When I was 13 my father died. It was 1964. It happened just before the end of 8th grade. It was sudden, and without warning. My dad dropped me off at school that morning and then was heading off to the hospital for a routine hernia operation. He had assured me it was no biggie, and that he’d be home the next day. By the time I arrived home after hanging out with my best friend Patty at the local tennis courts after school, my father had gone into cardiac arrest, was in a coma, and died a week later.
People often ask me why I became a parenting expert, and where the inspiration came for writing my books. It was losing my dad at 13. Honestly I can remember those feelings of loneliness, embarrassment, and loss like it was yesterday. The loneliness was not because I didn’t have friends or family to comfort me. I had many wonderful people in my life. But I was comforted from the outside not from within. Friends distracted me with activities, family with meals and company, but my feelings were locked away. My mom was bereft. She had lost the love of her life, and with only a week to mourn she was forced to take over my dad’s busy medical laboratory, and went from being a stay at home mom like everybody else’s mom to a working mom, like nobody else’s mom. More embarrassment came from being the girl with the “dead dad". Seriously, no one else was dying. No cancers, heart attacks, or car accidents, I was the only kid I knew whose parent had died. I felt different and unique, but definitely not in a good way. I did everything in my power to look and be normal, because the biggest curse for a teenager is to be different. My worry about how people would think about me or act around me forced me to send my emotional self underground.
When I was with my friends or family I was chirpy, bubbly Joani. The person I had always been. But after school, alone in my house, under a blanket, eating a bag of Oreo cookies for comfort, I was the real me; the girl who felt completely alone. This was 1964, and the days of having a therapist on speed dial had yet to come. Since I acted and seemed like I was OK, everybody assumed I was OK. But I was not OK. Oreo cookies as a diet staple made me fat. Report cards were a humiliation, D’s and C’s. And the final insult was that all my friends had boyfriends, I did not. I was grieving, and I was depressed, and no one knew.
Fast forward to adulthood and becoming a therapist. I was on a mission; I would leave no teenager misunderstood! But I realized as time went on, and then when I became a mother, that teaching parents to understand their children might be a better ambition.
Unfortunately for parents, we often find ourselves so focused on our kid’s futures, that we sometimes forget to live in the moment with them. We worry that if they don’t do their homework, get good grades, get involved in activities, clean their room, come home on time, stay away from drugs/alcohol/sex, etc., they might unknowingly shoot themselves in the foot and screw up their chances for getting into the best schools, getting the best jobs, and becoming the best people they can be.Teens, however, have a completely different perspective on the future. They are not looking ahead, one year, three years, five years; in fact, they can barely make to the next minute. And when parents don’t get that, don’t understand that the small, seemingly insignificant events which teens experience on a daily basis constantly distract them, there is a huge disconnect and a common refrain from kids: “you just don’t understand.”
Amazingly in the years after my father died, not one person said to me: “ You must be feeling so sad. You’ve lost your dad, and you kind of lost your mom too. You have so much more responsibility than any of your other friends, taking care of running the household while your mom is working and grieving. Your life really sucks right now, doesn’t it?” Just knowing that someone got me…and got it, would have given me so much relief, and helped me to move forward.
So take a minute and think about your kids. Are you just focusing on the behavior? Is it just that they are lazy, or spend too much time on social networking, or don’t care about school? Could there be some other things going on beneath the surface? What might be the issues that are causing their distraction or change in attitude towards you? Perhaps they worry about feeling accepted by their friends, or worry about their own competence when it comes to school or sports, or whatever interests they have. Are they sensing and picking up on tensions and issues that are going on in the family, and find it hard to focus on school? Give them the gift of understanding. “ You know honey, I get keeping up with all this social networking stuff is actually really hard. I know how important it is to feel accepted by your friends,” rather than just getting mad at them for being on their phone 24/7. Or, “you know honey, I know things have been stressful around here, with (fill in the blank with family stressors) and we are all pretty quick to get angry at each other. I know that must make it hard for you to concentrate sometimes.” Rather than, you are missing a million homework assignments, and your grades are going down the tubes!”
There is nothing more powerful and comforting than being understood. It’s not easy to get out of our own way sometimes and give this simple gift to our kids. Just ask me, I have been a mother for 33 years, and I am still working on it!