“Are you guys comfortable with your Korean Heritage?” my husband asks our two kids as he drives them to middle school. “Because, you know, I was really embarrassed by my last name and being part Korean when I was your age.”
“O, no, we like it! We’re fine with it!” respond Ben, 8th grader and Sadie, 6th grader. “We think it’s cool!”
“O, good,” says my mischievous husband. “Then you won’t mind this,” as they pull into the crowded school parking lot, with all their friends and peers pouring into the front door.
And he rolls all the windows down, locks the doors, pulls a hat like this on his head –
Turns up the cd player in the car so he can blast Korean Rap Music (This is long before Psy and Gangam Style was hip) and begins drumming out the beat on his steering wheel with a pair of chopsticks.
They were mortified. “Let us out!” “Stop! Stop right now!” as they frantically try to roll up their windows and escape the torture-mobile.
We laugh about this now that both kids are 4 years older, but at the time they were NOT amused.
Remember those years of being so mortified by your parents? I’ve thought about what might be going on in the brain that causes such a painful response when we’re pre-teens. And I’ve wondered a couple of things:
1. There is a specific part of our brains that determine “me” and “you.” In pop psych language, we refer to “boundaries,” and we all differ in our comfort zones. For some people, that part of the brain doesn’t distinguish me versus you as clearly as it does for others. (The ideal is somewhere between the two extremes of complete overlap and no overlap at all.) Maybe for pre-teens, this part of their brain is in high over-drive of development.
2. Part of the pre-teen’s brain development is to discover, and strengthen, and claim their own sense of “me-ness,” over and beyond their parents “you-ness.”
Yet all the ways pre-teens feel embarrassed by their parents suggests an over-identification with their parents, as though their friends will hold them accountable for their parents’ actions, as though there isn’t any separation between them. Now that’s a strange reversal, isn’t it, after all the years parents have felt judged by their child’s behavior. (In the extreme, this “family shame” of some cultures results in brothers and fathers and uncles killing the sisters and daughters and nieces who have “brought shame” upon the family. Could that be a “me” versus “you” conflation in our brains?)
But for the pre-teen brain, could this mortification at their parents’ mere existence be a wicked combination of two developmental tasks?
1. A frantic, desperate need to fit in, as the pre-teen brain drives its owner to form closer bonds with their own peers, the ones who will help them survive in this world (because their parents, historically, will soon be old and doddering and useless to them.)
2. Motivating that drive is an incredibly painful intolerance for being different or calling attention to themselves in any way that makes them stand out, because at this stage, standing out could threaten their survival (on the African savannahs.)
3. An increased awareness and sensitivity to just how connected they have been with their parents. The blurring of the “me” and “you” ness of their brains that kept them alive from birth until now doesn’t serve them well at this point and into the future. This could be because the pre-teen brain is getting better at “meta-cognition,” that is, awareness of itself.
The conclusion? As pre-teens we are incredibly sensitive. It’s how we make it to adulthood. And my husband is amazingly mischievous, which used to delight, then torment, and now makes my teenagers roll their eyes. As I always say, he makes us laugh; I get us there on time.
In the end, don’t take it personally. Your pre-teens’ “you-ness” is not a 100% overlap with your own “me-ness.” And it’s just the beginning.