When Teens or 20-Somethings Think You’re Bugging Them, But Really They’re Bugging You
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.”