MomsOnMonday: Prep for Parenting Your Modern Family

Posted on December 8th, 2014, 1 Comment

Modern Family: Season 6, Episode 9, Strangers in the Night

Alex Has an Unbelievable Boyfriend

The Framework
Tonight all three households deal with “trust” and “truth” – the foundation trust is built on. Cam and Mitch get a fancy-schmancy couch to show Lily that they trust her enough to let them have one nice thing. And Jay accuses Manny of double crossing him, making it impossible for him to weasel his way out of attending a picnic with Gloria. But it’s over at the Dunphy’s where trust is most fully called into question.

It begins with this.
Haley (holding a long-stem rose): Look what someone left in our mailbox. Again.
Claire: That’s like our fifth one, isn’t it? It’s getting kind of creepy.
Haley: Oh, relax. It’s probably just from Victor – that flower delivery guy I dated.
Alex: Has it ever occurred to you that those flowers could be for me?
Phil: What do you mean?
Alex: I mean like from my boyfriend.
Phil: What?
Claire: You have a boyfriend? … Honey, it’s so exciting! Why didn’t you tell us?
Alex: Because I knew you’d get all weird and ask a million STUPID questions.
Claire (blurting): What did he look like? How did you meet him?
Alex: Okay. I’ll show you a photo (reaching for her phone). Well, I would but now my phone is not working. Oh, Oh, here he is (holding up an ad).
Phil: In the supermarket flier?
Alex: He’s a model.
Haley: Oh, wait! Wait! Your boyfriend is a model?
Claire (incredulously): Well, how did you meet him? There’s not much crossover for a National Honor Society student and a pork model.
Alex: Actually, it’s a really long story.

As Alex walks away, Phil, Claire, and Haley huddle.
Phil: That’s terrific news. I can’t believe she didn’t tell us about him.
Haley: Oh that’s what you can’t believe?
Phil: What do you mean?
Claire: Phil, it’s a little weird. I mean suddenly she has this boyfriend. She wants to show us a picture on her phone, but she can’t. And magically he’s in today’s paper. Huhh. I don’t even want to say it. Haley…
Haley: She’s making it up.

Later Claire and Phil seek Alex out to continue the conversation.
Claire: Your father and I think we owe you an apology … This morning when we didn’t think the rose could be for you, it seemed like maybe it hurt your feelings.
Alex: I guess. A little.
Claire: I am so sorry to make you feel bad. It’s completely believable that you would have an admirer … What we’re worried about is that we’ve created an environment in which you feel it’s necessary to…
Phil: Embell…
Claire: Fanta…
Phil: Exagger…
Alex: Oh my God! You guys don’t think [my boyfriend] is real!
Claire: Sweetheart, I remember the pressure there was to fit-in in high school.
Phil: So do I. And whether you try to fit-in by saying you fought a baby bear or by making up a boyfriend…
Alex: You guys are unbelievable! You really think I’m that pathetic that I have to create some imaginary boyfriend?! … Well, he’s real.

Flipping the Frame: My Notes
One of the most important aspects of parent teen communication is trust.

Teens want to feel trusted by their parents. Often their reasoning goes something like this: “You have to trust me. It’s a way you show you understand I’m not a little kid anymore.”

We parents also very much believe that trust is important. Our thinking typically goes something like this: “If we can’t trust them on this (whatever the current topic), then what can we trust them on?” We saw this with Claire and Phil tonight.
Claire: It makes me wonder about what else she’s making up. I’ve never met that girl she’s tutoring in math.
Phil: Me neither.
Claire: Because she doesn’t exist. There is no Esther Choi on earth who needs math tutoring.

While parents and teens alike value the trust between them, the reality is that from a teen’s perspective, it’s essential that some things be “none of our business.” This is how they carve out a social life and form an identity that is theirs alone – independent from that of their parents.

Thus, when our kids become teens, the straightforward dialogues we used to have with them when they were younger get a lot more complicated. And they use a variety of strategies to make the conversations complicated – complications that often take the form of evasions, omissions, distortions, and outright fabrications.

Alex (to her parents): Why am I even talking to you guys?! Leave!! Get out!!

Teens are outraged when we disbelieve them and they’re telling the truth. And they’re just as outraged when they’re not. Because if teens don’t feel trusted, they don’t feel respected either. And respect is like air to teens. If you take it away, it’s all they can think about.

They roll their eyes. They shout as they stomp away in a huff. And any remaining hope for a conversation goes with the slam of their bedroom door.

What’s a Mom to Do?
There is an art to talking with a teen. Below are some basic guidelines to help you keep the conversations going with your teen.

Stop to clarify. When our teens suddenly explode, we’re wise to consider the possibility that the conversation we think we’re having may actually be about something else entirely. Pausing can help you get your mind straight. And gentle probing can help you figure out why they stomped off in a huff. But it often pays to let them share what’s on their mind at their own pace. So be prepared for a bit of a wait.

When in doubt, say nothing. Not every teen comment requires a reply from us – at least not immediately. So reflect first and follow up later. (I’m talking to you too, Claire).

To learn more, ask. Because most teens view pleasing us as their number one job, most of their answers relay only what they think we want to hear. So be prepared with some probing follow-ups. (For example, “And then what happened?”)

Probe carefully, watching for their reaction. Don’t ask questions that come across as judgments. (Questions that begin with, “Why do you…?” tend to sound like accusations.) And don’t pummel them with questions either – as Claire did tonight. Instead be patient, leaving some space for silence between questions to make sure that they’re finished before asking your next question.

Know when to take a break and do it. Don’t stop just because they make you feel like you’re intruding. But sometimes you have to put a bookmark in your conversation and set a time for picking it up again later. Your teen will let you know when it’s time to take a break. You just have to do it.

Trust is something teens have to earn. But understanding “truth” – the foundation on which trust is built – requires a more fully developed sense of morality and a more fully developed prefrontal cortex. This development happens slowly as teens experiment and experience consequences.

Full maturation may take well into the twenties. Our job is to keep the conversations going so that we can stay involved and participate in the process. In the meantime, it’s wise to expect the truth. But don’t be surprised if you don’t always get it.

Your Parenting Experiences
Were there some things you considered “none of your parents’ business” when you were a teen? If so, what kinds of things were on that list? How about your kids – do you think that they withhold some kinds of information from you?

Sources and Resources: 7 Things Your Teenager Won’t Tell You by Jeniffer Lippincott & Robin Deutsch, Ph.D.; “Learning to Lie” by Po Bronson in the New York Times; Trust Me, Mom… by Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D.; Get Out of My Life… by Anthony Wolf

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1 comment

  • Great job in excerpting dialog. Also excellent advice about “bookmarks.” Very interesting observation that some things in a teen’s life are “none of our business.” I wish my parents had followed that advice!

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