Sisyphean parenting


The iconic Zits comic strip, by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, yesterday depicted the act of parenting a teenager as similar to the apparent curse bestowed on Sisyphus, rolling the same boulder up a hill, over and over again only to have it roll back down again.

This delights me, because I made a similar metaphor for Rule 10 in my book, Breaking the Hush Factor: Ten rules for talking with teenagers about sex.

The difference between the way that Jerry and Jim portrayed this experience and the way that I talk about it in Breaking the Hush Factor is the lens through which Albert Camus told the story. The quote from Camus’ telling on the bottom of my Rule 10 badge is this: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Camus was saying that the reality of engaging can itself be a joy rather than a toil.

In my book, I made the connection between conversations about sex and sexuality, which have to happen over and over again. As a child grows into an adult, they pass through many stages of identity and sexuality. They will be grappling with different issues and relating to sexuality, both internally and potentially shared with others, in emerging ways throughout that growth process. As such, young people need conversations about sexuality to continue throughout their adolescent developmental process, repeated, in a potentially Sisyphus-like way.

It is my hope that parents will draw joy from this process of talking about sexuality with their teenagers over and over again.

(The remainder of this blog post is in support of professionals on how they can support parents. If you’d like to read what I have to say directly to parents, you can find that here.)

As professionals in the field, you have the potential to make a dramatic impact on home-based conversations whether you work with adolescents or parents or both.

I have found that expanding parental compassion for the adolescent experience can go a long way towards easing difficulties. Parents benefit so much from learning to listen to the pain and to the beauty in their teenager’s emerging sexual knowledge, identity, and experiences. Taking sexuality out of a fear-based issue that has to be addressed once in a horrible conversation to be otherwise avoided, and instead brought into a place where it is addressed many times out of love, compassion, and support dramatically changes the way that parents understand their roles and what they have to offer.

The image in the badge of the sun rising behind Sysiphus’s boulder is no mistake. The goal is for parents to see this act of talking about sex over and over and over again as the sun rising, over and over and over again. It is beautiful, it is meditative, if you’re able to sit back and enjoy it.

As a professional, your work is to draw parents into this kind of space where they are able to see the beauty in the act of conversation. For your part, that often means listening to their pain, frustration, confusion, and other negative feelings. There is usually hope, excitement, and acknowledgement of the beauty buried under those negative feelings if you dive down deeply enough. The diving requires you, the professional, to be patient. To sit with and acknowledge the pain. To leave space for and to speak to the beauty when you see rivulets of it coming through. This is not easy work, but it is so powerful.

When you are working with young people, they need two things: some kind of rubric for deciding whether their parent is a trusted adult they can talk with, practical support for finding a trusted adult to talk with (if that is not their parent), and some kind of explanation for why their parent may be reacting the way that they are.

I wrote an article for Scarleteen that, for the most part, answers the first two issues. (You can find it here.) The third one I hadn’t fully conceptualized or worked through when I wrote the article. Since then I’ve talked with more and more and more youth about this issue and heard their pain and sadness that they can’t talk more openly with their parents. (Okay, in fairness, only some of them are in pain over this. Some of them are delighted that they can’t talk with their parents. Others have great conversations with their parents. But for the ones who are confused, who want to talk but feel they can’t, the pain is great.)

Young people who crave conversations about sexuality with their parents (and yes, they do exist, they’ve come entirely by choice to my workshops specifically on how to open those doors) need to know that it’s not their fault that their parents aren’t open to them. They need to know that their actions, choices, knowledge, fears, beauty, love, and more aren’t the cause of their parents distance. To support teenagers through this process, you need to let them give voice to all of those feelings about their own sexuality and how they are able (or rather not able) to relate to their parents. Give them the space to give voice to that which remains hidden at home. You must become, at least for the moment, what they feel is lacking at home. You have to be their trusted adult for them to see that it is not them that is hampering their conversations with their parents.

When you feel they might be ready, then you can gently talk about the issues that may be holding their parents back (the parent’s sexual biography, sexual and religious beliefs, fear, the speed at which parents feel their children grow up, etc.). But these are likely conjectures on your part. You offer them not as a way to solve the issue at home, because that is outside of your purview. Rather, you offer them as a way to further support the young people in understanding that it is not because of them that their parents have closed the door on conversations about sexuality. Life and sexuality are complex, and you are serving as a reminder of that reality.

Above all, practice what you are teaching the parents and young people in your professional life: By experiencing the joy in the toil of pushing the boulder up the hill over and over again, so that you can see the sun rise every time.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.