“Mom, EVERYONE is wearing these! I NEED it”
“That shirt is WAY inappropriate. There is NO WAY you are wearing that”
“I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU THINK! You just want me to be a baby FOREVER”
I happened to catch this interaction between a 13-year-old and her mother at Forever 21 this past weekend, and what I witnessed was no less intense than a Shakespearean tragedy. After working with teens and adolescents for 18 years, this show was nothing new, but it still held my attention. I empathized with the mother, frustrated and aging by the second, who was blindsided by the rage she was witnessing from her daughter. I was fascinated by the daughter, seemingly more energized by the battle itself. I couldn’t help but laugh and cringe at the same time.
While this argument seemed mundane and involved the length of a crop top, at the root it was a classic example of individuation. Individuation, on the surface is a teen doing exactly what they are not supposed to do, as if just to give their parents a few more grey hairs. In reality, individuation is a critical developmental milestone. Just like learning to walk, individuation is the process of adolescents growing into their own, finding their voice, and yes, making mistakes that will teach them life lessons. I admit, individuation can feel, from an adult perspective, like a hand grenade going off. The truth is that it feels that way because adults often dismiss this important experience as simple teen angst. Hence, the Shakespearean drama I witnessed–a power struggle engaged at maximum intensity.
As a parent, there are several steps to take in order to encourage healthy individuation, and avoid the headache of a power struggle.
The first is validation, plain and simple. Validation does NOT mean agreement or just giving in. In my clinical practice, many families confuse the two. Validation is the subtle art of hearing one another, and calmly reflecting that need. It makes the other person feel understood, respected, and valued. I wanted to replay the argument with the Forever 21 family. I would have edited the mother’s response, telling the daughter that she understands that she wants to fit in with her peers, but the shirt is impractical for school as it is because of the dress code. I heard that her daughter wasn’t upset because she was told no, she was worried about not fitting in, not being liked. Unfortunately, all the daughter heard her mom say is “I don’t understand you. I don’t like your choices. You are not likable, and I will dress you as such.” Melodramatic, maybe, but very true. With validation, the daughter doesn’t feel more anxious, but understands that mom is being practical, just worried about buying some clothes that cannot be worn at school.
Learn to Compromise
The second step of encouraging healthy individuation is compromise. Compromise is about what you are willing to give up in exchange for the bigger overall win. A parent can guide a child to making compromises by starting to discuss options. Forever 21 mom could have suggested several other trendy, but longer shirts, or wearing a colorful tank under the crop top. It is at this point that the daughter understands mom doesn’t want her to be hated by the whole school. She is now willing to discuss options and not explode in protest. And, this is the best part, mom has less frustration because she set clear limits and expectations and informed the daughter that baring her midriff for the 8th grade class was simply not going to happen. She didn’t even have to raise her voice. By providing options, you allow your child to develop their own sense of self, foster their independence, and encourage positive assertiveness. Basically, you set a valuable example on how to navigate conflicts appropriately.
Know Your Goal
Finally, you must know your goal. Power struggles typically occur when the goal is forgotten and the details become the focus. This is counterproductive to individuation, as it suggests that there is only one right way to do something. If you want to see a teen start a power struggle, simply correct facial expressions when they are doing a chore. I’ve never seen a teen become more agitated and spiteful than a client whose dad told him to “smile” while he took the trash out. That dad obviously forgot the goal was to have his son get the garbage out of the house. From that moment on, that client would scowl every time he took the garbage out, just to prove a point. Was he being a jerk? Maybe. Was he demonstrating his individuation? Perfectly.
Individuation is about developing self, so allow teens the room to do it their way first. If it doesn’t succeed, problem solve with them. “What can you do differently next time? What do you think went wrong with your plan”? And if by chance the teen way works out, say something! Praise their skills! “Awesome job! I never would have thought to do it that way” or “Next time, that’s how I am going to do it!” Obviously safety is important, but why not allow them the chance to try out different things while you can supervise? Forever 21 mom’s goal was to dress her daughter appropriately, while following school rules and making her happy. If buying a crop top and adding a tank top that must be worn under it at all times achieves that goal, why not shell out an extra five dollars for the tank?
Conflicts arise every day– especially when raising teens. These conflicts can be viewed through the eyes of Forever 21 mom who left the store with a frustrated daughter and no school clothes, or they can be treated as lessons in growth, development and choice. Will every teen smile and say “Thank you for giving me options that are not what I want! I totally respect that you validated my feelings and empathized with my struggle”? NOT AT ALL! But while they are balking, they will choose an option, even if that is “I don’t want anything.” You are able to provide them a moment in which they can be authentic, assertive and have their voice heard. Isn’t that the goal after all?
This guest post was written by Tracy Kamhi, a mental health counselor with DCFS in the state of Nevada. She studied Clinical Mental Health Counseling at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada.