Are you a “happy talk” parent? This is the individual who is so positive about everything that it’s hard to hang out with him. He loves everyone, sees the good all the time and ignores tough realities. He pretends that things are OK when they are definitely not OK. Happy talk parents are nice folks, but the problem is that they don’t face 50 percent of reality, that is, the “not-OK” parts. They pretend. For example, they have a hard time dealing with theirs or their teen’s hurt feelings, failure, drug issues, sexuality, defiance and anger. Fifty percent is a lot of reality to pretend about, and it ends up not working for the parent or the teen.
Some examples of this pretending are:
- Minimizing: My teen is just going through a phase.
- Ignoring: When my teen is disrespectful to me, I’ll change the subject.
- Excusing: It’s not her fault that she is failing at school. Her teacher doesn’t understand her.
- Happy endings: I just know it will be OK somehow, though I don’t really know how.
And the results are definitely not happy: Attitudes get worse, drinking and drug use increase, moods deteriorate, and grades plummet. Here is how I state the situation: What is ignored, metastasizes. Like a cancer that is ignored because it’s a negative thing, when we pretend problems will go away, the great majority simply get worse.
Why do parents pretend? There are a variety of reasons. Some are afraid that if they draw attention to a teen’s problem, they will alienate her even further. They feel tenuous at best in the relationship already, so, “Don’t push her away more,” goes the thinking.
Some don’t like conflict and just want a little peace in the home. On a deeper level, some parents pretend because they have their own memories of bad times, and they are afraid that looking at negative behavior in their child might trigger those. Let sleeping memories lie.
And some parents have a more moral reason. They are afraid that if they face a negative aspect of their child, it will come back on them that they are a failure as a parent. Their daughter’s cutting problem reflects that they have done something wrong, and the feeling of guilt is very painful.
What to do. Whatever the reason for the parent who pretends, there are some things you can do to help both you and your teen. These will make a difference.
Commit to 100 percent reality. If you have a tendency to pretend, you are hampered from making good decisions for your teen. You are flying half-blind as a parent. Commit to being a mom or dad who, in order to be the best for your adolescent, will face the highs and the lows, the goods and the bads. Reality, even negative reality, is your friend.
Practice talking about problems and negative matters in a safe relationship. What we practice, we improve in. Get with a person who can “go there” with you and not criticize you or try to “get you happy” either. Talk about your child’s issues and struggles, and be honest about what you see. Be truthful about your fears and concerns. Talk about how helpless and frustrated you often feel with your child. You will be surprised how much more connected and lighter you feel inside to share this.
Have that tough talk with your teen. Instead of avoiding the behavior or attitude issue in hopes that it will go away, sit down with your adolescent, and be the parent she needs. Require her to be in the room with you when you are open with her, and ask her to be open. She may fight and resist you, as that is the way of the teen. But deep inside her, there is a part that desperately needs a parent who will help her with a troubling and scary reality: that she is out of control and needs help.
In that way, you are saying to her, “You are not alone with this problem anymore. I love you, and I am strong, and I will help you.” Your help might be to help her understand herself. Or it might be to find a resource or growth setting for her where she can heal. But you be the one who faces what must be faced. My book “How to Have That Difficult Conversation That You’ve Been Avoiding,” is a good resource for how to structure that talk.
Create a culture of truth in your family. Stop praising and affirming “happy talk.” Instead, praise honesty and truthfulness, both in yourself and in the other members of your family. When your teen admits she is struggling or sad or angry, say, “I am so proud that you are being honest about this.”
Be the parent who is the leader in honesty. Tell the truth about what you see in yourself and them as well. You have to always remember to temper how you talk about yourself, as you are the parent. And you have to require that honesty from your teen must be respectful and not harmful. But change the culture from, “If you can’t say anything, nice don’t say anything at all,” to, “We are a family of truth.” It will be refreshing to all of you.
You really can handle reality. And you have a child who needs your strength in this area. Best to you.