As a parent, you probably know more about your child than anyone else. You remember, cherish, and are grateful for each new stage your child went through, regardless of the challenges that came with each development. But so often, the parents I work with find themselves stuck with their teenagers in ways they have not been stuck before. This series is devoted to helping parents connect with their teens.
Learn more about the importance of curiosity in parent-teen relationships in my previous blog post.
Tip: Be Imperfect.
The fact that I’m encouraging you to be imperfect is immediately going to seem silly because whether or not you take this advice, you will manifest it. Being imperfect is part of being human. What I am asking, however, is that you embrace your imperfection, become aware of it, and own it, especially in front of your teenager.
Some of you might wonder if this will actually have a negative effect, if owning your imperfection will decrease your teen’s respect for you. I actually believe the exact opposite will occur. Your teen knows you are imperfect. In fact, your teen might actually know and recognize more of your imperfections than you do! Part of normal, healthy teen development is heightened emotional and social sensitivity. This is part of what contributes to many teens going through stages of feeling consistently awkward or embarrassed or fixating on negative social interactions. The benefit of emotional and social sensitivity is that teens learn to develop and maintain more meaningful relationships, grow awareness of how they impact other people, and build their emotional awareness and intelligence. The drawback? A teen’s criticism of themselves and others can be heightened. For instance, teens who struggle with depression can perceive themselves as doing nearly everything wrong, only seeing their flaws and mistakes. Another way this trait emerges is in being overly critical of others. It’s no secret that parents often receive the brunt of criticism from an overly critical teenager. Of course this is maddening for any parent, and can lead to a myriad of negative reactions spurring from a parent’s hurt feelings, defensiveness, or anger. Teens are perceptive and know not only how to get under a parent’s skin quite effectively if they want to, but they are also more likely to notice character flaws or areas of weakness that are genuinely there in a parent.
Managing parental perfectionism and shame
If your teen already knows you have flaws and make mistakes, what is there to gain from openly owning your errors and imperfections? Firstly, teens are more likely to trust their parents in all areas when parents are honest about mistakes rather than trying to cover them up or justify themselves. You also have the valuable opportunity to model as a parent that perfectionism and shame will not bury their vicious teeth in you. I say this fully knowing what a challenge it is for insightful, high-achieving, caring individuals to not let shame or perfectionism take hold. Being a parent naturally invites those traits into one’s life in new ways. If you struggled with shame or perfectionism prior to becoming a parent, I’d bet that these struggles have greatly increased since becoming a parent unless if you have done some intense personal work to change those tendencies. Know that you are not alone! That being said, this is an important issue to work on, both for yourself and for your children. Children of perfectionists are so much more likely to adopt the same tendencies. Now let me specify, perfectionism is NOT the same as being high-achieving, being motivated, or noticing what is not working well and making attempts to adjust. Well-adapted individuals are often motivated and able to identify mistakes they make but then use the awareness as an opportunity to learn from the mistakes and to try a new approach. Similarly, when faced with character traits or tendencies that they don’t like or that present challenges in their lives, well-adapted individuals are also more likely to either take steps toward growth or to accept the tendencies they have little control over and to learn how to best live with the reality at hand. Perfectionism is the insidious belief that you need to be perfect and any part of you that is less than perfect is something to be ashamed of and to separate from. Perfectionism keeps people fixated on and stuck in the error and often cripples the ability to problem-solve and make necessary changes. Shame tells you that YOU are bad rather than what you did was problematic. Being fixated on your own shortcomings and merciless toward yourself will communicate to your teen that they are only lovable or worthy if they are perfect, which is impossible and unrealistic.
Teach your teenager to apologize by going first
Finally, one of the most important aspects of owning your imperfection as a parent is being able to apologize to your teen when you have made a mistake or hurt them unnecessarily. Every parent has countless opportunities to apologize to their teen on a regular basis. By apologizing, you not only mend wounds (regardless of how accepting your teen is of the apology), but you also model to your teen how to apologize. When you can lower your defensiveness, own your imperfection, and apologize for specific actions or words, you show your teen how to also do so. If this is a type of interaction that you do not normally have with your family members, know that it will be very uncomfortable at first but that the benefits will be vulnerability instead of defensiveness, opportunities for healing wounds instead of burying them, and a more connected relationship with your teen. By taking those first steps, you also give permission to the other members of your household to demonstrate humility and vulnerability.
Underlying Message to Communicate to Your Teen: “I’m imperfect, and you’re imperfect, but we can figure out life’s challenges together. My love for you is not based on your performance."
My Message to You: “Give yourself grace. Allow yourself to be human."
Therapy can be a valuable resource for supporting teen identity formation as well as for promoting healthy communication between teens and their parents. For more information, click here.