By Susan Stiffelman, MFT
Author of Parenting Without Power Struggles
Welcome to the club. I don’t know if this phenomenon took place in ancient Rome, when adolescent girls walked at a disturbing distance from their toga-wrapped fathers for fear of being associated with someone “so embarrassing,” but I do know that in today’s society, there is a phase of life where the mere presence of a parent can feel like social suicide.
While it’s true that there are a few emotionally stalwart kids who roll with mom as she attempts to linger with the gang after delivering pizza, most will roll their eyes, looking at her aghast as if to say, “What are you doing here? You’re completely ruining my life!”
Don’t take it personally. For most kids, the journey of individuating from their parents seems to require a brutal disassociation from them. It isn’t about you; it’s not about your outfit, your lipstick, or the way you cheerfully try to liven up the conversation as you chauffeur your youngster and friends around town. It is simply your existence that proclaims to the world that your youngster is not quite as grown up as she would like them to believe.
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This does not mean that your kids get to treat you as though you’re the carrier of some contagious disease after you drive them 45 minutes through the snow to a movie. Being a doormat is not the way to go. But whining and begging your child to treat you nicely isn’t going to work, either. In fact, it can be counterproductive to try to convince your child to stop treating you like a pariah. Why? Because she doesn’t really know why she’s doing it! She just feels cellularly uncomfortable when it seems you’re intruding on the independent life she is trying to establish.
Start by adapting a more amused point of view to the whole thing. I can recall times when I would be driving my then 12-year-old somewhere while listening to the radio. If I so much as bobbed my head to the beat, he would painfully slump down in his seat, mortified that I was brazenly revealing to the world how truly geeky, weird, and uncool I was. (The spillover impact was of course that by being in my car, he was equally uncool.)
My general response was to subtly smile to myself as I recalled doing the same thing when I was his age. That doesn’t mean I would obey his wishes and stop enjoying the music, but it did help me avoid long, pointless discussions about why I have every right to rock out when I hear a great song.
It can be useful to have a friendly conversation with your youngster—without pals around—when you’re actually feeling friendly toward one another. Let your child know that you understand that sometimes he feels uncomfortable when you’re too much of a presence with his friends, and that you want to find a more respectful way of helping him let you know he’s feeling an attack of awkwardness without being rude. Tell him that you expect him to maintain a standard of respectability but that you understand his predicament since you can probably remember it from your own childhood. From this mutually caring place, talk about what you’re willing to accommodate, and what’s unacceptable. It’s fair for him to ask you to assume a more subdued presence when he’s with his buddies; it’s just not okay for him to be awful about it.
In my book, I talk about parents being what I refer to as the captain of the ship in their child’s life. This means conveying that we’re capable of whatever rough seas we encounter along the parenting journey, and that we aren’t going to jump ship when the going gets rough. Show your kids that you can handle this awkward phase that tells them you don’t need their approval, even as you’re a bit more low-key when their buddies are around.
Set realistic standards for how you and your kids will overlap as they move through this stage and don’t take their judgments of you personally. One day you’ll find yourself rocking out with your youngster as you drive down the road listening to a great tune, both heads bobbing for all the world to see.