Keep your misery to yourself. Children deserve parents who shield them from the full force of adult suffering
Aidan was supposed to tidy up the house after school. But when his mother got home from a long day at work, she found her son sprawled on the couch, watching TV and eating tortilla chips while the place was still a disaster zone, the floor covered with crumbs and driblets of yellow gooey stuff that might be cheese spread. She lost it.
“Aidan, you were supposed to pick up the house, but all you've done is made a bigger mess.”
“What? Why are you yelling at me?”
“I can't believe you. Look at this room. You don't give a crap about this house or anything I say. Do you understand what this does to me? You don't understand at all how much I sacrifice for you. I get no help from you or your stupid father. I'm under pressure all the time at a job I hate. I constantly have to worry about money. I don't have time for anything. What kind of life do I have? And I come home to this? It's so unfair.”
How much of your own personal suffering is it appropriate to share with your teenager?
To what extent is it okay– either when you are mad at them or, as often happens especially with single parents or if there is marital discord – to use them as a sounding board for your adult concerns?
I believe there should be a line between the real world of adult concerns and the cleaned-up, for-child-consumption version. Children have a right to have parents who will protect them from the full force of adult suffering. Too much simply overwhelms them. It can make them anxious, stressed or depressed. And it serves no useful purpose.
One of our jobs is to give our children, as much as we can, the freedom to worry about teenage stuff: “There's this girl in my biology class who I really like, but she doesn't know I exist except yesterday I was walking next to her in the hall and I said, ‘Don't you think Ms. Pemmelman is really boring,' which I know was a really stupid thing to say, but she laughed and said, ‘Yeah.' And then I didn't know what else to say so I didn't say anything, but now I don't know what to do.” That kind of stuff.
The problem with sharing too much of the adult you with the teenaged them – even for those teens who seem fascinated by it or mature enough to handle it – is that the two don't mix. An important part of still being a child – which teenagers definitely are – is that if they have too much exposure to the full adult you, it diminishes your role as the protective parent. They feel they are on the same level as you. Though they may rebel against being the dependent child, they also need that protection and support: “I am a child, and they are big and strong and watch over me. And so long as they are there, I am safe. They take care of me.”
If you are unhappy, how much do your children need to be aware of it? Let's ask.
“Aidan, what do you think about your mother going off on you about how miserable she is, and how much your not co-operating makes her life even worse?”
If he's being honest, he may say: “Yeah, I know I act like a jerk sometimes and I should help more, and Mom's right to be ticked off. But you know what, I really don't like hearing about what a crappy life she has. I'm sorry and all, but she's an adult and I'm 16, and I can't solve her life for her. I'm sorry I'm not perfect at home and I'm sorry she doesn't like her life, but I hate it when she complains about it.”
By all means react to your teen's bratty behaviour. Let him know how you feel about it. Sometimes you can't help it and your own issues pop through. We're all human. But the fact is it's never good to unload too much of your personal frustrations.
Here's a better approach, which may not always be easy:
“Aidan, I can't believe you haven't done anything. You drive me crazy. Absolutely crazy. Do you understand how incredibly unpleasant it is for me to have to come home to this? You just better start doing something around here, mister.”
Let him know what you think of his behaviour. But, as much as possible, you want to keep your own personal misery out of it.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including Get out of my life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager.
Source: Toronto Globe and Mail