A Glutton for Punishment
“Get out.! You just want me to be perfect. You hate me. I know it. You just want a perfect robot child. Well, guess what? I’m not a robot. I fuck up. I’m a fuck up. Happy?”
Happy? No. I don’t think most parents are happy when their child is in emotional pain. Nor is there any joy in being the hapless beneficiary of my daughter’s verbal lashing. There’s a part of me when I hear Emma’s screams, that thinks, yes, I’d love a robot at this moment, one who has not been programmed to raise her voice. But, alas, the reality is I have my imperfect 14-year-old daughter pushing as hard as she can.
As a psychotherapist in my professional life, I work to help my clients embrace their imperfections, finding ways to accept their humanness. At home, I am less patient, more judgmental. If a client gets angry at me, I see this as progress. They are letting me see a side of themselves that they have tried to hide in the past, trusting I can tolerate those feelings. If they express their anger it is because they feel safe. At home I see Emma’s yelling as insubordination. I think she feels too safe. I prefer her to feel enough discomfort in my presence to spare me. It is not easy to have an academic understanding of family dynamics, especially since I feel helpless to enact that knowledge in these moments.
Asking Emma to complete her past due homework is a hazardous proposition. She lies about getting it done and when I catch her in the lie she does not yield. Her best defense is an offense.
“How much homework do you have?” I inquire carefully, making sure I sound neutral, rather than anxious.
“Not much, just an outline for History and my Algebra worksheet. I’m almost done. I did most of it in school. When I finish can I talk to Cam?” That’s her boyfriend, and talking means Skyping for hours.
‘Sure.” I say, uncertain what will get done and what won’t.
About an hour later I go into her room where she quickly closes her computer, and tells me breathlessly yet casually, “I’m finished. Just playing a game.”
“Great, “I say, “Can I see what you’ve done?”
“Fine,” she says, slamming her hand down on her desk. “I got distracted. Is that a crime?” Her voice is seething with disdain. It’s clear to me she hasn’t done any homework during the hour.
“Not at all. Please sit at the dining room table so you can finish without distraction.” I think I say this as if it’s fine. Inside I’m frustrated and annoyed. Perhaps she hears it in my strained voice.
“What, you don’t trust me?” She asks incredulously. “I made a mistake. Sue me. No, I’m not moving. I’ll do it now.” She folds her arms indicating she won’t budge.
I walk away deflated. I don’t want to start a fight, so I leave certain we will revisit the homework exchange later in the evening.
As far as I’m concerned homework is a non-negotiable responsibility. To Emma it’s something to avoid. We are at an impasse. As a therapist I would encourage the parent to hold her ground. Make sure the child knows she is not the one calling the shots. But at home, I seem to be overcompensating for not having had a voice when I grew up. I’ve wanted Emma to feel empowered. Instead I am feeling the backlash
Handling Emma’s anger seems to be my number one role as her mother. Ironic since my teen years were spent suppressing my own anger. And, though unable to say anything harsh at home growing up, I was also the unhappy recipient of my mother’s ire.
“Don’t even look at me that way,” my mother would say. I was upset because I had a bad day at school. “You know what? I can’t even look at you right now. Go to your room so I don’t have to see you,” she’d say. My mother liked when I was polite and helpful. There wasn’t really room for moody or dour. I was probably sullen that moment. But I didn’t dare respond. I would lumber to my room where I would write existential poetry or play Janis Ian’s Seventeen again and again. In some ways my own teenage years trained me to be able to face Emma when she has no forbearance for me.
Emma always felt things deeply and I always urged her to express herself. “No, I don’t want to get dressed,” she’d passionately express in the morning. “I hear you. You don’t want to get dressed.” I’d mimic. “It’s no fun when you don’t want to get dressed but you still have to. I’m glad you told me.”, it was as if I was auditioning for the perfect parent. I said the right things but didn’t really know what I was doing. And, when she continued to cry or have a tantrum, I’d say, “Emma, you’re really upset. But you’re not going to get what you want by yelling at us, or being mean. When you can ask for what you want calmly and with respect, then we’ll listen. “
I could see how frustrated she was, but I did know these were skills she needed for life. These moments were when I had the patience and fortitude to calmly stay with her, loving her amidst the screams and crying.
Fast forward ten years later, and I’m not sure she learned what I had intended. We lack no drama in our home. When Larry, my husband, and I aren’t compliant with what she wants in the moment, she lashes out with a force worthy of a confession scene on Law & Order. I understand that she’s acting out because she doesn’t have the tools to ask for what she needs. Or, she doesn’t know what she needs. But I don’t always have the tools to respond with patience and understanding when I’m tired, I’ve worked hard, and all I want is a peaceful evening.
My working theory is that parents guide their children until the age of ten, or so. Then it’s our job to be there so they can push away, usually with sturm und drang. My ability to tolerate her rage gives space for her individuation. She can push away and define herself, separate from us. I’m grateful that I’m an older parent. I ‘ve had time to work on my own self-esteem so that Emma hating me does not equate feelings of worthlessness. I see so many parents take it personally when their preteen and teen children reject them. I don’t like it, but I don’t see it as personal. I see Emma’s anger as developmental. She’s at an age when it’s necessary to delineate herself from my projections of who I think she should be.
“You hate me. I know you hate me. You just want me to do my homework and clean up my room. You don’t care what I want. “ Emma’s tone is a mixture of taunting malice.
Of course, I’m impacted by it. It saddens me having a daughter who would act so cruelly. I get angry and act like a mad teen myself when I’m tired or fed up.
“You just lost the privilege of seeing Leah tonight,” I said, less as a punishment and more as a spiteful reaction to her nastiness. I have my doubts about their friendship, not sure who is influencing whom. My impression is that they compare notes on who has the worst mother. At other times, I also address Emma’s lack of respect, lack of simple acknowledgement, her mean comments, and general taciturn moods, setting limits and consequences that are more often ignored. Trying to redeem my parenting skills, I make a point of thanking Emma when she does something nice, like helping a friend with homework. Hearing that she thinks I want a perfect child, I say, “I’m proud of you for getting your math done tonight.” I say this even as I privately think that four hours was more than enough time to complete her Algebra and ELA homework. Yet, the time she sneaked on Skype overrode the rest of her homework.
I am learning from her teen years to not go down the same rabbit hole again and again. If yelling at her or trying to explain to her why homework is important does not help change the situation, then, as the adult, it’s my responsibility to try other approaches. I can be highly critical and judgmental of myself, and as an extension to my family. So, I work hard to acknowledge when Emma is helpful or caring. While I discipline myself from impulsively reacting when I don’t like something she does or doesn’t do. I understand her lying is a way to create a boundary between us. And, I am working on giving her more space so she can come to me with the truth, when it matters.
It’s hard for me to measure how much of her behavior is an act of defiance and how much of it is simply her age. Being a therapist is no help. I am not qualified to assess someone so close to me. I can only focus on my experience. No matter what I may think, I do see the necessity of moving towards redundancy as her caregiver, as I create more and more room between us, licking my wounds from her pushing away.