Are You Being Your Child’s Parent…or Their Roommate?
Recently, there seems to be a new trend popping up with my adolescent and teen clients that I see in my Southern California private practice: they say that even though they live in a household with at least 1 parent and maybe 1 or 2 siblings, they are very lonely.
At first, I was a little confused.
Why would these young people be telling me they are lonely even though they live in a household with many other people? These are middle class kids living in the typical middle class house with all the typical middle class comforts and toys, so I wasn’t sure if I understood the problem correctly. Was this a situation where their feelings of loneliness were actually about social difficulties with same-age peers and not about the family?
But after spending more time with these clients and gaining a clearer picture about the issue, I’ve come to see that some families have adopted a lifestyle that better resembles family members as roommates and not as consistently connected family members.
For example, one 13-year old client of mine described her daily routine as quiet, dull, and uninteresting.In the morning she wakes up, eats the breakfast her mother leaves for her in the kitchen, gathers her backpack and heads to school with her older high school senior brother. She might have a quick conversation with her dad (mom is getting ready for work), but dad is usually preoccupied with his computer.
After school is over, she waits on the sidewalk in front of her school for her brother to pick her up. Sometimes he’s on time, but most of the time he’s pretty late. Once she is home, both mom and dad are still and work and the house is pretty quiet. Her brother usually heads out again, leaving her all alone in the house. Once dad gets home, he might make dinner if he hasn’t already picked up take-out on his way home. My client can eat whenever she wants – this family doesn’t gather to eat together. This means that whenever she is ready to eat, she goes downstairs, surveys the dinner option, and brings whatever looks appealing to her upstairs and eats it by herself in her room.
This client might see her mother in the evenings, but her mother is usually pretty tired when she gets home so she doesn’t like to talk with the client for very long. On the weekends, mom and dad typically relax in their room together because they are so tired from the work week.
As you can probably imagine, it’s been pretty easy for this child to slip through the cracks. She’s begun skipping school (parents find out after the fact and might say something to her when they get an automated call from school), her grades have dropped, and she’s begun experiencing some pretty overwhelming depression (it runs in the family).
Unfortunately, this scenario is becoming more and more common in the kids that I talk to. This client certainly had all of her basic needs met – food, shelter, school, clothes, fancy toys, etc. – but her emotional needs were not getting met, which was triggering her depressive symptoms.
So does this story scare you a little bit? Do you see your family slipping into a similar routine?
Where Is The Line Between Being a Roommate And a Parent?
Look, I understand that parents are busy, stressed out, and have their own needs in addition to the needs of their family. I get it because I’ve experienced all of these feelings as a parent, too, but one of the core concepts of successful Modern Parenting is to consistently showing up for your child in a way that meets their emotional needs.
Take the following quiz:
Do I ask my child about their day, specifically focusing on hearing both the positive and negative things that happened to them that day?
Do I sometimes get so overwhelmed with the things that happen during my day that I tell myself it’s ok to isolate myself in my room?
Do I often make plans that don’t include my child?
Do I feel relieved when my child seems like they want to spend time alone in their room?
Does it sometimes occur to me that I haven’t talked to or seen my child in a while? And when this happens, do i seek out my child to connect with them?
Does my family have consistent family rituals such as eating dinner together, watching tv together, or commuting together in the car that forces us to interact with each other?
Am I ever surprised to learn important facts about my child like the following: they are skipping school, they are no longer talking to their best friend or boyfriend/girlfriend, they have won an award at school or have been recognized for some other achievement, or they have new interests or hobbies?
Take the quiz above. Put an X in the box that best fits your answer. For every X that lies in a dark box, give yourself 1 point. The higher your score, the more likely you are acting like your child’s roommate rather than their parent.
For adolescents, this behavior can be pretty damaging. As with the 13-year-old in my example, acting like a roommate rather than a parent can lead to depression, anxiety, poor grades, and poor self-esteem.
It might seem like it’s ok to be less involved with teenagers, but in both my professional and personal experience, teenagers still need consistent parental warmth and attention. While it’s a good idea to begin giving them more independence and responsibility, you should never cut back on attention and interest with this age group.
So if you’ve scored in the high range in the quiz above, or if you want to make sure you don’t fall into the roommate trap with your child, what steps should you go about to ensure there is a positive and loving connection between you and your child?
Taking Back The Parental Role
The best way to ensure that you are meeting the emotional needs of your adolescent or teen is to create a daily habit that sets you up to engage with them.
Here are some examples of some busy parents that I’ve worked with who created daily routines to bond with their child:
- One busy dad made a commitment to drive his daughter the 30 minute commute to school every day and instituted a no music or headphones policy during the drive. This dad decided that his busy job kept him from seeing his daughter during many evenings, so he declined early morning calls and meetings to ensure that this drive was a priority. This father saw his relationship with his daughter improve exponentially in just a few weeks.
- Another mother I worked with not only had a busy job, but also battled a pretty serious illness and noticed that her relationship with her daughter (when they did interact) was characterized with arguments, hurt feelings, and ignoring each other. She started a habit that every day after work, she would “hang out” in the family room downstairs for 1 hour. At first, nothing happened, but after a while she noticed that her daughter began seeking her out. It started with small conversations, but then developed into longer, and more deep conversations. Mom still takes care of herself by relaxing in her room in the evenings, but her daughter felt like a priority to her mom when her mom created this new habit.
- Finally, another father wanted to connect with his son instead of arguing with him all the time. Both dad and his son had an interest in motor bikes and cars, so dad took advantage of the fact that his son was about to turn 16 and wanted his own car. Dad had an old car that currently didn’t work, but decided that fixing up this car would be the perfect project to help him bond with his son. As this is an expensive and long project, dad made “appointments” with his son to work on the car. Sometimes the appointments were on evenings during the week when dad was able to come home from work at a reasonable hour, and sometimes these appointments were on the weekends – but the point is that after each session of work, dad set the date of the next session and always stuck to it.
How can you develop a consistent habit to interact and connect with your adolescent or teen? Little daily habits work out the best in my opinion, but don’t be scared to be creative with the little time that you do have like the car restoration dad in the example above. Also, don’t let challenges get in your way like the mom who also battled an illness from the other example above.
Take Home Message
As busy and stressed parents, sometimes we slip into bad habits. That’s ok. It’s not ok when we realize that this has happened and we don’t go to the effort to fix them.
If you think you’ve slipped into the bad habit of being your child’s roommate instead of their parents, then the first step is to identify the behaviors that need to change. Next, create a consistent (and hopefully, daily) habit of interacting with your child.
Keep up with this new habit, even if it seems like it’s not working or if it gets hard.
Your relationship with your child or teen is worth it.
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