One pretty distinct stereotype of the American teenage girl: She is constantly slamming doors, weeping for no reason, and screaming, “Mom, you ruined my life!!!” Even in smart movies and television shows, there’s this pervasive image of the whiny, hysterically crying teen that I think we can all agree is perpetrated by some kind of Adult Illuminati. It’s like people want to chalk up all teen emotions solely to changing hormones. To be fair, I did some of that around ages 13 to 19, and even well into my 20s: I was moody, cried a lot, and was generally disgruntled (nothing a good, psychiatrist-prescribed SSRI couldn’t help). But what if those “teen hormones” are actually symptoms of your surroundings? What if you are just reacting to your home life? What if your parents, in fact, are actually ruining your life, or it at least feels that way? How do you tell them they’re screwing you up, maybe permanently?
All parents, guardians, or authority figures make mistakes at one point or another. I’m not talking about the kind of thing that involves physical, sexual, or emotional abuse—if that’s happening to you, tell a teacher, guidance counselor, or other trusted adult immediately, because it is NOT ACCEPTABLE for anyone to treat you that way (and check out this post by Ragini about how to make it through). But if your parents are doing something that you don’t like or is hurting you in some non-abusive way, it’s OK to establish an open line of communication about what’s bothering you by telling them about it. You’ll both benefit from it.
I grew up with a single mom. She spent a lot of effort doing things that she felt a strong single mom should. My mom worked three, sometimes four jobs, just so we could live in a nicer house in a decent neighborhood (which really wasn’t too much better than any of the other neighborhoods, since we lived in sparse-ass Wyoming, but that’s another story). However, all these jobs meant leaving me at home by myself a large amount of time, until I got my own job at 15. I wished that she would move us to a smaller, less nice spot, even an apartment, if it meant having her around more. But she grew up poor herself, and living in that nice house was her point of pride, so we stayed there and I spent a lot of time by myself (and became incredibly independent at a very young age: a bonus silver lining to the cloud of loneliness I felt as a teenager).
I never really told my mom that I wanted her to stay home more until I became an adult and realized that all that lonely time by myself had kind of messed up my psyche! One summer day, at the advanced age of 28, I called my mom and told her that she was not perfect and that her actions had messed me up a little bit. I don’t even remember what I said, exactly. I remember walking around Manhattan as I spoke with her way more vividly than I remember anything I might have told her—but I do remember the catharsis I felt from letting her know that I had those feelings. I had wanted to tell her for so, so long, and never did because I was terrified of what might happen. Would she cry? Would she scream at me and never talk to me again? Would she disown me?
None of those things happened!
Well, she did hang up on me. But she called me back.
“I remember one instance where the conversation got heated,” says my mom, “And I don’t remember what you said to me, but I remember hanging up. I’m sure you said something that hurt my feelings, but you have to remember it takes me about five minutes to get over things. So when we talked about it again, everything was fine.”
And that’s true—everything was fine, the world didn’t end. But telling my mom she wasn’t perfect was one of the best things that I ever did, for myself and for our relationship. It let me crack the façade that I felt I had to keep up: That everything was fine, that both she and I were irrevocably strong in the face of our struggles, that everything was going to be OK, forever and ever. It made her more human to me, and definitely made me more human to her, and it actually made me feel stronger as a person. As it turns out, that worked both ways.
“We’ve maybe not had a lot of conversations where we’ve opened up, but the ones we’ve had have been really meaningful and helpful to me,” says my mom. “I feel like we’ve strengthened our relationship with the talks that we’ve had.” Opening the line of communication in this way made me realize that even though she is my mom and has some kind of authority over me, all relationships have a give-and-take, and each person deserves a say in how it goes.
So how should you approach a parent or guardian when you feel something isn’t working for you? Advice from my mom about broaching this touchy kind of topic with your parent: Make it personal. “The best approach is to say, ‘Can we talk?’ or, ‘I have a question about something, can we discuss it? Maybe you can help me understand it,'” says my mom. “Instead of accusing, which might make the parent defensive, you can try to ask for help. For me, otherwise I’d get defensive and start thinking about all the things that you did to me that I had to take!” Touché, Mom. That further underscores the concept that each party in your adult-kid relationship has a unique perspective, and both deserve to be heard—you, as much as your parent. Some more thoughts from my mom on this front:
JULIANNE: Is there anything that I could say to you that would make you stop talking to me?
JULIANNE’S RAD MOM: No. If you told me you hated me, I would know that wasn’t true. But I can’t imagine that I would ever hear anything from you that wouldn’t be something I wouldn’t get over in five minutes.
I think the meanest thing you said to me is, one time you said you wished you had an abortion.
No way! No way! You know me and abortion! Maybe I said I wish you had never been born. Oh my god! I never would have said that.
I think you said that!
I am pretty sure you did, but here we are, still talking.
Well, I have said there is nothing that anything my family could do to me to make them stop talking to them. No matter what anyone in my family says to me or about me, it would never make me disassociate with them, because family is family. Say you went out and committed the worst crime—I still feel like I would stick by you.
So you don’t hate me for yelling at you that one time when you hung up the phone.
No, I love you so much and am so proud of you! Anyway, I gotta hang up now—I gotta go to bingo!
The thing that no one ever really tells you about parents is that they’re often terrified of exactly this: fucking up. They don’t always do the right thing, but usually, they really, really want to. By telling them what they’re doing wrong, you might just be giving them the little help that they need. Even if they don’t take it to heart, it’ll help YOU by getting it off your chest. It’s taken me a pretty long time and so much (sometimes painful) communication to get to a good place with my mom, but now that we’re there, I’m completely grateful for the relationship we’ve been able to build. An added bonus: I feel much stronger and more secure in myself because we aired everything out. ♦