Dear Dr. Faizal,
I’m embarrassed to say my teenage daughter was arrested for shoplifting last month. I couldn’t believe it because she has always been an amazing kid, probably because she has always looked up to me. I’ve never even had to scold her. I think her new friends are a bad influence but when I say that to her, she jumps up to defend them and suddenly I’m the bad guy. How can I get through to her?
– Mother of a Felon
Dear Mother of a Felon,
Take comfort that amazing kids usually grow up to be amazing adults. However, the transitional stage, or the teenage years, is a time of discomfort for parents and teens.
The years between 13 and 20 are really the experimental years when teenagers are trying to ‘find’ themselves. The process of this search may involve separating themselves from their parents (in hopes of finding their own sense of self) and aligning themselves with a wide variety of ‘friends.’
These friends, some of which may be detrimental to your daughter’s values (that you taught), act as a gage to determine what she wants. Your daughter realizes these friends are bad for her. When your daughter “jumps up to defend them,” she’s actually trying to defend herself, feeling that you do not understand her. The ‘friends’ are mere objects of convenience for your daughter to get your attention. It may sound strange but your daughter, though seemingly pushing you away, may, in fact, crave a sense of belonging with you. Lecturing her at her age about her family obligations and parent-child hierarchal relations will not work; this would drive her further away. She is not looking for intellectual advice from you. She is searching to connect on an emotional level with you, her mother, who is human and was once a teenager.
So, take a journey back through your memories to when you were a teenager – to a time when you made a mistake (or two or three) or regretted doing something you wanted to take back. Share this memory with your daughter so she sees that you, whom she has idealized over the years, is also human and has done well for herself despite making errors. This ‘gift’ that you give to your daughter would help her grieve and overcome her recent mistake and would give her hope for the future with you by her side.
Continue to talk to your daughter about her needs, which are now very different from when she was a child. Ask her to write down her top five needs and go over them with her to learn much more about her. Negotiate how you both could work towards realizing these needs (we feel a sense of belonging when our needs are met).
Now, once you have formed the emotional connection and your daughter has her sense of belonging again, it is important that you assert yourself as the parent. Revisit the shoplifting incident and ask your daughter if she could relive that day, what would she do differently and why. Her presumed sharing of regret and asking you for forgiveness would lend closure to her and freedom for you as no longer considering yourself as being the mother of a felon.