Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I’m 14 years old and I’m having problems with my mom. She constantly nags me about my grades not being high enough, even if I have gotten the highest in the class. She also keeps telling me to go out and run or to eat less to lose weight. I am heavier than some of my friends, but I’m not overweight. I remind her that my weight is fine because I’m strong and I dance a lot, but she doesn’t listen to me.

Even though she wants me to get top grades, when I study instead of going out and exercising, she criticizes me for being lazy. I study a lot, and I have a lot of hobbies, like making videos, singing, dancing, and much more. But I never have time for any of these, because I’m always being forced to work.

I’ve been wanting to address these issues with my mom for a while now, but I’m afraid I will be scolded by her. What should I do?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

I’m glad that you reached out, because so many teenagers feel exactly as you do. They’re experiencing extreme parental pressure but believe that they either can’t or don’t know how to address it. And it absolutely should be addressed.

I can imagine how stressful and confusing these messages from your mom are, and how unpleasant these interactions must be. You say she doesn’t listen to you, so let’s think about why that is, and what might help her to hear you better.

Maybe we can start here: In her mind, she’s simply doing her job as a parent. If I were to ask her why she’s putting this kind of pressure on you, she would probably say that it’s because she loves you deeply. She likely believes that getting top grades and maintaining a certain weight lead to a happy, fulfilling life, and she feels she’s helping to guide you to that future. She might even believe that what you consider pressure is well-meaning “parental guidance,” and she may be baffled by what she considers your lack of appreciation for her attentiveness and care. All of this makes it hard for her to hear you.

What she doesn’t realize, however, is that she’s showing her love in a way that doesn’t feel loving, because it leaves you feeling unseen, anxious, and inadequate. For instance, instead of respecting your desire to engage in your interests and delighting in the joy they bring you, she devalues their relevance. Instead of showing pride in your academic achievements and how hard you work to earn them, she insists that you work even harder. Instead of admiring your beauty in a body that gives you strength, she urges you to become smaller. And perhaps most frustrating, she sets you up to disappoint her: If you study, you aren’t exercising enough; if you exercise, you aren’t studying enough. No matter what you do, you can’t please her.

The good news is that it’s not your job to please her. Nor is it your job to get the highest grades or have the slimmest body. Rather, the work of a healthy human is to learn how to please yourself—not your mom, your teachers, or society’s idea of what a woman’s body should look like. It’s to figure out what matters to you and to focus your energy in those directions. For you, what matters may be balance rather than undue stress, learning rather than a letter grade, growth rather than perfection, self-defined beauty rather than a rigid aesthetic, creativity rather than a constrained existence. Let those values be your north star.

So: back to your mom. Somewhere along the way, likely in her own childhood, a certain kind of achievement and appearance became very important to her. Maybe her parents put the same kind of pressure on her that she puts on you—but unlike you, she acceded to it without examining the consequences. Or perhaps her parents didn’t pay much attention to her at all, and she wished dearly for parents who were as invested in her “success” as she is in yours. I put success in quotes because for whatever reason, she long ago developed a definition of success that you are wisely questioning. If you get the highest grades but the cost is stress, depression, anxiety, and a feeling of never being good enough, that might not be a healthy definition of success at all. If you lose weight but end up going to sleep each night hungry, weak, irritable, and insecure about your appearance, that also doesn’t seem like the kind of “success” you should aspire to.

Up to this point, you and your mom have been arguing about her rules, but the real conflict—and the one you need to discuss directly—is the difference between your value systems. It might help to write your mom a letter so that you can express yourself clearly and without interruption, and explain to her what your value system is. You might start out by saying that you appreciate how much she cares about your well-being, and that you know she believes her efforts are for your benefit.

Then you can explain that even so, if her goal is to raise you to have a fulfilling life, the way she’s trying to help is actually making it less likely that this will come to pass. Let her know that you feel constantly stressed and overwhelmed, not because you’re a poor student, but because this intense focus on getting the best possible grades is interfering with the process of actually learning. Feel free to include some research on a growth mindset, which leaves room for making mistakes and learning from them, as well as studies on the positive outcomes associated with intrinsic motivation (meaning, an inner desire to learn) over extrinsic motivation (grades, parental approval). As for her comments about your weight, tell her that you’re happy with your appearance and appreciate having muscles that give you strength to dance well, and that you find her comments to be damaging and hurtful. You can also share that her expectations are creating resentment in your relationship, because when she is fixated on perfection, you start to feel that her love and acceptance are contingent on performance.

You might end the letter by explaining that the greatest gift she can give you as a parent is the freedom to be who you are—and to be embraced for it—and that you’re someone who works hard and does your best, but who also has many interests and who values making time for relaxation and fun. Tell her that it’s okay with you if she chooses to live her life differently from yours, but that it also needs to be okay with her for you to choose to live differently from her—because ultimately, you will anyway. And not only will you become a more whole human being if she supports you in this, but the two of you will have a much stronger relationship, both now and in the future.

Hopefully your letter will open up a different kind of conversation that will help create more understanding between you. And if it doesn’t, you might consider reaching out to a guidance counselor or another adult you trust for support in helping your mom to broaden her perspective. Either way, clarifying your values and advocating for yourself will be a learning experience you can’t put a grade on: Nobody gets to live your life for you.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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