throughout.
- Have courage. Be a role model for teens.
- Think of yourself as the tree and your teen’s mood is like the wind. From this position, you will transmit a more stable state to the teen and help regulate them.
What to tell yourself when tempted to avoid conflict:
- Tiptoeing and giving in to teens doesn’t prevent or lessen anger but actually enables it.
- This method hasn’t worked to protect either of you from anger or despair.
- Your teen is already angry at you and blaming you.
- Teens will behave better and ultimately you will both be less angry if you take charge.