“Alix” approached me after a mental health lecture I delivered to a high school assembly in Vancouver, British Columbia. This lecture’s focus was the mental illnesses influenced by the overuse of social media and digital communications; however, Alix’s anxiety inducer was not social media.
I had to listen to her story a few times as I simply could not comprehend it. As a parent, the reality of it was simply unbelievable. Sadly, I’ve heard a variation of this story hundreds of times over the last six years.
Here’s her story:
“You really don’t understand, Sam.
I never had regular dolls as a child. They were Barbies dressed as nurses. My other playthings included medical bags, and I was often dressed as a surgeon for Hallowe’en. No joke.
My parents, who are also in the medical field, have ingrained in me that happiness comes with financial success and professional status.
While many of my friends attended the usual summer camps, I attended Science Camp. I hated them, but I had to keep my parents happy. And now that I’m in high school, they’ve insisted that I take a science track. They’ve picked the courses I’m going to take throughout high school, ensuring that advanced biology and chemistry are at the centre of my studies. I’ve even got a tutor for Biology, although I’m a good student.”
At this point, I fell into “parent mode” and argued that giving her direction, although it may be a bit heavy-handed, does not mean her parents don’t love her. They do it because they love her and want the best for her. You know…what we all say about our kids.
“Uh, again, you don’t get it.
My parents have never told me they love me. Ever. But they light up and take me out for my favourite dinner or buy me stuff when I come home with an A on a test. Every dinner conversation is about what I did in school, not who I hung out with or what sport I watched but what I learned or to be quizzed on the day’s lesson.
As long as I play along, I know they love me. But I don’t want to be a doctor. I think I want to chase a career in the beauty industry, maybe become a hairdresser or makeup artist? But my parents won’t love me as a hairdresser.”
Yes, yes, I know. These are the emotional, hormone-induced ranting of a teenage girl. Her parents love her, and they’re in their right to push her.
But as we continued to chat, it struck me: Whether her parents love or not is not the issue here. I was applying my views as a parent on the situation. I wasn’t listening to how she was interpreting their actions. Alix eventually convinced me that she BELIEVED her parents would not love her if she didn’t follow the medical career her parents were priming.
And that’s what I missed at first; her perception is her reality.
What’s in her parents’ hearts is almost irrelevant at this point. Assuming they’re acting in what they believe is their daughter’s best interests, they’ve not created an environment to prove or communicate that their love is unconditional. It’s tied to her obedience and academic performance.
What made me realize this is an issue worthy of more extensive scrutiny and not simply dismissed as a teenage girl’s irrational drama?
It was the bandages wrapped around her wrists that she was trying to hide during the entire conversation.
- Students: Us parents are not perfect. Frankly, we have no clue what we’re doing most of the time. We parent through a combination of instinct and copying what our parents did. In all honesty, I’m a bit guilty of Alix’s parents’ blindness in parenting my son. So, I don’t have the credibility in providing advice other than to say that we eventually realize we sometimes get too regimented and forget just to say “I Love You Unconditionally.”
If I could go back in time, I would hope that my son (and you) could find the courage not to be afraid to share what your passion in life is. If not with your parents, with a support group, counsellor, or friends before it manifests in self-harm.
- Parents: I repeat, we parents are not perfect. We need to forgive ourselves for our mistakes, but I also want to urge all of you to stop ignoring what inspires your kids’ passion. Too many of us lose our kids to suicide or have their kids’ education derailed because of self-harm and mental health issues inspired by them being forced to follow a path that doesn’t inspire joy. Would you rather have an unhappy doctor in the family at best or the loss of a child who couldn’t cope with the stress of expectations?
Our kids must understand that our love is not contingent on their success. We can express our desire for them; we can push them to be better educated and even consider pursuing specific careers. But it has to stop short of creating an environment where our kids absorb the message that it’s all black or white, this or that, my way or no love.
Their perception is their reality. And we create that perception.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Alix’s story is one of the hundreds of similar stories shared with me over the years. You’re not alone.
If it’s an emergency and you or someone you know is planning on hurting themselves, please call 911. If you’re struggling, you can find other resources here: Canada | USA
*To protect the student, the names and locations listed in this story have been changed.