January 6, 2020

Triangle Teens

Triangle Teens

There is so much we want our kids to be.

For them. Okay – maybe a little bit for us. I confess to a certain amount of unseemly pride when I could mention (casually of course) that my son was at UCC and my daughter at UTS. I’m pretty base.

Parents who are less invested in their kids’ accomplishments need not read on.

For the rest of us (the 99%) it is such a challenge to stand back and let them be who they are, come hell or high water. We get horribly confused between our job as parents and their developmental mandate to separate from us and claw their way towards their own life.

In middle school this confusion, and the resulting conflict, feels awful but it’s small potatoes compared to the volcanic eruptions when kids reach high school. Our fears are in danger of becoming cataclysmic: He’ll never get into a good university… she won’t earn a good living if she doesn’t get study habits now… He won’t be able to build a career if he doesn’t succeed in Grade 11….

These worries are old news. You don’t need me to tell you about them.

What is more challenging, and more complex, is the effect that an under-achieving high school student can have on a marriage. Take one high school slacker, add a mom who’s getting desperate for her kid to succeed, mix with a dad who’s not so freaked out or pushy, marinate for a few weeks, and get ready for World War Three.

This issue of a teenager who isn’t working as hard as his parents want, is much more than a school issue. It balloons, like a mushroom cloud, into the lives of everyone in the house. If there’s a younger sibling, they tend to duck and find cover. An older sibling who’s still at home either rushes in to the fray taking sides and making everything worse, or hides out elsewhere. I remember being a failed 16-year-old Florence Nightingale, trying to protect my beloved little brother, the high school slacker, from the (in my view) authoritarian parental pressure. Which drove everyone further into their corners.

Such is the family dynamic when there’s; a high school slacker in the house. Every family is an ecosystem. Like other ecosystems, when one person in a family is in trouble, stable alliances wobble. The family system becomes unstable. Relationships go awry.

The first response to the high school slacker is often mom’s.  As mothers, we scare easy. We worry about our kids. We awake at 3 am and predict the worse. We do everything we can to change the course of history and try to get the kid to study some of that. We usually fail to cause change.

Then we stew some more, and try to rope in dad to do the heavy lifting. He should make our teen do schoolwork. C’mon dad, get on it. I, as a mom, still like to do this when pressure needs to be applied to our offspring. After I fail, I usually try to make him do it. He either ignores or disagrees with me.

Then we fight.

This is called triangulation. We understand it well when we think about young children: Three girls are friends. One girl, seeing an opportunity to consolidate her social  power, cosies up to girl #2 and pushes out girl #3, using rumour, innuendo or hostility. And the triangle becomes a duet.

Triangulation is much more subtle when the kid is an adolescent and the parents are part of the triangle. It’s almost invisible. You get an adolescent stomping around the house saying lovely things like “Mom is such a bitch.” And you think that’s the problem. But it isn’t the main problem. The worse problem is the triangulation. Without being aware of it, the adolescent has driven a wedge between mom and dad.

Mom now feels let down by dad because he didn’t step up to fix the kid problem (and he isn’t upset enough about it). Dad is mad at mom cause she’s pressuring him relentlessly. As long as the kid continues underperforming, this is chronic.  Now we have a marriage problem.

Parenting is wonderful. Until it isn’t. When it takes a toll on one’s marriage, it’s time to sit down and talk to each other and examine the tangled skein of the marital relationship.  To speak honestly about our feelings of being let down and angry at each other. To listen with an open heart to our partner’s bad feelings. And to work hard to heal this most precious partnership.

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