A few years ago, I worked with a young, Black, female adolescent, named Candice*, and her mother. Candice and her family had moved from an urban city in North Jersey to a suburban community in Central Jersey. Candice’s mother was recently divorced with three children: Candice, who was 13 years old; her eight-year-old sister; and her three-year-old brother. Candice was struggling with a few peers in the neighborhood and adjusting to the new school system.
The case manager who referred Candice and her mother for my services reported:
“Candice was argumentative with peers, teachers and staff at school. She has had detention several times and has been suspended from school a couple of times for disruptive behaviors in class and for one physical fight with a female peer. Her mother was uninvolved and non-responsive to the schools attempts to engage the family.”
Now, Candice and her family had only been in Central Jersey for eight months, and it was February when I started to work with Candice and her mother. I was baffled by about the request for in-home behavioral health services when the misbehavior was taking place primarily in school.
During our initial session, Candice’s mother discussed how Candice was helpful and respectful in the home, for the most part. She described “drama” with some of the girls in the apartment complex: “it starts on social media and carries over into the school environment.” The mother discussed feeling overwhelmed with adjusting to being a single mother. Her divorce was finalized, her ex-husband had recently been incarcerated, and there was no child support coming in for a couple of months. She described her experience with the school calling her almost on a daily basis over “nothing.” Candice’s mother discussed how her job would not permit her to take many breaks and how she couldn’t keep taking time off from work to go to the school for meetings.
In some cultures, children have been told and given messages to stay in a “child’s place” for quite some time. This child’s place is one where the child is to speak when spoken to by adults; to be silent until acknowledged; to be seen and not heard; not to interrupt when adults are talking; to obey what adults tell them to do; and not to cause trouble for the family. In other words, the child is told not to be a burden. When the child moves into adolescence, he or she may still get these same messages.
When children and adolescents are treated in this manner by parents and adults close to them, it may have a negative impact on the children and adolescents’ development and impair their healthy self-esteem, assertive communication, personal agency, ability to stand up for themselves, to take risks, to own their personal power, to manage conflict, interpersonal effectiveness, confidence, and etc.
These parents tend to have an authoritarian parenting style and do not take adolescents seriously. They don’t believe the adolescent could understand the adult world or adult issues in meaningful ways.
According to Gross and Gross (1977), the authors of The Children’s Rights Movement, “The assumption is that all young people are ‘children’ and essentially alike in being incapable of adult activities.” They urge adults, saying, “children and young people are not all the same, and shouldn’t be treated all the same, merely on the basis of their being below the age of adulthood” (p. 10).
This thinking in parenting and relating to children and adolescent’s in this disempowered way still exist today!
In The Adolescent’s Journey, author Levy-Warren (2000) writes, “Families … provide the lenses through which children see the world. The arrival of adolescent in children’s lives is a change in focus. Their view of themselves, their parents and the world shifts enormously. The values of their parents once held so unquestionably are now compared (sometimes unfavorably) to the views and values of others whose opinions may seem more important or wiser” (pp. 4–5).
Gross and Gross, as well as Levy-Warren point out how adolescence brings opportunities for the adolescent to see and experience the world in mature and serious ways, growing and becoming a better person through this developmental stage. But, if the adolescent has parents who think a child belongs in a “child’s place” with nothing to offer, they will limit the adolescent’s development, and the opposition on the part of the adolescent that emerges may be expressed in negative and problematic ways. This opposition can look different for each adolescent, depending on his or her attempts to be seen as a person with his or her own mind, opinions, and perspective to be taken seriously and with a strong desire to matter and be recognized as a valid contributor and thinker in his or her family and community
My work with Candice and her mother focused on teaching and supporting the mother in practicing self-care and supportive parenting and teaching Candice interpersonal effectiveness, communications, emotional regulation and self-control. Sessions with Candice and her mother together focused on providing supportive counseling around their relationship.
The turning point in the work happened through the relationship between Candice and her mother, when Candice asked me one day in a session if I would like to listen to a song:
Candice: [with a shaky voice] Ms. Tawanda, can I play a song for you? You can say no, I have tried to play it for my mother but she keeps saying no. I really like this song a lot.
Me: Yes! I would love for you to play the song. What’s the name of the song?
Me: Okay, what’s it about?
Candice: Ms. Tawanda, just listen.
Me: Okay [with a smile].
After hearing the song…
Me: Wow, I like it. What do you like about this song, Candice?
Candice: It reminds me of my mother and all she has been going through. I wanted to play it for her.
Me: Do you mind if I talk to your mother about the song?
Candice: [her face lit up] Yes. Please Ms. Tawanda.
In the next part of the session with Candice’s mother, I talked to her about the song.
Candice’s Mother: [with a frustrated tone] I don’t like rap music. That’s what her father listened too. I don’t want her listening to that music. It’s no good!
Me: The song that Candice wants you to listen to, I heard it and I liked it. It has a powerful message. I wonder if you would listen to it with me, trusting I won’t steer you wrong?
Candice’s Mother: [She was quiet, for a few seconds and proceeded with a reluctant tone] All right.
[I played the song and we listen together…]
[I saw Candice’s Mother tearing up, midway through the song. The song ended.]
Candice’s Mother: [Wiping her eyes with the tissue she grabbed] Wow, that’s my life. [She looked surprised!]
She discussed how she did not think that Candice understood what was going on between her and her father. The mother thought Candice blamed her for divorce and hated her for the move to Central Jersey. The mother discussed her ex-husband’s gambling, drug-dealing issues, and negative impact on the family. The mother discussed how moving to Central Jersey was a big step, including downsizing their lifestyle and sacrificing for the kids. But, she had her faith to keep her strong and going.
I asked Candice’s mother to listen to the song with Candice and to hear Candice out. I asked that she share her thoughts and feelings with Candice about how she thought Candice felt about the divorce and about her. We brainstormed and selected a good moment for them to be alone, to have mother–daughter time, and to share the experience together over the coming week.
I was delighted to hear in our next session, from both Candice and her mother, how great the experience was for both of them. It was wonderful to bear witness over the next few weeks to Candice and her mother having more mother–daughter times, like going to the nail salon and watching television together. Candice’s behaviors and attitude in school improved and Candice’s mother did not see her daughter as a little girl who didn’t understand or relate to what she was experiencing. Candice mother also made some time to re-connect with one of her closest friend from her old neighborhood and her younger sister. Both of these ladies became a support for Candice’s mother by being a shoulder she could lean on and offering babysitting services.
Opposition is a social and relational construct. It presents relationally and needs relational interventions.
Candice and her family illustrate how parents who demonstrate an openness to see and experience their adolescents as more than a child in a “child’s place”, could be pleasantly surprised by the person their adolescent is becoming and someone they can be able to connect with in new, exciting and meaningful ways.
I would love to hear your family stories. Please share that moment with me when you saw and experienced your adolescent as a person who understands and relates in mature ways. Share when your adolescent was a force to be taken seriously.
*Please note the case study is a composite and the adolescent’s name has been changed for confidentiality purposes.