My Uphill Battle for Privacy and Freedom During My Teens
If I could describe how I navigated my teen years during the early 2000’s, it would be like riding a rollercoaster that was often on the verge of spinning out of control. For the most part, I was pretty well-behaved student, having earned straight As during every semester of middle school except one. But when it came to personal matters between me and my parents, it was a living hell.
When I was around 12, my mother gave me my first credit card (for emergencies only), I got to hang out with friends alone at the movies for the first time, and I attended my first “night out” at the middle school dance (we called them “activity nights”). These little first tastes of freedom to live life without the supervision became such a thrill to me that I only wanted more of it. Not that I was entirely able to thrive independently at the time, but the idea of it suddenly became possible.
As my battle for privacy and freedom surged, my relationship with my parents soured. Civil conversations on the car would instantly turn into hotly contested bickering, threats, and sometimes, stony, uncomfortable silence (that was the worst). The thing I disliked the most about my mother during those years was the way she persistently peppered me with questions about everyone and everything. Who were you with at the movies? What’s her name? What do her parents do for a living? Why are you always on AIM Messenger? It’s Saturday 9am, why aren’t you up yet to do your homework?
To translate most of my teenage angst, I responded either by stony silence or snap back with, “Does it matter? Who cares? Can you shut up and be quiet?”
It’s hard as a growing teenager to understand that “annoying” questions like these are signs of (tough) love and concern from our parents. For teens, questions like these disrupt and distract us from fulfilling our search for our future adult selves. Don’t get me wrong – by being rebellious, I wasn’t yearning to do anything illegal like driving without a license or smoking endless amount of weed or getting a tattoo. I just wanted to do normal, adult things without the helicopter-type hovering. I wanted my mother to trust me to able to live my life without constant supervision while doing so safely and responsibly.
I knew that my mom would bitterly complain to her tight circle of friends about me, because every time I saw them at outings, they’d have this knowing look on their faces whenever I rolled my eyes at my mother. They could have admonished me for venting out my frustrations at my mother in public, but I knew at the time I was left with very little choices. I was on the verge of erupting.
During one of our monthly family friend dinners, I remember a family friend’s daughter approaching me on the subject of the faltering level of trust I have with my mother. She brought up the topic matter-of-factly, but in a peer-to-peer way. She was only a few years older than me, but seemed wise beyond her years.
“It’s hopeless,” I told her. “I just need space, and I can’t have it. I’m not trying to disrespect my mom, but I want to live my life as a teenager, and the only way I can fight for it is by disrespecting her.”
“There’s a way to kind of fix that,” she told me.
“Just answer her questions when she asks them. It doesn’t have to be the truth, but it’ll make her feel better. Tell her about your day, anything. The more you tell your mother, the less she’ll want to know about what’s going on in your life.”
“Trust me,” she says. She winked at me.
The more you tell your mother, the less she’ll want to know? This had to be one of the most skeptical advice I was ever given, but I digressed. I thanked my family friend’s daughter for the life suggestion and kept it in the back of my mind for the years to come.
It took several slow years for me to open up to my mother fully, but things start to get much easier once I moved away for college in New York City. The first couple of weeks started out with one or two calls from my mother to check on how I was doing. They were minimal, short, but still filled with honest updates and an occasional lie here and there as an excuse for why I wasn’t picking up her calls.
When I finally began to understand the difference it made in my college life without the physical presence of my mother, a gradual, budding appreciation for her nagging took place. Four months into my freshman year, I was calling my mother everyday about everything that happened in my mundane life, from my lecture exams to how to do my own laundry to getting drunk during a night out with friends. Sure, it seemed weird to tell my mother about getting intoxicated, but what could she do? Fly 4,000 miles from California to come admonish me? I knew her too well that that was not going to happen. Calling her to retell my drunk outings was still necessary so she was aware that I was capable of taking care of myself.
As the semester flew by, my mother learned to give me the benefit of the doubt. She knew I enjoyed going out, but was assuming I can care of myself, because the panic 2am texts of “R u home yet?” stopped happening. Funnily enough, I wasn’t used to that, so I would text my mom instead to tell her that I got home safely and that everything is fine (to which she’d reply a minute or two later with a thumbs-up emoji).
By my sophomore year of college, I could tell my mother was becoming significantly less inquisitive. Case in point: I once called her after visiting friends at Yale University to attend their spring fling and rambled nonstop about Janelle Monaé headlining. It went sort of like this:
“Yeah, Janelle was awesome. And then in the courtyard I bumped into this guy Linus who used to play viola in orchestra class with us in high school. You remember him, right? He’s studying poetry or something. Don’t remember what the degree was exactly, but he’s doing well,” I said.
I could hear a slight yawn from the other end of the phone. “Mhm, yes… are you done now? I’m very tired.”
I chuckled. It wasn’t the reaction I was expecting after having explained for 10 minutes what spring fling is, but my family friend’s daughter was right. I had finally made it to the point in my life where my mom showed genuine disinterest in my personal life.
You’d think creating a buffer would further distance an angry teenager and overly concerned parent, but the impact is quite the opposite. Some mutual respect and truth are all the difference it takes to keep a healthy parent-teen relationship. Having overstepped through temper tantrums and inexcusable attitude behavior, I’ve learned that at the end of the day, the constant questioning and admonishing comes from a place of love and care. At the same time, my mother learned that hovering over me wasn’t always the best approach for me to open up to her.
Learn to love. But equally, learn to love someone enough to let them go and give them the space they need. When you do, you can really help a teenager’s independence blossom into something special.