Tearing Away to Grow Up

Selma, 38, has come in to therapy because of an on-going conflict with her daughter, Salina.   Salina is 19 years-old and, according to her mother, her behavior has recently spiraled out of control.   Selma was married to Salina’s father, William, until Salina was 9.   That’s when William got caught having an affair with a co-worker and the couple divorced.  Selma is still having a difficult time letting go of her anger about the betrayal, but she does her best to talk to William about issues concerning their daughter.  For her part, Salina rarely sees her dad.  He doesn’t make a lot of effort to have a relationship with her, so Salina mainly sees or talks to him on occasions like birthdays and holidays.  Their communication is relatively superficial.  Salina especially doesn’t want to hear about William’s marriage to the woman he left her mother for.

Selma has a good job working for the county and has always been able to provide for herself and Salina.  Until the past year or so she reports having been exceptionally close to her daughter.  “We were best friends as well as mother and daughter,” she says.  “I don’t know what happened but all of a sudden Salina takes offense at everything I say.  She’s refused to start college and is working a stupid part-time job as a sales girl at the mall.  She smokes pot, and she’s hanging around with kids she knows I can’t stand.   They’re all tattooed and pierced and I’m sure she’ll start with that next.  It’s like she’s doing it to spite me.  I keep telling her she’s got to go back to school, I tell her the choices she’s making now will affect her future, and I bring her information from all the local colleges.  She knows I’ll help her pay for it.  There’s just no reason for all this drama.”

From taking a family history I learn that Selma, whose parents are also divorced, is very close with her mother, Rosina.  They talk at least once a day.  Selma says Rosina is an extremely nice and loving woman.  After asking more questions, I learn that despite the affection they clearly feel for one another, there are times when Selma feels drained by her obligations to Rosina.  She is convinced that it would be too distressing for Rosina if she set limits on the amount of contact.  “I’m the only one she can talk to,” says Selma.  Selma has regular contact with her father, Roy, but she doesn’t mention it to her mother.  “Mom gets too upset if I tell her I’ve seen Dad, so I just don’t bring it up.”

When I point out the similarities between Selma’s family of origin dynamics and the dynamics she and William have created with Salina, Selma acknowledges the pattern; “but I would never talk to my mother the way Salina talks to me.  And I try really hard not to throw guilt trips on her the way my mom does.  But I was always a good girl and did what was expected, so maybe mom had the right idea after all.”

I ask Selma if she and her mother had ever gone through a time of being more distant from one another.  “Oh, yes,” she says, “when I wanted to get married to William my mother freaked out.  I was only 19 and crazy in love.  I was determined that we would be together so I didn’t listen to my mom.  And it turns out she was totally right, of course!  I’m just trying to stop Salina from screwing up the way I did.”

“How long were you and your mother estranged?” I ask.

“About 2 years.  We never stopped talking completely, but it wasn’t the same.  Then when Salina was born we got close again.  Nothing was going to keep my mother away from her granddaughter!”

I explain to Selma that when parents are very close to their children, sometimes the children have to “tear away” to try to get some sense of independence.  They can be reacting to the feeling Selma has, that her mother can’t be o.k. without her constant attention.  Or they can be so unsure of themselves that they have to rebel as a kind of “pseudo self” that substitutes for a more mature identity.  Either way, the tearing away process is a result of an intense parent/child attachment, not an indication that the child “doesn’t care.”

“Boy, it sure feels like she doesn’t care.”

“That’s a posture she’s taking because she really cares too much.  It’s not intentional though, it’s an automatic, reactive stance born out of the family dynamics.”

“I guess you’re right, I know that deep down I really wanted my mother to approve of my relationship with William, even though she would swear I was just with him to be disrespectful.  What should I do about Salina?”

At this point I ask Selma to review for me what she’s been doing to try to influence her daughter in the right direction.  We discuss the effects of the advice giving, cajoling, and threats she’s tried already.  Selma is quick to realize that “working on” her daughter is having the opposite effect she wants.  I suggest she work instead on letting her daughter make her own mistakes, if indeed that’s what needs to happen.  Selma’s anxiety goes way up at the thought of backing off, but she agrees it sounds like the right approach.  She can see that if her own mother hadn’t been quite so judgmental about William, she might have come to her senses on her own.

Salina’s future is unknown.  She might grow to fulfill her potential or she might not, but Selma understands these are Salina’s opportunities and choices, not hers.  She’s scared about the path Salina might take, but she’s willing to withstand some distance while Salina tears away to “find herself.”  When pushed, Selma is able to muster up a sense of faith in her daughter.  In my opinion, that’s the best thing any parent can give to their child.

The vignette above is a composite of many cases I have seen.  There is no specific individual identified or described here.

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