“I Hate You Mom! You’re Ruining My Life”
Navigating boundaries and expectation setting with your children
I first learned about boundaries as a younger sister, watching my brother argue his case for getting his driver’s license. At the time, a 16 year old could drive in the state of Maryland. But not in my house. My parents were firm: he hadn’t demonstrated enough maturity for the responsibility of operating a vehicle. As he attempted to negotiate (which started with compromise and escalated to pleading about his life being ruined), I watched wide eyed as drama ensued. There were fights and there were big feelings, but my parents did not budge. Years later, I understand that as a parent, it’s easy to doubt yourself in those tense moments and wonder whether holding the line puts your relationship at risk.
When parenting teens of my own, I grappled with big questions: how could I raise resilient, empathetic, creative adults? How could I support them as they found purpose in the world? After all, there wasn’t exactly a road map leading to that elusive destination.
Having been an observer and a player in a variety of adolescent battles, I’m here to gently remind you that our goal as parents is not to build happiness but to build resilience. I want you to sit with that idea for a moment, because it might go against your deepest instincts. Our goal is not happiness; it’s helping children develop an ability to tolerate distress. After more than three decades in education, I can recognize resilience. Some people liken it to overcoming adversity, but I prefer the way clinical psychologist and mom of three Dr. Becky Kennedy frames resilience. She warns that searching for happiness leads to a lifetime of anxiety. Yet when we hold kids accountable, we build connections with them. If you can relate to those tense moments at my family’s kitchen table, then you can also relate to the deep desire to keep your child safe. It’s your job. At the same time, your child is doing their job of expressing their feelings. It can feel messy, but you are both doing what you need to do.
While hiking near my home last weekend, I was listening to a podcast in which Dr. Becky used a vivid metaphor you might try to envision as you journey through parenthood. She says to picture yourself wandering around a garden with hundreds of benches. Every bench is a feeling or an event (sadness, happiness, not being cast in the fall play, getting rejected from your dream college, etc). You find your kid sitting on a bench labeled “I was left out.” If we’re being honest, they’re going to be on that bench a lot in life.
Your instinct may be to yank them off that bench or usher them to a different one. But what that teaches children is to be scared of that bench. To be scared of a range of feelings. Instead, parents need to know that resilience building means you, as a parent, need to take a seat next to them. Just occupy the space and allow them to talk. Acknowledge their feelings and encourage them to tell you more. You aren’t there to rescue them or to save them from a feeling. Their body will remember the warmth of your presence. And slowly, bench by bench, your child will learn to tolerate a range of emotions and feelings. At the same time, they will develop a closeness and trust with you, confident that you aren’t scared of their emotions either. Not having clear boundaries leaves children ill-equipped for an adult life that does have limitations. As adults, we’ve learned to live with boundaries and expectations in communities, in the workforce, and in relationships. There are times at school that boundaries are set because the community has to keep people safe. Whether related to safety or to developmental norms, educators think a lot about boundary setting. We use tangible measures of growth and we see the confusion students suffer when expectations are unclear. But growth is not linear and skills like resilience take a lifetime of learning to develop.
To this day, I still like to remind my brother that I did get my drivers license at age 16 (once a little sister, always a little sister!). But more than a commentary on either of us, I think it shows that our parents set boundaries because they saw us as individuals and differentiated their parenting styles based on who we were. And, who they knew we could be.