My parents treat me like a child

I'm 17 and doing great, but my folks freak out if my room is messy or I don't use a coaster!

Topics: Since You Asked, Parenting, Childhood, Teenagers, teens, teenager, School, Family,

My parents treat me like a child (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

You seem like you will be able to give me levelheaded, unbiased, practical advice and insight right now, and that is exactly what I am needing.

I’m 17 and I’m fighting with my parents. This is not a new, unique story. But it doesn’t make it any easier to cope with.

I feel like my parents meddle more than they should. They have always provided me with a stable, loving, privileged household. So why am I complaining? The household has become too stable and loving. My parents seem to be overly adjusted to their role as a parent of a small child — not a teenager. I feel I have proven myself as a person. I get almost all A’s, hold many leadership positions at school, hold a job and make my own money, have no driving violations, and I can honestly say I do not use drugs of any kind, nor have I ever.

However, my parents somehow see past these “good things” and feel the need to dictate every facet of my life. If my clothes don’t fit right, they complain. If my room isn’t clean, I can’t go out. Leave a dish on the counter without cleaning it? Don’t replace the paper towel after using it up? Household tragedies worth swearing and screaming over.

I understand I have “teenager brain” and am not yet a fully responsible adult, but my parents have a distorted view of what is worth worrying over. I want them to stop stressing themselves out over what I eat, what I wear, and what I think about. They seem somewhat apathetic toward my achievements. Winning the election for National Honor Society president received a quick “good job” but a crack in the windshield of my car raises a hell of a lot more negative emotion. I’m worrying about things like college, but forgetting to do laundry or setting a mug down without a coaster are major causes for concern for them.

What’s going on? Am I the one with the distorted view? How can I ease their micromanaging and prove that I am a trustworthy adult (at least a little bit of one)?


Not Just a Kid

Dear Not Just a Kid,

Your parents are probably under a lot of stress. That doesn’t make their behavior right. But knowing that may help you accept their erratic and irritable behavior.

But here is the larger picture. What you need to know is that the world is full of people who are under stress and are acting out and projecting, who find fault with how one places a glass on a table and how one folds a napkin and how one pronounces a word. Their unhappiness is not about the coasters or the laundry, but about human needs that aren’t being met and feelings that aren’t being consciously acknowledged.

It isn’t about the coaster or the cracked windshield. It is about psychic fear. It is about projection.

In your parents’ case, it’s probably about their fear that their daughter will soon be leaving them to live her own life and there is nothing they can do about it and it terrifies them and so they grasp at anything to assert their symbolic control. And they probably aren’t proud of themselves for doing it, either, when they realize it. They’re just in the grip of something.

Wouldn’t it be great if they could just say that, if your parents could just humble themselves and say that they love you more than anything in the world and it makes them tremble to think that soon you are going to go off on your own? Wouldn’t it be great if they could admit that it isn’t really about the coasters and the cleaning of rooms but about trying to control something they know they really can’t control? That they love you and fear for you and don’t want to lose you and want to make sure everything about you is perfect and can’t bear to think of you being hurt? That they know they are too limited in their outlook, that it’s impossible for them to accept you as you are, as a completely autonomous being, impossible to accept that one day soon you will not be depending on them, will make your own choices in your own time and you might even do better in life than they have?

Wouldn’t it be great if they could just say that? Why can’t they just say that they’re projecting all their fears onto objects because they know that life is short and it is all happening too fast and soon their cherished amazing daughter is going to be prancing off out of their control into the great, strange, dangerous and enchanting world? Why can’t they just admit that their emotional turmoil has nothing to do with coasters or the cleaning of rooms, that it has to do with separation anxiety and their own self-doubt about where they stand in society and how good a job they have done in parenting you?

Well, for whatever reason, they just can’t.

You will run into this again and again. You will find people making no sense. You will find people focusing on the smallest, stupidest things and you will wonder why. So know this: That is how people behave when they haven’t been able to fully realize what they are feeling, or to face what is happening in their lives.

You are going to see this in your further schooling, in authorities who focus on minute matters instead of the grand vision of education. You will find this in the courts and at work and in your fellow students. You will find this in people you live with, who will find fault with how you draw the shower curtain to one side or the other and how you wash the dishes and where you put your clothes. You will find irritable train conductors and police and sanitation workers and bureaucrats and administrators and co-workers and supervisors and government workers. You will find among your peers people who criticize every little thing.

I hope you will realize, when you meet these people, that their actions are symbolic, and that behind those actions are fear, loneliness, despair and longing, and that it is often beyond their power to change, because our society breeds unhappiness and despair and exhaustion.

In other words, welcome to the world.

Keep your head up. You have a bright, profound spirit. You will do good things. Don’t let the bastards get you down.

p.s. (Aside from all the historical and social implications of your parents’ behavior, in the short term, for practical purposes, it will help if you use a coaster and keep your room clean.)

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