It’s a shock to many parents – that moment when their teenage children fall out of love with them. How do you move on from that kind of rejection? Sue Elliott-Nicholls is finding it hard this Mother’s Day.
I was shooting the breeze with a group of bright lovely 15-somethings in the park. Some of them I’ve known since they were grubby lolly-stained little cherubs with unbrushed hair, tearing around the playground before running back to us, their mums, for love and approval.
Now they sit in the sunshine, well-groomed and gorgeous, flicking that once-messy hair.
“So, you know how much you used to worship your mum?” I ask Eve.
“She grew old,” says Eve.
And there it is.
That moment when you get shoved off the pedestal by your cruel uncaring teens is the most heartbreaking moment of parenthood.
For me it was far worse than the leaving home thing. You expect the leaving home thing – when my eldest son left home, it felt right. But no-one prepares you for the moment you go from being the dramatic lead to the comedy cameo role in the second act.
One day they’re pleading with you to spare them five minutes of your precious time to build a Lego space ship (“OK, in a minute, in a minute, in a MINUTE! Mummy’s busy darling, sorry.”)
The next, you’re being called a “beg-friend”.
I hear them calling other mothers that, so I ask them: “What’s a ‘beg-friend’?”
“A friend who (like) begs for your attention, who wants to hang around with you, but you don’t really want to hang around with, and (like) spends all their money on you, just for your friendship,” explains Eve.
“What a horribly cruel heartless thing to say,” I say, shocked.
Eve shrugs, casting an uncaring sideways glance to her friends (the ones who don’t need to beg).
That is what we parents of teens have been reduced to – rejected, abandoned, irrelevant.
I call my pals to check it’s not just me. It’s not.
“I see him looking at me with pure hate,” says Georgia, whose youngest son is 15. “If I try and kiss his cheek, he flinches.” That’s harsh.
“It’s like not being picked for the sports team any more,” says Jude’s mother, Mary Cate. “I’m really at the bottom of the list now.”
We despair at the way they all scuttle off to their smelly untidy bedrooms, which they now seem to prefer to the warm comfort of the family living room.
“Not only are they alone in their rooms, they also have headphones on – another barrier,” wails Christina, whose children rarely speak to her these days.
Teenagers can still talk and be charming though – as long as they’re with their friends. I hear them laughing hysterically and spend a few minutes standing behind the living room door, listening to the cruel banter they do so well. Then I walk in to say hello – and the room falls silent. The atmosphere is so awkward I feel my insides curdle.
“Hi guys!” I say, my voice a touch too bright.
I slither out, defeated.
Christina used to chat to Fin’s friend when he came over, until Fin told her to cut it out. “Please mum, he’s not here to talk to YOU,” he said.
So rude! We would not take that kind of talk from anybody else, and yet, we take it.
I ask the teenagers what the correct protocol is then, when addressing their precious friends?
“I mean,” I gush. “If I just ignored you when you came round wouldn’t you think I was rude? Wouldn’t you get a bit paranoid and worry that I didn’t like you?”
“Yeah, well you don’t need to be rude,” says Joel, looking shocked. “A polite ‘Hi’ – and that’s it.”
“Hmm, it’s probably less embarrassing for your kids if you just don’t speak,” says Nicole pointedly.
OK, so play it cool. Be very, very careful, and try not to get too excited when they occasionally come over for a chat. It’s best to control yourself, but it’s hard.
“If one of them starts talking, I overdo it with my questions and then I ruin it again,” says my friend Christina. “I have to learn to keep quiet and nod, not shriek.”
I have in the past jumped up in delight when addressed, like a grotesque pantomime dame, only to have them look at me, lip curled in horror, as if I were something they just stepped in. These same kids who once looked at me as if I were a goddess.
I can’t bear to see toddlers looking into their mothers eyes any more. Sheer, unadulterated love – that was how it used to be. Now I feel like a needy ex, who can’t let go, can’t take the hint.
“I’m not going to ignore my kids though, I tell the judgmental teen committee,” (which includes one of my own, Spencer). “I’m not going to throw their dinner down and storm off, even though it’s what I might feel like doing.”
They look horrified.
“No, because we still want to feel loved,” says Joel. “Just not give love in return.”
“Yeah, it’s when they get too clingy,” adds Nicole.
“It’s moderation – a 10-minute conversation, and then it’s over,” advises Joel.
Ten minutes a day? I could do that. The teenagers agree, they could manage 10 minutes too. Wow, we’re getting somewhere. I’m encouraged – maybe I’m missing my calling as a family therapist.
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“What about TV?” I ask. A box set can be a bonding experience, according to my fellow victims/parents. Stranger Things has been the saviour of many a family unit. It might be a temporary fix, but hey, better than nothing.
“Yeah my mum watches Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” says Nicole. “Don’t blame her actually, ‘cos I watch it as well – with her.”
Joel’s mum loves A Place In The Sun. “Actually I quite like that too,” he confesses.
We’re getting on swimmingly now, bonding over tacky TV.
It’s funny, when I was young, TV was being blamed for the break-up of the family and now we all agree that it’s the lifebelt that’s saving us all from drowning.
A friend once told me that when teenagers look miserable it doesn’t actually mean they’re unhappy. I’m not sure that’s true because they certainly look happy when they’re with their friends, and that’s when I want to be their mate too.
But I guess I’ll never be the B.F.F. again. Instead I’ll just have to resign myself to being the B.E.G.
We gave the teenagers a right to reply:
“Mum, half the time we are in the house you’re moaning or shouting at us because we aren’t living up to your perfect image or you want us to help around the home that we are never supposedly in.”
Spencer, 16 – still watches First Dates with Sue
“Mums, remember how you were at this age: too busy scraping decent exam results, dating unserious candidates and attempting to gain the all-important Street Cred Points. Don’t fret, just remember ‘cool’ is subjective – enjoy your ancient music and boogie over your dead musicians.”
Nicole, 16 – bonds with her mum over The Apprentice
“When my mum tells me stories of her hippy parents leaving her in tents and allowing her to swim up the Thames while they drank in the pub, I can understand why she’s such a stress-head. But I don’t think I’ve ever gone out without her knowing my every move.”
Eve, 17 – Mum-friendly shows: Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity
“Ahhh mum, I can see where you’re coming from, but at that age, you think you’re so cool that you’re almost offended by the fact that someone so uncool would even attempt to try and talk to you. I don’t really think the problem goes away until you’re about 19 and you realise that actually, you’re not that cool anyway.”
Morgan, 22 – Sue’s other son.
Listen to Woman’s Hour: How to cope when your child no longer wants to spend time with you