An Open Letter to Parents Raising Teenagers | by Monica Boeru
This piece was submitted to our 100K STORIES PROJECT by Monica Boeru The Parent-Teen Whisperer. A certified life coach, parent educator, and stepmom, Monica is dedicated to helping parents connect and create a close relationship with their teenage children.
When Moms Fight Back read one of my blog posts on Instagram, they reached out to me to see if I would consider writing for their community regarding teen mental health. I was super thrilled and couldn’t wait to get started.
Teen mental health, no big deal, I got this! It’s a topic that’s been getting a lot of attention lately and after all, I’m a certified life coach and parent educator. I work with parents of teenagers and have plenty of experience and stories I can relate to the topic. I was super into it, but every time I opened my laptop, I’d ramble a bunch of useless information, regurgitate a bunch of statistics, and just couldn’t find my voice.
I was ready to throw in the towel. I became flooded with tons of emotions – shame, guilt, and surprisingly, fear. That familiar voice of fear found its way back to me and whispered, “You can’t write about teen mental health. You don’t want to go back there. Protect yourself! If you write about it, everyone will know about your past.”
And in true Monica fashion, I eventually made peace with my fear and said, “Screw what everyone may say”. So, here I am – finally ready to share my message with you regarding teen mental health through my own story!
Here’s the truth! The state of my mental well-being had been compromised long before I was born. You may wonder, “How is that even possible?” Here’s how: The biggest predictor of mental health is the quality of life and life experiences of previous generations. Scientists call this epigenetics.
For over a hundred years there have been opposing schools of thought – nature vs nurture or biology vs psychology. They both offer an explanation to how behaviors develop and continue not only within an individual but across generations.
In 1992, two scientists, Meaney and Szyf, discovered new insights of behavioral epigenetics. The results were fascinating – traumatic experiences from our past, or from our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars that adhere to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them more than just memories. 1
What this means is that our experiences, and those of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, become a part of us – sort of like molecular residue holding on to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same but we essentially inherit similar psychological and behavioral tendencies and have the potential to pass them down to the next generation. In short, we may not only inherit our grandmother’s eyes and hair, but we could also inherit her predisposition toward depression caused by the neglect she suffered as a child, for example. On the other hand, if our grandmother had nurturing parents, we may be enjoying the benefits of her nurtured upbringing. Epigenetics doesn’t discriminate – we inherit the good and the bad.
In my case, I happen to come from a long line of wounded generations, especially women. Neglected and abused daughters became neglecting and abusive mothers. In turn, they produced more daughters that were left to fight a painful emotional battle that wasn’t theirs to fight. Then one day, one of those daughters decided that generations of cycled trauma would end with her.
I am that daughter. In my late 20s I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Some may call them mental illnesses. I call them psychological injuries – battle wounds, if you will.
I can’t say that I had a horrible childhood, but I will say that I experienced a lot of sadness, fear, disconnection, and anxiety throughout it. It was dysfunctional and emotionally unsafe on so many levels, yet on other levels it was lovely.
Before I reached adolescence, I experienced the emotional aftermath of my parents’ divorce, my mom’s remarriage, feelings of abandonment, emotional exploitation and neglect, and rare moments of physical and sexual abuse. Outside of those painful moments, I believe I was loved. We laughed, played games, danced, and vacationed together. We cooked meals and ate dinners together, told stories, and lived somewhat of a normal life.
While I believe that my family loved me, I can’t say that I truly felt loved. Everything seemed too conditional and fleeing for it to be love.
I lived most of my childhood in fear. Fear of saying the wrong things, fear of not being good enough, fear of not being smart enough, fear of disappointing my family, and fear of losing my mom’s love. I later learned that those fears became the source of my anxiety.
Through most of my adolescence, when I wasn’t around my family, I was funny, peppy, and charismatic. I was likeable – teachers, friends, and their families all thought highly of me and appreciated my inner drive at such an early age. I felt deeply connected to them, which in hindsight was my saving grace.
At home, I felt misunderstood, disconnected, lonely, and sad. I would often get scolded and judged for simply being curious. As a teenager, I remember trying on my mom’s makeup for the first time and she yelled at me for simply being a girl. Or the time when I got caught up in chatting with my friends after the school bus had dropped me off. I was ten minutes late so my mom became concerned and came looking for me. When she found me chatting with my friends, she expressed her concern by publicly shaming and slapping me across my face in front of them. To this day, they all remember it as if it had happened to them.
And the list goes on. I could fill pages with examples like these. What’s important here is that my mom reacted to me out of her own fear and insecurities. Through that, my own experiences of what I was going through in adolescence were not honored. I wasn’t provided a safe and loving environment all teenagers require at this crucial point in their lives.
I ended up becoming closed off, angry, defiant, and often kept quiet about my feelings. My strong personality threatened everything they believed parenting should be – a hierarchy. As a result, I was labeled as the sister my brother shouldn’t look up to when he grows up, simply for fighting for own existence. Unfortunately, they didn’t see a torn teenager trying to find her way to belong and feel significant. Instead, they saw me as a threat to their authority. I questioned, challenged, and pushed boundaries and instead of being met with understanding and compassion, I was met with force and anger. I triggered their old wounds constantly.
Around 13 years old, I began experiencing episodes of chest pain and shortness of breath, to the point where I often felt like I couldn’t breathe. I never shared my symptoms with my family, so I suffered in silence. I later learned those were classic symptoms of panic attacks. They stayed with me until my late 20s.
Despite my mom’s authoritarian parenting style, I never thought of her as a bad mom. In fact, I’ve always yearned for her love and wished we could be close. I often wonder what a healthy relationship would be like between us. Would we chat on the phone daily and make plans to go to brunch on Sundays? I’ll never know because my wish has always been that she’d have the courage to address her psychological injuries with a professional.
Two years ago, I made a conscious and difficult decision to end our volatile and unhealthy relationship. I’ve spent my 20s and early 30s trying to make sense of how three generations of family relationships became so broken and dysfunctional. Most importantly, I yearned to discover who I truly was, outside of the dysfunction.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
- Every family has patterns and pathologies of thought, belief, and behavior that are consciously and unconsciously passed down from one generation to another. They must first be acknowledged in order to be broken.
- Most of these patterns are difficult to identify and even more challenging to transform on our own. I encourage every parent to enlist the help of mental health professionals. There’s no shame in it.
- When one family member is broken, the entire family is affected.
- Every family member plays a part in the dysfunction.
- When the primary issues aren’t addressed, smaller issues become worse.
- Over time, issues compound and become habitual patterns of unconscious behaviors.
- What we saw, heard, and experienced in the home is the root and cause of the dysfunctions we experience in our personal or romantic relationships.
- A daughter’s sense of worth and value is determined by her mother’s most dominant thoughts and emotional tendencies.
The healing process isn’t easy. It’s scary and filled with uncertainties but incredibly necessary if we’re to break generational cycles of trauma.
The state of our teens’ mental well-being is dependent on the mothers and fathers reading this post. It is our responsibility to clean up our side of the street so we can see them for who they are, not who we want them to be.
They so desperately need us to heal so we can listen to them and truly hear what they’re saying. They need us to be their container for their fears, worries, insecurities, and never waiver. Trust is built in small yet consistent moments. We must first transform ourselves in order to have a chance at empowering our children. Because after all, they chose us to be their parents and we mustn’t punish them for our shortcomings.
We all know the adolescent years are fraught with anxiety, peer pressure, and a strong need for belonging outside their family. Imagine the mental imbalance that besets them from not belonging in the one place they need most.
1 Hurley, Dan. “Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes”. Discover. May 2013.