Many years ago a mother dragged her daughter to my office. When I say dragged I mean literally dragged. Emily was far from happy about the experience. As her mother introduced herself and the situation, Emily busied herself by yawning, looking around the room and rolling her eyes. The more Emily refused to engage, the more disheartened her mother became.
Finally, mum burst into tears in desperation. “All I want is to have a relationship with her,” she explained. “She thinks I want to hurt her, but I don’t. She doesn’t understand that I still have to be her mother. I only want the best for her. I just want her to be happy.”
I looked at Emily hoping to see some signs of compassion. None.
Emily understood how powerful a weapon her love was. She knew she was literally holding the heart of her mother in the palm of her hand, and she was using her attitude like a dagger.
Emily defended herself by saying, “She doesn’t love me. If she loved me she would let me go out and actually do something! All she does is cry all the time and it is making my angry. She needs to get over it. I hate her and in two weeks I am 15 and she can’t stop me leaving home!”
I braced myself and asked mum to give me some time alone with her delightful daughter.
After an hour or so of talking to Emily I asked her some pointed questions.
“Do you think your mother really loves you?” Without flinching and looking at me as if I were an absolute idiot she replied, “Of course she does”.
“How do you think she feels when you tell her she doesn’t, and you speak to her like that?”
“I guess she is pretty cut up…she cries a lot,” Emily answered.
“Emily, do you love your mum?” I probed, hoping for something to work with!
She looked at the floor.
She began to fidget.
I knew the truth was about to come out. I knew she was going to tell me something she had been longing to get off her chest for a while.
“Yeah, I do. I mean I know I don’t act like it but she is my mum. I just get angry and say bad stuff but I don’t really mean it. I feel really bad for treating her like that. It makes me feel horrible because she loves me so much and would do anything for me and I treat her so bad. I am a total bitch! I don’t know why I do it. I think about it all the time. Sometimes I lay awake at night feeling terrible about it.”
“Would you be willing to tell your mum the truth? Would you be willing to tell your mum you love her?” I asked hopefully. “I think it will make a huge difference to her right now.”
“Yes, I think it would help us sort things out,” Emily replied.
I noticed a tear in her eye.
BREAKTHROUGH MOMENT! Was this young lady finally letting her guard down?
I asked Emily’s mum to enter the room again. I get ready to pull out the big one, the question that will unite the two of them forever.
“Emily, you know your mum loves you,” I begin. “I know you have said some pretty mean things to her, but underneath it all, it would be awesome if you had the courage to reassure her of this….”
Now this was a rookie mistake on my part. I walked into it with my eyes wide open. What a stupid question to ask a 14 year old!!!!!
Mum holds her breath and looks like she is going to pass out.
Emily’s body tightens up as she proudly announces, “Sometimes, but only when she lets me go out!”
Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!! SOMETIMES! SOMETIMES!!!!! I wanted to kill her! Why couldn’t she have just said what she said to me moments before!
Emily smiles, then catches my eye and looks down.
If I asked most teenagers to tell their mother that they love them the standard response will probably be, “Why? What for? I mean you can’t expect me to tell the person who carried me for nine months, put her life on hold, cries herself to sleep over me and is worried sick about me, that I love her! I mean come on, that is expecting too much!”
Emily understands that both giving and withholding love is a powerful weapon in relationships. And in order for Emily’s mother to remain an active parent she needs to know Emily’s secret! She needs to know that at the bottom of Emily’s heart is a great love for her mother.
This story may be a bit over the top for your household, or maybe not. But most mothers and fathers feel redundant at some stage as their teenager bucks for their independence.
It is amazing how similar the words “Get out of my life”, “I don’t need your opinion“ or “You can’t tell me what to do anyway!” can sound like “I hate you” to parents who are wanting to connect with their daughter.
So, what’s the secret in this situation?
Your teenager is unlikely to wave a ‘Mum’s the best” fan club flag for some years yet. Accepting this is the first step to moving through it. They aren’t going to sing your praises voluntarily so you have to KNOW it rather than rely on being told (or experiencing) it. You have to remind yourself everyday that they love you even when they are fighting with you or hurling abuse. You have to remind yourself that you know their secret!
If you believe the message of rejection they are sending you, you are greatly mistaken. This mistake will rob you of your ability to be the parent they need you to be – one who is sure and confident that they are still very much needed and valued as part of their child’s life.
They love you. They need you. They depend on you.
And my advice is this. If your teen is going through an “independent” phase, DON’T ask them if they love you! It comes off as desperate. It is a massive turn off to a teen. It’s too needy.
Instead, remind yourself that mother-daughter or mother-son bonds are not that easily broken, and in the years to come they are likely to be able to lean into a relationship with you with much more ease. Reassure yourself by looking in the mirror and reminding yourself that your patience, guidance, tolerance, and never-ending love is just what your child needs. They will thank you for it in the years to come.
YOU are all kinds of awesomeness.
RECOMMENDED READING: You can find more on this topic in my book ‘What Teenage Girls Don’t Tell Their Parents’.