Dear Dr. G.,
I am just so confused and frustrated. I have 2 kids. They are both girls. My 16 year old is a high school junior and my 18 year old is a college freshman. I devote all of my life and energy to raising these girls. I stayed up all night with them when they were sick. I have driven them everywhere. I even work extra shifts to pay for their activities when my husband and I run low on money. I am a nurse and I work on a pediatric unit. There were times when I wanted to go the gym and even see my friends but I stayed home because my kids wanted to have friends over. Whenever my kids had friends over I made our house a pleasant place to be and bought pizza and other food that they requested. I was happy to do this. My own parents were negligent so I swore that I would be the opposite sort of parent.
How Close Is Too Close?
So, now, let's fast forward to the present. My younger daughter is in therapy for anxiety and her therapist requested that I join my daughter for a session. The therapist encouraged my daughter to open up and be honest with me. Apparently, I am partly responsible for my daughter's anxiety. In her therapy session, my daughter explained that her anxiety about doing well in school is because she doesn't want to disappoint me. I can't even believe this. I have been the best mother that I could be and now I am the source of my daughter's anxiety? I can't even believe this. I feel like I have failed my daughter and that I am a failure as a mother. Please help. I am so upset.
"If you have never been hated by your child you have never been a parent. " - Bette Davis
A Terrible Mother
Please slow down and catch your breath. Do not rush to label yourself as a terrible mother. It sounds like you have been a present, available and deeply devoted mother. You sound very upset but you also sound angry. It seems that you feel betrayed. Be a little gentler with yourself and your daughter here. Anxiety among high school aged kids is not an uncommon problem. In fact, anxiety is not an uncommon problem in any age group. And, it is wonderful that your daughter is getting professional help for her anxiety.
Now, please listen very carefully to what I am about to tell you. No parent can prevent their child from all of life's difficulties no matter how hard they try. You describe doing the best you can and even sacrificing for your daughter. She is lucky and, my guess, grateful for all that you have done for her. You are not even close to being a bad mother simply because your daughter told you that she worries about disappointing you and that this may be contributing to her anxiety. In fact, I would like to put a different spin on what you were told in your daughter's therapy session. When a child is honest with you that is an emotional gift. It means that she is hopeful that you will listen to her and help her with her concern about disappointing you. The child of a terrible parent would be significantly less likely to communicate honestly with a parent because they would expect nothing good to come of this. This is not the case with your daughter. I suggest that you continue the dialogue with your daughter about why she is so concerned about disappointing you. This will make the 2 of you closer. And, we know that teens who have good communication with their parents have better quality relationships with them. You want this, right? Try to listen to your daughter without judging yourself.
Create tech-free zones. Keep family mealtimes, other family and social gatherings, and children's bedrooms screen free. Turn off televisions that you aren't watching, because background TV can get in the way of face-to-face time with kids. Recharge devices overnight—outside your child's bedroom to help him or her avoid the temptation to use them when they should be sleeping. These changes encourage more family time, healthier eating habits, and better sleep.
You also need to be more compassionate with yourself in general. Take better care of yourself. It is important that you take time to see your friends and exercise. You say that you have sacrificed these activities for your kids' well-being. It is important that your children see their mother taking care of herself. This is just speculation but maybe your daughter is especially worried about disappointing you because she is aware of how much you have sacrificed for her. Talk to her about this. Also, take a good and hard luck at yourself and try to determine if you are modeling anxiety for your daughter. After all, you are your daughter's most important role model.
Finally, I would like to leave you with this thought. Not a single mother in this world has a child who gets through life without facing challenges. And, if any mother presents her child as having a perfectly smooth journey then you can assume that this mother doesn't really know her child well or that she is misrepresenting her child.
Good luck and thank you for writing to me.