April 28, 2000
BOSTON (Boston Globe) — Chances are that sometime between when your child turns into a teenager (12, 13, 14, or 15) and comes out the other side (17, 18, 19, or 20), she'll do something that deeply shames you.
Judith Warren's turn came in 1996 and '97, when her son was a sophomore and junior in high school. A progression of events that began with him hanging with an older group of boys led to his smoking marijuana and his arrest on drug and weapon charges.
Warren, who lives in a small south-central Massachusetts town, normally thinks of herself as a high-energy, empowered parent. But even as she stood by her son literally, in court, and through his emotional struggle, there were days when she was so ashamed she couldn't pick herself up off the couch to eat or sleep, couldn't control the trembling in her limbs or the paralyzing fear in her brain. "I felt that I had failed as a parent," she says. Except for her ex-husband and sister-in-law, Warren told no one of her son's problems and her feelings, partly to protect him, partly out of shame. It became her secret.
"If I went to a community event, I felt that others must know (what he did) and be thinking what a terrible parent I was," she says. "It was isolating. It was horrible."
Warren's experience resonates for psychologist Jodie Kliman, and not just because she's heard it from clients. A parent of teens herself, she says, "There are times when I've felt I'm a failure, too. Knowing I'm not unique is very comforting."
She also understands the instinct to keep things to yourself. "We live in a society that is quick to blame parents," says Kliman, who is coordinator of family therapy training at the Center for Multicultural Training at Boston Medical Center.
When we make our teens' transgressions our secrets, however, even for the sake of family- or self-preservation, we hurt ourselves, losing out on support from others as well as their perspectives or ideas for coping.
What humiliates one parent may not be what disgraces another, of course. But no matter what issue pushes your button, from a failing grade to a wrecked car, "shame is the hardest emotion to cope with. It's when we are most apt to make mistakes," says psychologist Norine Johnson. She is an adolescent specialist at Boston University School of Medicine and president elect of the American Psychological Association.
Shame immobilizes us and undermines our parenting. "It makes you pull away from the relationship and minimize the issues rather than help the person struggle with them. And when that person is a teen who may also feel ashamed of what she's done, it can be a disaster," says Kliman.
Talking about it
A parent's first task, of course, is to deal with whatever fallout the transgression creates. If that's all we do, however, and we don't talk about it again with our child, there's no positive interpretation a teen can make.
She may conclude either "My parents don't care," "It's not a big deal," both of which give her permission to do it again, or "What happened is so shameful, they can't even talk about it." When that's what a teen internalizes, it increases her own sense of shame and failure, says family and child psychologist Sharon Gordetsky of Brookline, Mass.
"Most teens know they have done something wrong. They don't want us to blow it out of proportion, but they do want us to deal with it," she says.
There are two ways parents typically find out that a teen is in trouble. The first is to sense something is wrong and go snooping. If the search yields fruit, many parents feel remorseful for spying and ashamed of failing. That double whammy is so powerful it keeps us from confronting our child at the same time that it alters our view of him. That, in turn, affects our relationship: Perhaps we're more distant, less patient, quicker to jump on him.
We may or may not sense this change. A teen will for sure, and it's exactly what she doesn't want, says Johnson.
"The reason she keeps something from you in the first place isn't just because she fears punishment, but also because she's afraid it will hurt your relationship," she says. Now her fear is coming true, only it's happening in secret, without any discussion, for reasons she's not entirely sure of. A cry for help
The second way we learn about trouble is if it stares us in the face: He comes in drunk, leaves a joint around, stays out all night.
A teen who transgresses so blatantly wants you to find out, says Johnson. It's as if he's saying, "Pay attention!" If we notice but keep silent, his only recourse is to escalate the behavior in the hopes that maybe that will get our attention.
Even if we do notice, even if we have constructive, soul-searching conversations, if we keep silent to the rest of the world as if nothing is different or wrong, that makes the behavior a secret. Here's how a teen likely interprets that:
--What I've done is too shameful to speak of; --Mom and Dad are hypocrites: They care more about what their friends think than they do about me;
--Only perfection is good enough;
--Mom and Dad can't face the truth.
Johnson says teens turn these messages on themselves. "They'll see your silence as reflecting on them: "Underneath, I'm so bad, even they have given up on me.' For girls, that can fuel depression and eating disorders. For boys, it turns into anger and more acting out," she says.
Private, not secret
If we consider this a matter of privacy, boundaries, and respect rather than secrecy, which implies shame and failure, the picture changes dramatically. "We all have situations we don't want to share outside the family," says child psychologist Carolyn Newberger of Judge Baker Children's Center. "That's not the same as denying problems exist."
She says the best outcomes occur when we talk with our teen about whether, who, and how anyone not involved in the situation needs to know.
Many teens will say, "I don't want anyone to know," and that's a decision we should respect as far as their friends go, says Newberger. It is not a teen's decision, however, to keep it from the other parent.
Except if that parent has a history of being explosive and could harm a child, keeping the problem from him or her gives a teen a sense of extraordinary power and creates an unhealthy alliance between the two of you. Your agreement to secrecy also endorses that parent's inadequacies, according to Gordetsy.
"It's very destructive," she says. A response she recommends: "Your father needs to know about this too, so we can work together to help you."
As for telling other people, Johnson suggests what she calls participatory parenting: "Once the problem is stated out loud - "You got arrested for drunk driving' - and there's a plan in place for discipline, prevention and/or reparation, then you can say, "We need to talk about whom to tell.' For instance, "Can Grandpa handle this?' "
Talk also about whom you want to tell for your own needs: "I want to tell Aunt Peg. I trust her, and she's a good sounding board for me." Or: "I have feelings about this, too. I need to talk to a few people I trust."
It's OK, indeed healthy, to want to protect your child and to be realistic with him, says psychologist Mary Ann Rafoth, who is chair of educational psychology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She suggests saying, "There are some people who will think less of you if they know about this. We know you're not a bad kid, and we don't want other people to jump to conclusions. Whom do you think we can trust with this?"
If the transgression is public knowledge, acknowledge that there may be nasty gossip: "This is hard stuff, what you're going through right now. But we know how hard you're working to undo the damage, and we love you and believe in you."
Gordetsky says that by making these decisions collaborative, there's no room for the insidious, negative messages that secrets spawn. The conversations can even be healing, she says: "They're important statements about your family. That you take things seriously, face things together, and work together." A need for support
It is nearly two years since Judith Warren's son's troubles surfaced. In that time, she's worked through her sense of shame, and he's worked through his problems. "He became an Eagle Scout, graduated high school, is self-employed and off drugs," she says proudly.
She speaks today in the hope that other parents won't repeat her mistake. "What I wanted more than anything," she says, "was someone to support the hope inside of me that everything would turn out OK. It was a desperate hope based on my love that the core inside him was good and he could get back to that." She's grateful to her sister-in-law, but one person was not nearly enough. TIPS FOR PARENTS
--Don't leave younger siblings in the dark. If the transgression is public, they need to know what people might say, and how to respond. If it's something that can be kept within the family, tell him, "What your brother did was wrong, and we're taking steps to make sure it never happens again. It's up to him and us to decide whether to tell anyone outside the family."
--Reassure siblings that a teen is safe: "I know you've learned how bad drugs are. Josh realizes how bad they are now, too, and we're getting him help so he'll never do drugs again." If it's appropriate, be clear that Josh is taking responsibility for his actions: "He's working to pay for what he stole."
--If you want to share a secret from your teenage years, along the lines of "I did the same thing once," be clear about why you're sharing: "I'm telling you not because it's OK to do this but because I realized what a bad choice I made." Otherwise, a teen may throw it in your face later on: "Well, you did it!"
--Don't blow out of proportion a mistake made by a good kid who learns his lesson. The typical teen will be grateful if you say, "OK, that's done. Let's move on." At the same time, be clear that if there is a repeat, you will need outside help.
--The more support parents have before a crisis, the better. School psychologist Mary Ann Raforth encourages schools to set up occasional informal discussion groups so parents can be connected to one another and clued in to peer issues.
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