Every teenager ever: Why can't you just love me for who I am?
Have you ever asked your teen or young adult child to change their behaviour – stop leaving a mess in the kitchen, badgering their sibling, expecting you to remember their appointments - and been met with, "Why can't you just love me for who I am?"
Oof. Those words hit you in the center of your heart and send your mind racing to the hundreds of moments when you might not have shown your love as clearly as you would have liked. Then you're questioning yourself as a parent or feeling like a failure.
Let's pause here and take a few deep, gentle breaths.
Ok. Let's start at the outermost layer and work our way inward…
When your child suggests that you don't love them for who they are, it may be just a knee-jerk reaction to their inability or unwillingness to do what you've asked. Their emotional immaturity may render them unable to name what they’re feeling so they can only resist and react. The charge of the moment has them using a powerful statement to stop you in your tracks and get you off their back. Your own reaction might be to assume that it's a premeditated, manipulative strategy and take offense. But it's usually a reflection of something else going on inside them.
When your request for change is met with "love me for who I am", it often stems from your child’s need for more acceptance and emotional security. Your child is trying, albeit awkwardly, to ask you to show them that you accept and love them - all of them, as they are right now.
Of course, the request itself is kind of tricky. It’s impossible to know "who" someone really is, especially teenagers and young adults, who are coming into contact with more and more aspects of their personalities - some are just emerging, some are conflicting... Their sense of themselves is often continually shifting and 'who they are' can be fleeting.
So, what does that phrase, love me for who I am, actually mean to them?
Is there a part of themselves they especially want you to recognize now?
Do they want you to be more compassionate about the difficult stuff they're facing in their lives?
Are they hoping you'll spend more time with them and get to know them better?
Do they subconsciously want you to help them untangle some of the different ways they are seeing themselves?
Do they want you to celebrate their characteristics?
What would acceptance look like to them? Do they even know?
You can be sure that there are many things going on in their heart as well:
Do they want reassurance that you love this current version of them?
Are there new aspects of themselves just forming below the surface that have them checking if you will love them even when 'this' becomes visible?
Is their heart asking for reassurance that they can be unsure about who they are and still be safe and sound?
I know that's a lot of questions and finding the answers is a bit like walking into a maze. It's a bit daunting, for sure. And yet, if we take the time to explore our kid's need for acceptance and demonstrate our willingness to meet them in the maze, there is the opportunity to build a strong, lasting connection.
Start with observing them more carefully. What’s going on in their lives right now, whether they’re talking about it or not?
Ask them what their words mean and what they really want and, even if they don’t know, help them tease it out a bit.
Offer empathy. Growing up and figuring out who you are is tough some days. Confusing, draining, devastating, irritating, heartbreaking. Really tough. For all of us. ~
And what about the change you were asking them to make in the first place? Don't worry, I haven't forgotten where I was going. And here's the one thing I want you know for certain:
You can contribute to their need for acceptance and emotional security AND make requests for a change in behavior.
Because your request is about you, not them.
When you ask someone to change their behavior, you invite them to contribute to your needs in a specific way. It's essential that you clarify that the request is about something you need. Explain how important it is to you and be very specific about what would work for you. The clearer you are, the more they will be able to move out of reactivity, listen to your needs and consider how they might contribute to your needs being met.
Accentuate that you are truly making a request, not a demand, and suggest what negotiation might look like e.g., We can talk about this and see if there's a compromise... Perhaps there's another solution that we haven't thought of yet… Let's both think about it for a few hours… This puts your child in choice. And ALL of us are more likely to make changes in our behaviour when we know that we are choosing it.
Coming to a new accord will have you loving and supporting each other in subtler and deeper ways, and building your adult-adult bond. It gives you both the trust that you can express your needs and have them received and, when possible, met with understanding and loving intention.
Of course, your requests will not always be met. Even if your young adult wants to meet your needs, they may not have the skills and resources. You may be asking them for more vulnerability, objectivity, maturity or growth than they currently have access to.
Allow yourself to recognize and grieve if this is the situation. And when you’re ready, reflect upon how you might thrive in your relationship without this change. What’s at the core of this need? What do you see if you zoom in or out on it? In what other ways might it be met?
~ Your ability to accept your young adult child can coexist with your hope for their change and growth. Both can be true. You can see the potential in them and yearn for it to come forth AND allow it to ripen in its own way and in its own time, neither rejecting who they are right now nor expecting them to be someone they're not. A PRACTICE to support your ability to hold both: Find a spot where you can be undisturbed for at least 10 minutes. You can bring an object or music that connects you to your sage Self, your guides and gods. Bring your attention to your breath, your constant connection to the present moment. No matter where your mind wanders, bring it back to here and now. Bring into your awareness a relationship in which you want to see a specific change in the other person’s behavior. Sense the energy of your desire for the change. What’s its texture and sensation? Is it a knot of string, a clench in your heart, an itchy garment, an unusual note, a pull to the horizon? Is it a need of your adult self? Next, bring your awareness to your love for your child that goes beyond what happens or doesn’t happen. What does it look and feel like? Where does it live in you? Now practice shifting your awareness slowly and gently back and forth between points A & B. Breathe. Take your time. Sense the physical energy of the shift in your attention, it’s motion, its appearance and how you feel it in your body. What do you sense more subtly – chi, sacredness, life force and truth? Do this for 5 minutes. Finish with a gesture of gratitude and move slowly into the rest of your day. Afterwards, reflect upon these questions:
What changes are you aware of in and around you as you move your focus from your desire for change to your unconditional love for your child?
How does your perspective change as you shift from one to the other?
What are the effects of having both in your awareness at once?
How does your heart hold each one separately and together?
What becomes possible for you when you can hold both and shift from one to the other?
What becomes possible in your relationship?