Sometime ago I watched a tribute show that 60 minutes did on Mike Wallace. It was a fascinating profile of what was behind this very driven and enormously accomplished journalist. Turns out it was acne during puberty. Who woulda thunk? In an interview that Mike Wallace gave to a young college journalist a few years back, he confessed to this young man that as a teen he had terrible acne. He never felt attractive enough or good enough, and to counter those feelings he set incredibly high goals for himself, proving that despite what he saw as an enormous flaw, (his acne) that he would and could overcome this. In the therapy biz we call that reaction formation, which means countering one set of feelings with the exact opposite. In Mike Wallace's case, " I feel ugly and a loser, therefore I will become successful and desirable.
If only all teens could turn what they perceive as their deficits into their motivators. Puberty can be devastatingly awful. It is a cruel twist of fate that just as a person is at the height of self-consciousness, their body turns on them. Perhaps your teen also has bad acne, or maybe your daughter is completely flat-chested or maybe buxom. Maybe your son is the shortest in his class, or maybe as a 5th grader he is the tallest and has facial hair to boot. Whatever it is, no matter how insignificant it may seem to you, it is a hugely big deal to them.
David Elkind, the author of All Grown Up And No Place To Go calls this "the lightening rod." I'm sure you had your own cross to bear when you think about yourself and your body during puberty. The problem for parents is that the way this plays out for your teen isn't always that obvious. They may not be walking around the house saying " I hate this or I hate that about my body." But what you get instead is the 2 minutes before they leave for school meltdown. " I have nothing to wear, you never buy me any clothes, I told you those jeans make me look fat, why did you let me buy them blues!
And because their ride is sitting in front of the house, or the bus is at the bus stop, you have your own meltdown, screaming at them that "they are ungrateful spoiled brats, having just spent $200 on clothes, or the dermatologist or you just did their laundry, if you would just put it all away" blues of your own! The truth of it is, it isn't about the jeans. It's that for some reason that morning they looked in the mirror and someone looked back that made them feel ill. It is really that simple. If you pay attention to their tantrum you will miss the real story.
So the next morning your teen throws a tantrum before school, or before a school dance or before they leave the house on a Friday night to hang out with friends, and you become the scapegoat for all that is wrong with their bodies, rather than getting sucked down the dark hole, just give them a hug, and say: 'I get your not feeling good about how you look tonight, is there anything I can do to help. " It won't make the acne go away, or the boobs shrink, or make them 6 feet tall, but at least someone "gets" that life just sucks sometime!
And please do not joke, tease or otherwise make fun of your daughter's flat chest, giant boobs, or unusually short or tall stature, or your son's tall or short stature, or lack of muscles, or big feet, or early facial hair, and tell Uncle Harry the same thing!
PS. If you live in Massachusetts, I am doing a book reading on May 14th at Buttonwood Books in Cohasset, and at Wellesley Books on May 16th both at 7 pm. Come have a glass of wine with me! Or tell your friends to!! Available on Amazon and at bookstores everywhere!!!! If you have read it please share your thoughts with an Amazon review. I would be so grateful.