Growing up in a home where I wasn’t safe to be my authentic self was an act of survival. While I definitely had moments of feeling loved and supported, my mom also kept a controlling rein on my social life, my personal choices, my hair length, and my clothing. I also encountered ongoing physical, emotional, and verbal abuse at moments I could never predict, no matter how hard I tried. I learned quickly not to disagree with my mom, to never take big risks outside of her expectations of me, and to be as pleasing of a person to everyone around me as I was with her. Once I entered my thirties, I realized that my dedicated obedience as a youth came at a heartbreaking cost to my self-esteem and mental health.
By the time I became a teenager, I felt scared as fuck to try anything new. I avoided parties, obsessed about getting good grades, spent a lot of weekends at home, and told my mom basically everything like I was confessing to a Catholic priest. While I certainly seemed on the surface to be the poster child for “good” teen behavior, I was also struggling hardcore behind the scenes with self-harm, a gnarly eating disorder, body dysmorphia, and an inability to maintain friendships with kids my own age. Years later, I was also unexpectedly diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which has completely upended my adult life.
Now that I’m a mother to two awesome kids and a stepmom to one fabulous teen, I’m finally learning how to reparent myself in the compassionate, gentle, and trusting way I missed out on as a child. I’ve also become a big-time abuse cycle breaker in my home and beyond. I see all of my children as unique individuals who deserve to shine bright on their terms, express themselves safely and openly, have autonomy over their body and style, and be respected and heard as much as the adults in their care. I also do my best to give my kids the freedom to mess up, try new things, and learn on their own. This has resulted in a dynamic where they feel safe in my presence to love themselves without fear added into the equation.
Since I didn’t just want to make this all about my own journey, I thought I’d enlist an expert for guidance on the topic. And who better to talk about the struggles of being a teenager than my very own 14-year-old stepdaughter Bella.
“I wish all parents fully acknowledged that teens struggle with their mental health and didn’t brush it off as if it was less of an issue than an adult’s mental health,” Bella tells Scary Mommy. “Not every teen is the same or handles their problems in the same ways, so it would help for parents to understand exactly what their kids need, especially teenagers. Most teens are still figuring out what they need to do for themselves. So, it would be helpful if they had support from parents and adults they trust.”
Now, more than ever, parents everywhere need to actually start listening to our children. Our kids and teens are begging for us to trust them, advocate for their personal autonomy, and unconditionally embrace them no matter how they identify or express themselves. And according to a new study that sheds light on the detrimental impact that overbearing parents can have on kids as they grow, this starts with loosening the tight grip of control many adults have over their children.
There are already studies out there that prove how damaging psychological control can be on adolescents, especially when they have parents who use guilt or love to manipulate their kids into doing what they want. Kids raised in a non-supportive environment struggle with developing the necessary skills of autonomy and self-trust when constantly pressured by parents to live up to the grown-up’s personal preferences and expectations. But until now, no study has examined the long-term effects of raising kids in this way.
“We were really interested to see how long lasting these effects were into adulthood,” study author Emily Loeb, a research associate at the University of Virginia, tells Insider. “Kids with controlling parents are going to tend to struggle to find independence and make autonomous decisions later on, so I think this is evidence that it’s really important that adolescents be allowed to make some of their own choices.”
The groundbreaking 19-year-long study published this month in Child Development, a journal of the Society for Research in Child Development, followed 184 kids from ages 13 to 32, and the heartbreaking evidence floored researchers. “These teens were already struggling at 13 with asking for and receiving support, but it appears that these problems got worse over time,” said Loeb.
As it turns out, controlling parents create kids who struggle to make and keep friends, think in a balanced way about social situations, and seek help when they need it. Participants also faced mounting challenges as adults that included feeling unable to ask for and receive support, struggling to make or maintain romantic relationships, and even a decrease in academic achievements, no matter what their starting GPA was as a youth.
As you can expect, my wise-beyond-her-years stepdaughter has a thing or two she wants to make clear to any adults in the room who are raising teenagers. Her words certainly echo the sentiments of this revolutionary study, and I hope they help you as much as they’ve helped me.
“Parents need to realize that although our generation is very mature and adult-like, we are still children and need the understanding and love of our parental figures,” Bella says. “However, since most teens are pretty mature for our age, we still want to be respected as young adults. Being supported by adults that I trust has boosted my self-esteem, because when they speak to me in ways that truly resonate with me, that’s when I feel most loved and heard.”
I also asked Bella how she would approach raising a teen if she was in her parents’ shoes. Her answer was not only an eye-opening confirmation of the work I aim to do as her stepmom, but I hope it serves as a wake-up call to any parent whose definition of love includes having ultimate control over their child.
“I would start by always asking how I could help exactly and what I would need to do to make them feel supported. I’d never make them do or say anything they don’t want to. I would push them in ways that would help them feel loved, but never do anything that I think would hurt their mental or physical health. I’d also make sure I knew their boundaries and their limits, so that I wouldn’t cross any lines.”
If you’re looking for the next great parenting guru, you’ve found her.
The final question I asked Bella melted my heart in a profound way. I wanted to know how my 14-year old stepdaughter would show up in the world differently if she was allowed to express herself fully and safely, with the unconditional trust of every adult in her life. Her answer blew me away.
“I think I would be a completely different person,” Bella explains. “I think I would be much more open to trying different and more daring things. It’s difficult to picture it, but I think I wouldn’t worry so much about what people think of me. A big issue I have is always worrying about others around me and the image my actions will paint of me. So, I’ve always been a very cautious person because of that. I enjoy taking risks, but anxiety gets the best of me. If I had all of those abilities though, I’d definitely be able to let go of my anxiety, and I’d be more willing to do things that I really wanted to do – and not worry about anyone but myself.”
As I continue to participate in raising my beloved step-kid, I hope she will feel my wholehearted support to spread her individual wings widely, lean into more risk-taking, and embrace herself fully. Based on Bella’s responses, I know I’m on the right course.
Please remember this most important detail, parents. If you’ve been known to keep a short metaphorical leash on your kids and teens, there is always time and room to repair. It begins with your willingness to change the narrative of how you see your children. Respect is earned, whether you are young or old. Children deserve to be seen, heard, valued, and trusted. Teens are not walking reflections of us, no matter how much we may believe that they are. Our kids are unique human beings who need to learn how to mess up, love themselves, speak up when they feel uncomfortable, and get to the heart of who they truly are. If we keep them from achieving these critical life skills because we’re too damn busy telling them what to do, who to love, and how to be, we also risk never fully knowing and loving our children.
Take the leap today and offer your kids a chance to undoubtedly be themselves. Allow their inner compass to lead their way as much as you do. As wild as it may sound, let your children teach you on this life journey. And as you do, you just might find that their light shines a little brighter in this world because of it.