We see in some families that there is a lasting breach. Sometimes this is an outward breach: the teenager leaves home and cuts off contact, or the parents cannot manage the trouble the teenager is causing and throw their child out of the house. In both cases much damage is caused to the souls of parents and child, not to mention the risks children run if they have to fend for themselves between their fourteenth and eighteenth year. Normally, no parent desires such an end to the educational process. And, all things considered, no child desires such an end to the years of childhood.
Besides, after such a breach there is a great risk that teenagehood will be cut short and prematurely transformed into early, and perhaps desperate, adulthood. In these circumstances it is also possible that a teenager will regress into behaving like a child again, becoming totally dependent on others, who have to take the place of father and mother. These others may be friends, some group or a religious sect. The teenager then becomes an imitator, like a small child, and stops exercising her or his own critical judgment.
Sometimes rather than an outer breach there is an inner one. This may be just as serious. It certainly generates the same kinds of risks as an outer breach. Here, too, we can observe both premature adulthood and childish dependence on surrogate parents. The breach is less conspicuous: the child lives in the home as in a hotel, preferably at no cost, but the human relationship with the parents is broken. Except for an occasional quarrel or superficial talk, there is nothing left between them, and not just for a little while – such as often happens in a family. All that is left is this indifferent or artificially polite form of contact.
I want to emphasise here that it is normal for this form of superficial contact to occur during the teen years, but if it is handled well it will be temporary. A real inner breach has occurred if there has been no warmth, no sharing, no closeness for years. Just as in the case of an outer breach, we can speak of an inner breach only if the child does not return. Many teenagers will try to leave home once or twice but via the street corner, a friend or neighbour they are soon back again.
“‘From ten on, children begin to remember that they have not given themselves to their parents for all eternity’”
Do We Own Our Children?
‘Whatever you receive in this life, consider it a temporary loan. That will forestall much unnecessary pain.’ This wise saying has general validity, but especially in relation to the children who have been entrusted to us it is, in my view, the most fruitful position. Looking down out of the spiritual world, the child searches for the right parents. Out of an unlimited faith and trust in those parents the child is born as a totally dependent little entity. Since children are not able to bring their own ‘I’ into the world right away, they are dependent on the ‘I’ of the parents. Children are indeed really ours, because they give themselves to us, but for a limited and necessary time! It would not be right if you could not feel deep in your soul that your toddler is your very own flesh and blood. That feeling gives the child security and tranquillity. However, this feeling should be time-bound. Until teenagehood children give themselves to their parents. But in the teen years, the gift of your child comes to an end. Until about the tenth year, your child is simply your child. For most parents this is a natural feeling. But from ten on, children begin to remember that they have not given themselves to their parents for all eternity. Now and then they begin to sense that deep in their souls the ‘I’, the spiritual core that was still asleep there, is waking up. And this ‘I’ is the rightful ‘owner’ of the child. When teenagehood begins in earnest, we have to take on this change, because the inner master has risen: ‘Until now I belonged to you; now I belong to myself!’ Since this master is not yet experienced by the child as a real entity, as it is inside adults, we witness only the working of an inner, hidden force – just as in a lawn we do not see the moles but only their molehills. The ‘I’ of the teenager is as yet unborn, un-free, but its effects already throw up a lot of molehills in the form of restlessness, defensiveness, explorations, and so on. Parents who continue to feel that their child is their possession suffer from egoism or fear in the soul. It demands a lot of soul strength to become conscious of inner egoism, especially because it hides comfortably behind all kinds of parental love. It is even more difficult to overcome this egoism and ensure it does not determine how you act. The same is true of the anxiety we may feel for the child, and more general, deep anxiety about life. To deal with such anxiety we may need help from our partner, friends or a therapist. Working on it can create the right conditions in our own soul for maintaining connection with our teenage children.
Why Do I React the Way I Do?
You can go through life like an unconscious cauliflower, and most of the time things will come out right. But with a teenager in the house, you are compelled to reflect on your own soul and to become conscious of who you really are as a parent. Teenagers confront us with the way we react, but in truth the confrontation goes much, much deeper than this. Children mirror the behaviour they see around them from the moment they are born. Teenagers confront us with who we are. In the struggle to discover their own individuality, to find a connection with their ‘I’, they also continually struggle to discover the ‘I’ of adults. Teenagers will faultlessly bring to light how their parents relate to their own ‘I’. Are their parents’ lives really no more than a semblance, or do they follow their own red thread? Has the soul of the parent gone through real teenagehood? Is it free of unconsciously copied content? Does the soul body fit the content? How much respect do the two parents have for each other’s ‘I’? I don’t believe there is an adult in the world who can pass this test. Somewhere the ‘I’ in each of us is not connected, and we live in routine and indolence. There are always things we have never thought about, never tried in a different way, but kept doing in a way that always seemed obvious. And then there is the shock of realising that, although after much wrestling through and beyond the teen years you have been able to transform your soul content into genuine content of your own, you can’t get out of your soul body despite the fact that it does not quite fit the soul content any more. Your teenager will let you know head on that while you think about something in a certain manner in the present, you betray in little ways that you still carry the old around with you in your habits.
When parents are out of balance because of emotional problems, if they quarrel with each other or give in to impulses out of desire, a teenager will be quick to name and criticise these unprocessed facets of the soul. And they are often painfully right. To summarise, the risk of a parent losing their teenage child outwardly or inwardly depends on things like the following:
• Recognising that your children are not your possessions but individuals in their own right;
• The extent to which the soul of the parent went through the teen journey;
• The degree to which the parent strives for a realization of a meaningful life goal out of their ‘I’;
• The extent to which the parent is willing to reflect on themselves and their self-knowledge;
• The parent’s willingness to give up their attachment to their own ego, their pride of personality.
The last point has to do with our complacency, our pride and security, our status and arrogance. We all have these things in our inner being, no matter how modest and insecure we appear on the outside. Perhaps such insecurity or modesty is really our pride or our security. Any encroachment into this realm of the ego evokes pain. Pain frightens us – we run away or react with aggression. When dear daughter or son steps on our ego again, we may pull back in silence, or in tears. Or we may fight back with sharp words or a violent row.
“‘Lack of trust in your child and their future is often so understandable, but also senseless’”
What can you do?
Lack of trust in your child and their future is often so understandable, but also senseless. When children are teenagers, are in their sojourn in the lock in the river, they crave trust – parents who, in spite of all troubles, know that things will come out all right. Whether the teenager smokes and drinks, misbehaves sexually or hangs out, don’t be misled. Maintain inwardly the iron conviction that this child of yours will make it to the other side of the swamp she or he is in, and will capably realise her or his own plans for the future. But be careful! These are not your dreams for the future of the child. What counts here is the future that is right for the ‘I’ of the child, her or his own master. The inner wisdom the teenager is struggling for will lead her or him to a future home. That is the genuine trust teenagers crave, even though they will rarely show it. Naturally you will lose your trust time and again; you are in anguish and terror when you see what your child is up to. That is all right, provided you take charge of yourself again each time, and you put yourself resolutely behind your child again and face the unknown future full of confidence. It will be clear that parents with lots of fixed notions about what the future is supposed to look like – studies, accomplishments, money, prestige, or just the opposite like simply being free and enjoying things – are vulnerable in this regard. They will look askance at everything their child does that clashes with their beautiful picture. What healthy teenagers do may not be so pretty, but later they will find their own life pattern, which could include anything – perhaps even what their parents had in mind for them! But if the child’s dream is different from the parents’ dream, the parents will perhaps never trust the child – they may consider the child a failure and yet may continue to hope that she or he will still…
Some parents persist in this until their children are sixty! For children, “success” only means searching for the way toward the meaningful realisation of their own life goal, out of their own ‘I’.
Teenagers may fall in love repeatedly, but genuine, deep love is still hardly there. They may become desperately attached to someone, but usually it is a case of being highly dependent on that person. The great love they should experience in this period is what they should still encounter as a gift, the gift of their parents. What is love? I will leave that to the poets. But what does it look like in teenagehood? What is it that one gives them? The love of the parents is what the teenager encounters in: patience – acceptance – forgiveness – tolerance – interest – attention – authenticity – trust – constructive criticism; but also in confrontation – struggle – directness – anger! There is something else I also want to mention. It is the willingness to keep to yourself as much as possible the pain you feel during and because of your child’s teenagehood. Don’t burden your children with your difficulties in parenting them. Renouncing the desire to mirror your pain is a sacrifice that strongly indicates a loving parent. Don’t burden them with feelings of guilt, which they won’t know how to resolve. When we inwardly process the pain of rearing our children and allow it to grow into insights, we let our children go on their way unburdened. Parents who practice this continually build bridges across the chasms that erupt between them and their children. Those are the bridges that make it possible for the teen years to end without us having lost our children.
Jeanne is a family therapist who works with teenagers and their parents. She lives in the Netherlands and follows a Steiner approach to parenting. Her latest book You and Your Teenager: Understanding the Journey (£20 Floris) offers much insight into connection parenting with teens.
This article first appeared in issue 57 of The Green Parent magazine. To read more articles like this subscribe to the magazine here