This Is One Thing ‘Big Little Lies’ Got Totally Wrong

Did Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) do the right thing in making her teen daughter her confidante? (Photo: HBO/Big Little Lies)
Did Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) do the right thing in making her teen daughter her confidante? (Photo: HBO/Big Little Lies)

So much of the pleasure of watching Big Little Lies was shouting, “Yes! I feel like that too!” Because while all of our lives may not outwardly resemble the beauty and violence of the HBO miniseries, which concluded on Sunday night, the internal strife of those upper-middle-class mothers rang true. That is, with the exception of one subplot that came out of the last two episodes: the technique Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline used to dissuade her teenage daughter, Abigail (Kathryn Newton), from selling her virginity online as a fundraiser.

“It must be nice to be so right, so perfect,” Abigail says angrily in the sixth episode when her mother confronts her about her “secret project.”

“I’m not right. I’m not f***ing perfect,” Madeline responds. “You think you know me so well? I f*** up too. I make mistakes. I’ve made mistakes bigger than this. Last year I cheated on [your stepfather] Ed.”

You can see the teenager’s expression and posture change immediately. She lets down her guard, sees the light, and, yes, by the next episode decides to cancel her stunt.

Abigail learned that her mom wasn’t perfect in Episode 6 of <em>Big Little Lies</em>. (Photo: HBO/Big Little Lies)
Abigail learned that her mom wasn’t perfect in Episode 6 of Big Little Lies. (Photo: HBO/Big Little Lies)

Was this a masterful move in parenting a teenager? Are rebellious kids just waiting for their parents to confess their sins? Or was it a mistake that’s sure to backfire on Madeline? Two parenting experts and fans of the show were eager to shed light on this for Yahoo Beauty.

“As I was watching it, I was thinking to myself, ‘I could imagine a lot of parents thinking that was a good thing,’” says parenting coach and author Joani Geltman, who would not agree with that assessment. Still, she adds, “I do think what she did, in terms of illustrating her own imperfections, was important to do.”

Many parents who want the best for their kids wind up acting critical and judgmental, while also presenting themselves as paragons of perfection. And that, Geltman explains, can make kids, especially teenagers, feel inferior and inclined to give up.

“I think that the mother realized her perfection was a setup for her daughter, but I think she could have chosen many [other] things to share about the kinds of mistakes she’s made in her life,” Geltman says. Giving an example of something she did in her youth that she’s since learned from, she explains, would be much healthier and more effective.

Psychologist Barbara Greenberg was appalled by Madeline’s approach. “She made a few critical errors,” Greenberg tells Yahoo Beauty. “No. 1, she was too emotional. When you approach your kids with that level of emotionality, they tune you out, teenagers particularly.” No. 2, Greenberg adds, “She then went into using her errors as an opportunity to relieve her own guilt and use her daughter as a confidante. That is totally unacceptable, because it puts a heavy burden on the child. It’s information that the child doesn’t need, doesn’t want, that will further infuriate the child. That is a recipe for destroying the relationship with your child.”

Madeline made the conversation all about her, she explains, dumping an intimate secret on her daughter that, in truth, had nothing to do with Abigail’s actions.

Geltman notes that this kind of oversharing with kids is common, particularly if a parent is insecure or doesn’t feel emotionally supported by other adults. But, she says, “It’s too much for kids to take on.”

Of course, we are talking about a TV show here (the issue was resolved differently in Liane Moriarty’s novel, on which the show was based), and this tactic did nicely resolve a plot point while giving Witherspoon some great dramatic scenes. In real life, though, Geltman does not think it would have worked.

“In a real family, the kid would have started screaming, ‘You’re such a hypocrite!’” she says. “She would have gotten angry. Teenagers are so narcissistic that they just want their family to stay together.”

A better way to get kids to listen — albeit one that would make for terribly boring TV — is for parents to cool off before addressing a serious issue like this.

“When you are feeling ‘hot’ and overly emotional, that is not the time to talk to your child,” Greenberg says. “You disengage. You go take a walk. You do something we call opposite action, which is, you do something totally different and unrelated. And then when you calm down, you return to the issue.”

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