As a teenager, I spent much of my time hiding. If it went against the grain of society, I kept my desire to do or be it under lock and key. I obsessed over achievement, weight loss, and perfection at any cost, all while neatly tucking away the messiest parts of myself. I pushed down any natural personality trait that seemed unpleasing to others. And I stayed quiet while enduring mental, emotional, and physical abuse during much of my childhood years.
What I would have given to have a grown up in my life who I felt truly safe to be my most authentic self around.
While my parents undoubtedly love me, they absolutely weren’t equipped to deal with my transition to the teen years. My dad often kept his own uncomfortable emotions hidden away, thus perpetuating fear in me of ever showing him mine. And he had his head buried so deeply in his job that sincere connection was far to come by. If I was off my game for a performance or school test, he’d challenge my overachiever status by pointing out where I screwed up. And then he’d compare me to my little sister who was struggling academically, which only made me feel more pressure to get an A+ all the goddamn time.
My mom stayed home with us during our entire childhood, but that didn’t necessarily mean I always felt safe to be around her. When I started experimenting to explore my identity in any way, my mom would let fear lead and often criticized me for not being the ideal version of who she wanted me to be. If I gained weight, it became a major problem to discuss. If I dyed my hair a different color, I was changing too much for her. And if I showed romantic interest in someone other than a boy, I was reminded of how “inappropriate” that was.
Now that I’m a mom to two kids and a stepmom to one, I realize how much I would have benefited from my parents learning how to be a safe space for their kids. Maybe if they had figured out to show me the unconditional support I needed, I would not have suffered through a secret eating disorder and an addiction to diet pills, or be dealing with an inner life constantly bombarded by shame. And maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t be living with complex PTSD to this day.
My stepdaughter is almost 14, and I’m watching her struggle for the first time with figuring out who she wants to be. A lot of her journey reminds me of my own, because she attaches so much of her worth to how productive she is at school and how accepted she is by loved ones and friends. Her father and I made the tough choice to temporarily relocate closer to his family, so we could both have more support as we raise our two younger kids. This has left my stepdaughter in the current full-time care of her mom and stepdad.
And while she assuredly has grownups in her immediate world who love her, I constantly worry about her feeling safe to be her whole self at home.
It’s overwhelming enough to experience the life-altering transition of becoming a teen, let alone grapple with mental health struggles and the vulnerable journey to self-identity. My stepchild is encountering all three of these challenges at once. In an ideal world, she’d be able to face the obstacle of teenage-hood knowing she will always be seen, heard, supported, and accepted by every parental figure in her life. But time and again, I see her freeze up when faced with the possibility that her truest desires may go completely against what has always been expected of her.
Thanks to a fuck ton of therapy, I’ve learned how to become that safe space for myself that I always yearned for as a youth. But we shouldn’t need to wait until we grow up to know what it feels like to let our guards down around those closest to us. Teens need to be able to trust, without a doubt, that their parents have their back no matter what they’re going through. They need the nonjudgmental space to explore themselves and try new things. And they most definitely need the reminder that they will be loved no matter what mistakes or opposing choices they make.
In a recent HuffPost parenting article, writer Kara Powell shares a powerful image taken from Lisa Damour’s book Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. The stirring photograph captures the moment a young woman falls back into water and begins to sink down. I liken the emotions swirling around this picture to the ones I felt as a teenager.
In Untangled, the author shares a powerful sentiment about raising teen girls. “Your daughter needs a wall to swim to, and she needs you to be a wall that can withstand her comings and goings,” she writes. “Some parents feel too hurt by their swimmers, take too personally their daughter’s rejections, and choose to make themselves unavailable to avoid going through it again.”
But according to Damour, resistance around becoming the necessary lifeline teens need at arguably the most vulnerable part of their childhood journey can come at a painful cost. “Their daughters are left without a wall to swim to and must navigate choppy—and sometimes dangerous—waters all on their own,” she explains.
Powell believes Damour’s book is essential reading for parents of any teenager, regardless of their gender. Because every child needs a family who won’t emotionally or physically abandon them at the very moment they are trying to fly for the first time.
According to both writers, our kids are desperately looking for us to remain steady when they’re feeling shaky. We need to expect that withdrawal is a perfectly natural part of a teen’s development. And when their growing independence tugs at our individual discomfort, we need to find walls of our own outside of our children to lean on for support.
Powell then shares three empowering tips to help us learn how to be a relief-filled refuge for our teenagers. She advocates being aware of our own anger and self-protection, especially when the antics of teens triggers us to feel intense emotions from our own unresolved struggles. Powell also urges us to make sure we don’t push ourselves to the point of fatigue and to help our teenagers seek out a variety of support from other grownups outside of us.
“In an era when young people often feel like they are splashing around in deep waters, I want my kids—and your kids too—to know that they can find refuge in their parents,” Powell writes.
Since I didn’t have supportive adult lifelines beyond my two parents, I spent way too long hiding who I truly was and how I really wanted to be to avoid the pain and conflict I’d be met with at home. It was just more realistic to focus on stuffing my feelings down, obsessing over my body, and achieving highly than it was to feel safe in the arms of my mom and dad. They’re doing their sincere best now to make up for what was lost when I was younger, but the act of allowing them in has still been so challenging.
I don’t want my stepdaughter to spend her entire teen years hiding her authentic self, for fear that it won’t be received well at home. I want her to know she can seek refuge in me as an additional wall of support in her life. I want her to know–and regularly make sure to tell her–that I will unconditionally love her no matter what she does or says. And I will always embrace her choices as a teen with full acceptance, because I trust that doing so will help her carve out a life that feels like her own.