I got a text the other day from one of my daughter’s best friends and college field hockey teammate asking me for a few recipes that I used to make for post-game tailgate parties. This is not the first time she has asked for my recipes…or put in her order for her favorite foods when she has had dinner at our house. It warms my heart every time she contacts me—for food or other things—that she feels comfortable enough to ask me for assistance. “Eileen” and all my daughter’s teammates were like daughters to all of us team mamas.
Another friend recently was comfortable enough to take me up on my offer to be a sounding board to talk through some challenges she was having with her own family. I knew she was struggling, so nearly a year after I had offered, she texted to ask if we could talk. We had a wonderful dinner together, and I helped her with the aftermath of what had been a difficult and disappointing conversation with her own parents.
And one last story for you…I was driving with one of my daughters and her friend who had spent a great deal of time in our house. At the time, the girls were only in eighth or ninth grade, so I was taken aback when the friend asked me, “How old should you be when you have sex?” Wow…that’s a biggie—far bigger than recipes. Responses ran through my mind. If she was going to trust me with the question, then I needed to give her an honest reply. She clearly was working through a serious issue, and I was honored that she felt safe enough to ask me the question. (For the record…here’s my answer: “I can’t tell you how old you should be because it’s different for everyone, and whatever I say, you will do what you want anyway. But…my big advice is that before you do something like that, be very, very certain that it’s what you want to do, because you won’t realize how bad you will feel if you make a mistake until you’ve already made it.” I thought that answer respected her power to make her own choices while providing guidance and additional information for her to consider. And it didn’t allow her to tell her mom that “Sarah said you can have sex at fill-in-the-blank-age.)
Life is incredibly complicated and confusing and seems to be getting more so. Children love their parents, but there are many things that they just can’t or won’t talk to them about. We all know that. We all did that. But where did you go when you had that tough situation or question that you needed to work through? Did you have surrogates? Other safe spaces where you could seek answers without fear of being judged…or punished?
Ray Higdon, coauthor of Time, Money, Freedom, tells how he thought he had a safe space when, at the age of seven, he spoke to a school counselor about the physical and emotional abuse he was subjected to in his home. Ray’s world went from bad to worse when the counselor invited Ray’s father and abusive stepmother to the school office to confront Ray about the stories he was telling. The counselor thought they were fabrications…but they were not. Ray’s punishment at home got worse, and he was forever scarred by the experience and afraid to trust people for many years.
When my girls were very little, we were fortunate enough to have “Mary Poppins” as a nanny. Addy adored the girls, and they adored her…so much so that, at some point, she and I discussed the idea that the girls might one day “accidentally” call her “mom” when they were trying to make order of the world. Aside from the DNA and birthing part, Addy and I played very similar roles in my girls’ lives—love, safety, diapering, bathing, reading, snuggling, etc.—so it wouldn’t have surprised me at all if their toddler minds equated the two of us as both being “mom.”
Rather than be worried about or jealous of their relationship with Addy, I was grateful that the girls felt so safe with her because I inherently knew that one day they might have issues that they didn’t want to discuss with me. It was important that they had other “mamas” that they could talk to. Sure, older kids could talk to friends, but honestly, sometimes kids really need some parental advice. The truth is that, as much as they may push parents away, teens really need parental support.
According to a report by the Clinton White House Council of Economic Advisors, “Parental involvement is a major influence in helping teens avoid risks such as smoking, drinking, drug use, sexual activity, violence, and suicide attempts, while increasing educational achievement and expected attainment…. Similarly, significant differences were found for teens who reported feeling “close” to their mother and/or father and those who did not. These results persist after taking account of differences in teens’ gender, poverty status, and family structure.”
I’ve had numerous parental figures in my own life who have taught me many lessons. These included family friends, my “cool aunt” and the parents of friends. Not that my own parents aren’t/weren’t awesome and didn’t teach me incredible things. It’s just that sometimes I needed alternative advice without fear of hurting or being hurt.
As I watch the tragic stats of child and teen depression rising, I know that isolation is a big part of the problem, including that children may be stuck at home with their parents and no other resources to help sort through their secret questions and challenges.
If you’re a parent, be aware that, in spite of all of your love and support, you may not be “enough,” and that’s OK and normal. Encourage your children’s relationships with their friends’ parents, neighbors, relatives, coaches and teachers—any other resources that they can turn to when life gets too confusing and frightening for them.
Similarly, do what you can to reach out to the young people in your life and let them know that you see them and respect them. Help them feel safe in your presence…talk to them…so they know that you are available if and when they need you.
On the flip side, don’t be afraid to seek out your own surrogate parents for your life. Above all else, humans need to feel loved and feel safe. We are capable of so much, but we can’t do it alone.
Sarah Hiner, president and CEO of Bottom Line Inc., is passionate about giving people the tools and knowledge they need to be in control of their lives in areas such as living a healthier life, the challenges of the health-care system, commonsense financial advice and creating great relationships. She appears often on national radio and hosts the Bottom Line Advocator Podcast, where she interviews leading experts to help people be their own best advocates in all areas of life.