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Well, That Shouldn't Matter
A Mother Pressuring Her Teen Daughter, Invalidating Her and Not Respecting Her Feelings
This is a true story from around 2000. S. Hein
I am talking to two teenagers, A and B. We are having a very good discussion about relationships -- a favorite teenage topic and one which is often difficult for them to talk about with their parents. They are asking one question after another. A is sitting at a desk. B is sitting on the floor. Mom, who I will call Mom 1, had gone shopping. Dad was working outside and it was quiet in the house. It was the first chance the three of us had to have an uninterrupted conversation in several days.
Surprisingly soon, we hear Mom 1 coming home. She comes to the doorway and tells us she came back to see if the teens wanted to go do some work at a children's museum which they had talked about the night before. She says she can drop them off on her way to the shops. By the way she asks the question it is obvious she wants them to go. She doesn't say she wants them to go, though. The teens immediately feel pressured to say yes they will go, but it is clear they don't want to, so they say nothing at all.
Sensing that the teens don't want to go, but wanting to persuade them to, Mom 1 starts trying to wear them down. She says she was at B's house and her mother, Mom 2, was "surprised" that the teens had decided to stay home rather than go do the work as they had talked about the night before. She asks again if they are sure they don't want to go. It is even more obvious they don't, as they turn away, but still they remain silent, feeling afraid to speak their true feelings.
Mom 1 continues talking, saying the same thing several more times, sometimes exactly the same way, sometimes modifying it a little. The teens still don't say anything and Mom 1 still never just says directly that she really wants them to go. Mom seems to have some hidden motive and instead of expressing herself directly, it is as if she is trying to persuade the teens that they really want to go and that she is just being helpful by a) reminding them how much they wanted to go the day before and by b) offering to take them before she starts shopping. The teens do not feel helped though. They feel pressured and manipulated.
Mom 1 repeats again that Mom 2 was very surprised when she heard the teens were not planning to go to the museum that afternoon as she expected them to. It seems likely to me that Mom 2 may have really wanted the teens to go for some reason and she may have disapproved of Mom 1's decision to allow the teens to change their minds according to their new feelings, or more generally, to think and feel for themselves. It also seems that Mom 1 is afraid of Mom 2's judgment and disapproval. Having met Mom 2, I can understand this fear.
When Mom 1 repeats once more how excited they were the night before A finally says, with a tone of exasperation, "That was before we found out that we weren't going to get paid!" Instead of validating the feeling behind this or showing any understanding at all, Mom shoots back, "Well that shouldn't matter." Immediately I think to myself, "But it does matter!"
She then says it will be the last time that they will get a chance to do it before her friend has to leave. Indirectly she is saying that it is a good thing to do volunteer work and she is wanting the teens to feel guilty for not wanting to do it. So now Mom 1 has turned up the pressure even higher.
There is a long and uncomfortable silence. Then Mom 1 says that the teens will probably really enjoy it once they get there and start doing it. She repeats that B's mother, M thought they would want to go to so she came back to offer to take them. It almost seems as she is seeking appreciation, so I think to myself it might help if the teens said, "Well, thanks for coming back to double check. That was nice of you, but we have changed our minds about going and are happy here now."
But instead of being able to speak up and take control of their lives, the teens are both losing their energy. Physically, they are slumping down lower and lower. B now is laying with her head in her arms on the floor, facing down and away from the mother. A is also looking down and away from her mother. The mother keeps repeating that B's mother was really surprised when she heard the teens weren't going and so she just came back to see if they wanted to go. At one point B lifts herself up a little and says sounding strained. "I do want to go, but later." The scene brings to mind beating a false confession out of someone.
The mother says that the museum might close at five o'clock so if they don't go now they won't get a chance to do much work. Plus it might be too late to do it when then get there if they don't go soon. (More pressure.) At about this point A puts her head down onto her hand, with her forehead in her palm and her elbow on the desk, still looking away from the mother. The mother says "I just thought I would come back and see if you wanted me to drop you off there on my way to the shops. Then you can walk over to B's house when you are finished working. So do you want to go?" Silence. After years of being beaten down like this the teens cannot even find the energy and self-confidence to say "No, we do not want to go."
By this point some teens would have screamed at the mother and started attacking her in response to the pressure she was putting on them and the way she was disrespecting and invalidating their feelings. But these two teens, who are best friends because they are so similar, don't have the inner strength to stand up for themselves. I am not sure where this inner strength comes from, but I am sure that it can either be nurtured or beaten down in the course of a child's life. These particular teens were not physically beaten as children, at least not often, but they were lectured to, judged, invalidated and disapproved of enough that they have become afraid of self-assertion. (see note)
I suppose their ultimate, unacknowledged fear is the fear of the parents rejection. Ironically, the parents in this case are not the kinds of parents who would ever say "You are no child of mine. Get out and don't come back." Still, the teens must fear this type of rejection on some level. I can think of no other reason they would be so paralyzed by the mother's psychological pressure.
At any rate, the mother looks at me and I say "I think they feel pressured." I ask A if she feels pressured and she says, sounding very frustrated, "Yes!"
Then I start to ask the mother what she is most concerned about, trying to figure out why she wants them to go so badly. I ask her how she felt when B's mother said she was surprised. She cannot give me a direct answer, so I suggest my theory that she may feel responsible for the two of them not going and may feel afraid of Mom 2's disapproval and judgment. She denies this and gets a little defensive. She continues to talk about how excited they were about going last night. She tries to convince me she is offering to help the teens by dropping them off.
It is obvious to me that the feeling of excitement which the teens had last night is long gone. It is also apparent that the teens would rather stay and have a serious talk with me than go do photocopying and not even get paid for it. I expect the teens felt disillusioned when they found out earlier in the day they were not going to be paid, so it is easy for me to understand how and why their feelings changed. What puzzles me is why the mother is so insistent they go, and why she doesn't respect or show any understanding for their feelings. In fact, she has not even shown an attempt at understanding them. For example, when the teens tried to explain themselves, the mother quickly shot down their explanation with "Well, that shouldn't matter."
I consider asking the teens how much they feel understood from 0-10. I imagine the answer would be 0. But I decide not to put Mom 1 on the defensive any more than she is already.
My own preference is that they stay and talk to me since I am unsure when I will have another chance to talk to them before I leave. So I express my preference as gently as I can. I also feel protective of the teens and don't want to see them pressured or guilt-tripped into doing something they don't want to do. At the same time I want the mother to feel somewhat supported and understood by me so she will feel less threatened whenever I talk to her children, all of whom I enjoy spending time with.
I tell her I agree that doing volunteer work is a good thing for teens to do. I also agree they might like it once they get there. But my main empathy is for the teens since they rarely have someone who is their advocate. I try to negotiate a compromise with the mother. Since I have the only other car there that afternoon I say, "How about if I take them over at three thirty?" The mother is not very agreeable to this. I then suggest three o'clock.
Then the mother says she is concerned that I don't have two extra seat belts in my car. Still feeling frustrated, A says "It is only five minutes away!" I say that I have one seat belt in the front and I can put one of the teens in the back. I suggest I put the guest, B, in the seat belt and joke that we would always rather have our own child get killed than someone else's since we would feel so guilty if something happened to someone else's child while we are responsible for them. I then promise I will drive very carefully.
The mother evades me and tries once or twice more to get the teens to go with her right then. They are just about ready to give in, feeling worn down. There is a lot of tension in the air. I try to lighten it by joking for them not to get too excited about going and both jump up at once. The mother notices that her teen has barely moved in several minutes and is holding her head. She asks if she is all right. I say jokingly, "I think she has a migraine." (I think this came to mind because earlier we had been talking about the father's migraines.) I feel a little bad for joking about her pain, but it is my way of trying to relieve the tension in the air. I feel torn between protecting the teens and not getting the mother any more defensive.
I reassure the mother that I can see her point and that I agree it would be interesting for the teens to get out of the house and that museum sounds interesting. I promise her I will drag them out to the car at three o'clock if need be to get them there. Eventually the mother agrees to this. As she leaves the house and we hear the door close, B rolls on the floor as if in agony and says "I hate my mother so much. She is always doing this." I find this interesting since it was A's mother who we had just been talking to, not B's mother. Apparently B realizes that it was her mother who was primarily responsible since she is the one who evidently intimidated A's mother into coming back.
I remain silent. The mood in the room is as if someone died. I am not sure what to say. I wait to see what the teens might say next.
There is silence for perhaps two uncomfortable minutes. The normally talkative, energetic teens are near death. "A" still has her head in her palm. When she looks up at me with a lost, defeated look in her eyes I say, "So how do you feel?" She says, "Guilty."
We talk about this a little. She says she thinks she should have gone. I ask B if she feels guilty also. She says no, she just wishes her mother would let her make her own decisions. There is still a lot of gloom in the room. I notice that my heart is still beating strongly from the tension caused by the pressure from the mother. I feel empathy for the teens as I think of how this kind of thing has probably happened to them all their lives.
I try to get the teens to talk more about their feelings but they are still very quiet. They look so defeated and drained. As if all life has been sucked out of them. As if their souls and spirits had just been killed and only the physical body remained living. I find it particularly ironic that the mother considers herself a spiritual person, but she has just gravely wounded the spirits of two young humans.
I decide to change the subject, so I ask what we were talking about before the mother walked in. No one can remember since all our energy is directed towards the stress we are feeling. Eventually I remember we were talking about relationships. This brings a bit of life back to them. Eventually we are talking again. We then get back on the topic of the volunteering. "A" says she does want to go now. Then she corrects herself and says she doesn't "want" to, but she feels like she "should."
I see that this guilt is unhealthy for her and is irrational in this instance. I try to explain the difference between healthy and unhealthy guilt, between deserved and undeserved. This seems to help relieve her pain somewhat. I suggest one need not feel guilty for one's feelings changing or for feeling disillusioned when one finds out something is not how it was initially believed to be. I show that I understand that getting paid or not getting paid does matter, even though the mother said it "shouldn't" matter. My understanding seems to help somewhat, but the effect of the mother's presence remains in the room long after she has gone.
Other EQI.org Topics:
As I thought about all of this at around 3 AM that night I suddenly remembered that powerful statement: "Well, that shouldn't matter." This was probably the main source of guilt. I feel discouraged at how easily teens are made to feel guilty. In this case it just took three words "That shouldn't matter." I want to go back to the mother and say "But it DOES matter!"
One of my biggest concerns about this story is that when I showed A and B what I had written about it, they both said that what had happened was no big deal. They said it was "such a small thing". I am not sure if they meant that other times the pressure and guilt trips are much more intense, or if they simply have no idea of the consequence of years of this kind of environment. Their comments remind me of the frog who does not perceive small changes in water temperature and allows himself to be boiled alive.
These two teens already have very low self-esteem and have tremendous difficulty asserting, or even identifying, their own desires and needs. I can see the cause and effect already taking place, but then again I had no idea what was happening to me when I was growing up. It was not until age 35 that I started to pay attention to these things.
Now that I see what is happening in so many homes around the world, I want to help raise awareness that statements like the mother's are toxic. They invalidate and create feelings of guilt, both of which damage the spirit and cause self-doubt. I know this mother and I know she wants to raise a child with high self-esteem; a child who trusts her own feelings and listens to her inner voice. I feel encouraged when I think that it will be possible to have the mother and daughter sit down tomorrow and talk about their feelings, and that the mother will at least listen to what I have to say. I also know that A will always be able to talk to me and feel understood, and that this will play an important role in her life. I believe what I have read and heard about how one understanding and accepting person can change another person's life.
But it is not A I am most concerned about right now. It is the other teens who I will never meet and who will never read about how they are being manipulated with guilty feelings. It is also the teens whose parents use physical force and threats of punishment to get the desired behavior from their children. I feel frustrated and saddened that I cannot help more of them. It is small consolation to me to know that a few people will read this; a few people will agree and a few people care for children and teens as I do. Yet this is all I can do this morning at 4:12 A.M. as my candle burns and my hard disk hums.
S. Hein Jan 2002
|Additional note: I emailed this
story to someone who has been helping me see what it is
like to grow up in an abusive home. She wrote this:
|Note - At the time I wrote the story I did not
know that at least one of the teens, A, had been hit up
until about age 12. I also learned later that B's father
had literally smashed their TV set because he thought the
people he created were watching it too much.
Feb 2004 Update: A few months ago I heard from "A" again. She told me her younger sister had tried to kill herself. She also told me she was dating someone who was suicidal and who had threatened to kill himself if she broke up with him. And she told me her mother made her cry on her 16th birthday.
Nov 2008 Update - Last year I spoke with "A" again. She was 20 years old by then. She told me that a few months earlier she had tried to kill herself.
Mar 2012 - I spoke with A again. She is now a single mom.