when kids say what we can’t hear

March 20th, 2015


It was an unpleasant morning in our house, the atmosphere thickened by resistance. You know the kinds of things your kids can throw at you sometimes. Our children are really good at saying what we don’t want to hear. Annoying things. Inconvenient things. Alarming things. Things that interfere with our expectations for them and make us feel angry, afraid, and let’s face it: like bad parents.

I want to quit.

I’m sad.

I’m afraid.

I don’t want to go to school.

I feel pressure.

I need help.

It’s not fair.

I’m stupid.

I can’t go to sleep.

I hate myself.

I’m ugly.

Nobody likes me.

I don’t want to grow up.

I’m worried.

I can’t do it.

I forgot.

I made a mistake.

You don’t understand.

It’s hard.

I’m not like you.

There was another teen suicide last week in Palo Alto, a community that more or less represents the epitome of achievement in our competitive culture.

I’ve struggled with writing anything lately. No one has asked me to. No one needs me to. And I guess that’s my point. I realize I’ve said too much at those times when all I needed to do was listen.


I don’t have any explanations for what’s happening, although it’s pretty obvious why some of our children are tormented by anxiety and depression. All feelings are mutual. We live in an anxious world advancing insidiously high standards in our children as a way to soothe this anxiety. And I contribute to the problem when I ignore, resist or reject my child however she is right now.

Whenever I won’t listen.

There are some wise individuals out there who are saying sensible things about how to survive the madness. How to find peace, contentment, and belonging.

One of them is probably your child.





  1. I used to think listening would be easy. After all, you just have to sit there and be open. It is, indeed, one of the hardest things in the world to do. The temptation to share my “wisdom” with my children is vast. It helps to remember that speaking said “wisdom” will do no good unless and until they are ready to listen, and they won’t be ready to listen until they have been heard. Of course, if I’m really listening, I find that my “wisdom” has changed or disappeared altogether.

    Comment by Donn King — March 20, 2015 @ 4:47 pm

  2. You are wonderful.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 20, 2015 @ 5:08 pm

  3. My son went to an elite college. After an entirely public school education, everyone, including us, were surprised when he was accepted. His Freshman year was very, very trying. He wanted to leave. We resisted, of course. And then we realized we were dealing with our own issues, and not his. So, we listened. And we told him that the decision was his, and that whatever he decided, we would support him. Once it became his decision, miraculously, he decided to stay. And his challenges, his successes and failures, became his to own. We could so easily have screwed that up. It is scary to remember. And even scarier to realize how soon we forget the lesson. Every friggin day.

    Thank you, Maezen. Your honestly and wisdom are so very appreciated.

    Comment by Clare — March 20, 2015 @ 7:23 pm

  4. Clare, you have seen how the teaching comes to us. It is always so generously offered, and so seldom seen.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 20, 2015 @ 7:49 pm

  5. My sister in law has attempted to kill herself a lot times. The first time was when she was 14 the last time was last fall. She is now in her late 30’s. If you don’t watch out, you end up waiting, for her to live, for her to be happy and you end up not living yourself. Her needs and problems are truly boundless. It is very difficult.
    As I said, it is difficult and I do pretty regularly wonder how we should go from here. My mother in law is not going to be around forever to do all that she does to keep my sister in law alive and happy. What can we do? What do we want to do?
    If you don’t watch out you become a hostage of someones disregard for living, like in my mother in law’s case.

    Comment by Simone — March 21, 2015 @ 3:11 am

  6. Maybe just as important as listening AND hearing is asking” do you want me to respond? ” “do you want me to agree or disagree?” And then do just that

    Comment by Nina — March 21, 2015 @ 9:00 am

  7. Standing on my soapbox, the one I carried into parenthood as a young person, not budging, spending a lot of years here, I might admit a lifetime, it got me nowhere, however using it as a seat, sitting, waiting, listening, observing from this lower place, resisting the urge to stand and step up again and I see that my soapbox has been a great teacher, so has the child who now towers above me. The child who readily reminds me of my place.

    Why did I ever expect that parenting would be anything less? (more??)

    Nothing has been as expected.

    Comment by MJ — March 21, 2015 @ 2:00 pm

  8. …the proverbial cup : is it half-full or half-empty. When youngsters (of all ages, and for that matter, family or friend of any age ) give us words, they are – a not-to-be-minimized invitation for conversation – an opportunity to let in (you choose) light, a question, inquiry……and then, sometimes we need the quiet to hear the Still Small Voice!

    Comment by Shulamith Elster — March 22, 2015 @ 4:37 am

  9. PS
    Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. 1 Cor 13: 4-8

    Never thought I would ever quote the bible… But there you have it. I think one aspect of love is that our hearts really need to love like our bodies need food to survive, our minds restrict that need and make it conditional, killing us on the inside in the process.
    Like with the afforementioned sister in law, limiting our love for her and making it conditional damages us. It hurts our ability to love and care in general. So we think we are protecting ourselves against the hurt we might feel if she succeeds at her attempts and dies, but it really reduces the love we have for everything and everybody around us, because all the love we feel is connected together through our heart.
    If we listen and feel and understand her pain, that is probably much more effective than making our love and care conditional on the premiss that she does not attempt to kill herself. These conditions and restrictions on our love for her are only there because we think we cannot handle it if she maybe one day succeeds in killing herself, but we really cannot know if that is true or if it will even happen.
    Anyhow, sorry it became such a very long story, have a wonderful day.

    Comment by Simone — March 23, 2015 @ 2:09 am

  10. I often think that a good tool for both living and writing is accurate and honest observation. Your list of things that are said by our kids is a very good one. Probably for all of us, some items in your list were or are true for each of us and each of our kids, at times. And even if they are only partly true, I think it can help to write them out, hold them for a day or a week and come back to them then, just to see how they look a little later.

    Comment by Bill — March 26, 2015 @ 12:38 pm

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