Episode #65 – It’s hard to watch my child be sad
Question of the Day:
“I feel so bad for my high school senior. We just found out there will be no school for the rest of the year. She had so many things to look forward to: dance recitals, prom, graduation and all the parties and celebrations surrounding the end of year. My daughter has worked SO HARD throughout high school, only to have it end so abruptly. She didn’t get to say goodbye or mentally prepare to never see friends, teachers, or high school again. The first week at home was great. She needed the rest and seemed to enjoy the break. But now, she has lost all motivation. Even when she has the opportunity to connect with friends online, dance or work on school projects, she does the bare minimum.
She’s grumpy, laying around in her sweats, moving from bed to the kitchen to the couch and I feel so bad.”
I’m still exercising, getting outside, working from home and I would say my social life has actually improved as I now have more time to connect with friends I wasn’t seeing regularly. How can I help my disappointed, unmotivated teen, feel better?
Parent Educator Answer:
If we set the Coronavirus aside and just take a look at what’s developmentally normal for 17-18 year olds, what we typically find is a fundamental shift in identity. You’ll hear parents talk about the dramatic changes their teens make during these years when it comes to maturity, responsibility, confidence, and social acceptance.
Most of us go through about 4-6 major transitions in our lifetime. I’m not talking about a season of life, but a fundamental change in who you are and how you see yourself. The senior year of high school to the first year of college is very often the first major transformation. They are letting go of the old self: the child who lives at home and follows rules that someone else has set for them.
This transformation into the responsible adult is not easy or pretty. It’s not uncommon to hear some parents complain about their teens “crapping in the nest before they leave it” or struggling so much the first year of college that they end up coming home.
Because we’ve been through a few transitions already, we know that there is a great and exciting life on the other side of this transformation.
Think of it like a caterpillar transitioning into a butterfly. All through childhood, your baby is becoming a bigger, fatter, smarter caterpillar. Changing for sure, but fundamentally the same species, a kid. At some point, usually during the end of adolescence, your caterpillar starts to change. The first step in this transformation is the building of a cocoon. This helps them feel safe enough to fall apart. To dissolve the old self. If you break open a cocoon, you’ll find a liquid, caterpillar soup. The old self needs to completely dissolve in order to re-build into a newly formed adult.
In Finding Your Own North Star, Martha Beck identifies the predictable stages we all go through when transforming from our old self to our new self.
Square 1: Falling Apart – Dissolution of the old identity.
Sometimes this happens slowly over time where we gradually outgrow our old life. People outgrow marriages and careers. We get 9 months to grow into our new identities as mom but even then there is a lot of falling apart that happens that first year we have a baby.
Other times we get thrown into square one with no warning. A death in the family. A diagnosis. A global pandemic.
Your daughter has been thrown into square one without her consent. Her identity has been stripped
away. The only choice she has is to let go of the old self. To say goodbye to the high school student, the dancer, the friends and acquaintances she will no longer see on a daily basis. Many of us fight and cling to hold on to the old ways because the new ways are so vague, uncertain, and confusing.
The fastest way through square one is right through the middle of it. To feel all the feels. To mourn and grieve and be sad. To swear and complain and lay around in your PJ’s. The mantra Martha Beck offers that always seems to help is, “I don’t know what the hell is going on, and that’s ok.”
The caterpillar doesn’t know why it feels the way it feels, why it doesn’t want to eat anymore, or why it’s spinning a cocoon. It just follows its instincts. Eventually, the grief, anger and disappointment will pass and she will move on to square two, dreaming about what’s next.
Square 2: Dreaming and Scheming
The caterpillar has imago cells; an image of the butterfly it’s meant to become. I believe we also have things imprinted in us; talents, interests, and proclivities we are meant to explore. We have places we are meant to visit and experiences we are meant to have.
You’ll know your daughter is entering square two when she starts redecorating her room, changing her hair, clothes, or somehow trying on a new identity. You’ll hear her say things like, “I think I’ll join ____ club in college” or “I applied for a job at ____” . The mantra for this phase is “There are no rules and that’s ok.”
Square 3: The Hero’s Saga
This is the hard work we must go through in order to feel grounded in our new identity. In our caterpillar metaphor, this is becoming a butterfly. Once it is formed, the butterfly needs to push and kick and struggle to break free of the cocoon. If you were to come along and help free the butterfly, it would die. The struggle is an important part of becoming a fully formed and healthy butterfly.
The struggle for an adolescent entering adulthood can look like: getting a flat tire, missing a deadline, washing a load of laundry with strawberry chapstick, having roommate conflicts, oversleeping and missing a test, SO MANY THINGS!
The mantra to help get through square 3 is “This is harder than I thought it was going to be and that’s ok.” (Post this mantra near your phone during her first year of college!)
Square 4: The Promised Land
The fully formed butterfly. The responsible adult. There are still minor things to learn and adjust to but you feel pretty solid in your identity. You no longer need your parents in the same way. You trust yourself to handle new and difficult situations.
So the answer to “How can I help my daughter feel better?” is to be a compassionate witness.
Allow her to feel as terrible as she needs to feel. Use emotion words and reflect back what you think she’s feeling and thinking: “It’s so disappointing. This quarantine is scary and frustrating.”
Let her know she isn’t alone: “There are so many kids your age feeling isolated and frustrated about this whole situation.”
Mirror her body language and voice tone, but don’t “fall down the well” with her.
Life Coaching Answer: What gets in our way? Beware of “Falling down the well.”
It’s so hard to watch our kids suffer and not be able to do anything about it! We have this strange cultural belief that says: “My job is to make sure my kid doesn’t suffer.” We think “suffering is bad” and “a good mom should be able to prevent their child from experiencing too much negative emotion.” When we think this way, we feel helpless. Nobody likes feeling helpless so we jump in and try to help by either telling them what they should do to feel better, or feeling bad right along with them in solidarity.
When we see someone we love suffering, sometimes we do this by “jumping down the well” with them. Our kid has fallen down a well of despair and we commiserate. We feel bad WITH them so at least they feel like they aren’t alone.
I used to do this with my husband. He’d come home from work complaining about how stressful his day was and I would find the most stressful parts of my day and share them so he’d feel supported. Nice idea, but it doesn’t work. Husbands want to come home to a peaceful, happy house. It’s the reason they work so hard in the first place, to provide a good home to their family.
When he would come home stressed only to find me equally as stressed, it made him feel worse.
When moms feel as bad (if not MORE devastated) than their teens, it doesn’t make the teen feel supported. Your teen doesn’t want a mom who is suffering. This is her pain, and her suffering. You don’t have to be happy that your daughter has fallen down a well of despair, but you can still enjoy the beautiful sunshine and throw her a rope once in a while. You can be compassionate – “that really sucks” and “I’m sorry your senior year got ripped away from you” – but still live your life with joy and optimism for yourself and for her future. It feels awkward to be happy when your child is suffering. You don’t have to be happy about her suffering, but you can help her find purpose and meaning in it.
When you can’t be happy, making meaning is the next best thing. Inside your head, believe that this experience will make her more compassionate to others who suffer, more resilient to future upsets, more adaptable to handle this uncertain and ever-changing world.
When a mom shows compassion and believes that good things will come from this bad experience, it provides a safe harbor from the stormy seas. Your teen may not be ready to move through square one as quickly as you’d like her to, but when she is ready, she will know where to go to find a safe, happy, and peaceful harbor.
Kryptonite – Mental Prison
At the end of the last podcast, I mentioned to the client I was coaching to make sure she doesn’t mentally imprison herself. During this “shelter in place” quarantine, it’s especially important not to feel trapped or stuck.
I used to do this to myself when my kids were little. I would think things like, “I can’t leave the house.” “I have to stay here.” “I can’t do what I want.” These thoughts create the feeling of helplessness and powerlessness.
Just like in the question above, thoughts like “I should be able to help my daughter and I can’t.” or “She shouldn’t have to deal with this (and she is).” create a helpless or powerless feeling.
Humans are meant to be free. When we believe we are powerless, it does terrible things to the human psyche. It is much better for our psychological and emotional well being to think, “I can leave the house but I choose not to because I love my family.” or “I want to stay home because I prefer it to the potential consequences of walking out.”
If you’ve got a depressed, anxious, stressed, or disappointed person living in your house, you are not powerless. You don’t have to feel what they are feeling. You can feel peaceful, happy, grateful, or whatever you want to feel, even if no one else feels the same.
Let yourself be that safe harbor where your family can come home after spending time on stormy seas.
Power Boost: Are you ready for an upgrade?
The other night at the dinner table (we’ve been having a lot more family dinners now that there are no sports), one of my kids asked what the difference is between a version 1.2 software update and a 2.0 software upgrade. My husband explained that a small software update (the kind which adds numbers after the decimal, includes small improvements, bug fixes, and minor enhancements. A Larger software upgrade means to improve something to a higher standard. It provides significant changes and major improvements. It’s an entirely new version of the same software program.
As we grow up, we are constantly updating. But, about 5 times in our life, we go through a major, version 2.0 upgrade. Martha Beck talks about this in terms of our identity; a letting go of the old self to make room for the new self.
For many of us, this Coronavirus has created too many bugs in our software. For high school seniors, athletes who play spring sports, parents who have lost their jobs, suffered economic blows, this Coronavirus may require a major version upgrade. For kids and parents who are LOVING this quarantine and don’t want to go back to their old ways, they may be ready for a major upgrade.
Today’s Supermom Power Boost is to talk to your friends, teens, spouse, and parents about how many upgrades they’ve gone through in their life. Because of moving countries, states, cities, and schools multiple times before the age of 10, my husband says he’s up to version 9.0. I had a very stable childhood so my first upgrade didn’t come until I was 20. Living on my own, getting married, becoming a mom, overcoming anxiety, becoming a life coach, brings me up to version 5.2.or so. It was interesting to hear my daughter say she’s still on version 1 and my son say it was his senior year of high school that moved him from 1.9 to 2.0.
What version of you are you on? Life coaching transforms my clients into new versions of themselves. If this Coronavirus is giving you too many bugs in your software and you feel like things aren’t working the way they used to, perhaps you are ready to let go of the old version and make room for a significant upgrade in your parenting, career, or relationships?
Quote of the Day:
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of those depths.” Elizabeth Kubler-Ross