I was sitting in class. A sea of 10-year-olds reached for the sky, waiting anxiously to share their favourite colours. “Pink!” “Blue!” “Purple!” “Rainbow!”, each exclaimed as the teacher pointed at us one by one. My heart pounded. Should I choose one of the four popular options or tell the truth? “Yyyellow?” I blurted out on my turn, blushing, waiting for someone to laugh at me for being different. Instead, one girl put up her hand and said, “I change my mind! I like yellow too!”
I was totally over the moon.
When my wonderful Mum picked me up that afternoon, I prattled on about my colour choice with such joy that when I finished, my youngest sister piped up: “My favourite colour is also yellow!”
. . . The NERVE! Anger flared up inside of me. “No, it’s not! It’s mine!” I yelled.
“It’s mine too!” she retorted.
“Well, you can’t have it!” I said. “Pick another one!”
She didn’t. And I spent the next few weeks begrudging her for that. I wish I could say this incident with my sister was the only time I was mean-spirited towards my family. But it’s not. As I entered adolescence, my reactions only became (much) more intense, especially toward my mother.
My generous, loving, patient and wonderful mother was the target of countless emotional teenage episodes— slammed doors, rolled eyes, silent treatment for days on end. Usually, these incidents developed from nothing important: me being unable to find a sock, then blaming her for not organising them “properly”; me getting hungry and angry at 7pm, then complaining that she “never made dinner on time”. While I grumbled and fumed, my beautiful mother continued to make my dinner, wash my clothes, drive me to every appointment, to fulfil every need—all without a whisper of thanks.
I have often reflected on such moments and wondered why. Why, when a random girl copied me, I was overjoyed, but when my sister did, I reacted so differently? Why, when all my mother did was love me and fulfil my needs, all I did was criticise her, push her away and take it all for granted? Now that I’m much older and hopefully wiser, I realise that it wasn’t my amazing mother or sister who I had a problem with. It was myself, my fragile ego.
The ego, as coined by Sigmund Freud in psychoanalytic theory, is the portion of human personality that defines a person through interactions with the external world. According to Oprah Winfrey, it “identifies with our self-image, personality, talents, accomplishments and perceived weaknesses . . . [It] draws a line and separates you from everyone else.”
In other words, things like your career, relationship status, cultural background, likes and dislikes, hobbies, all combine to form an ego structure; a unique identity. And when this identity is threatened—by words of criticism, the loss of a job or being marginalised—our ego acts defensively, often out of fear.
It’s in early adolescence that the ego structure is often most fragi0le, as teenagers become increasingly self-aware, develop new interests and aspirations, and begin comparing themselves to their peers as a source of self-understanding and self-worth. Hence, the troublesome teen years. Dr Shefali Tsabary, clinical psychologist and author of The Conscious Parent, says, “Our children, young ones under the age of five, they’re not attached to, ‘how do I look?’, ‘am I complete?’. They don’t think, ‘I need to become a lawyer or a scientist, go to an Ivy League School’ to give themselves the stamp of approval. We put this ‘lack’ on them. . . and that’s why children revolt. Either they withdraw because they’ve been shackled with compliance or they revolt.”
To all the parents dealing with troublesome teens, rest assured this is not a personal attack, nor a cause-effect equation to say difficult adolescents are always the product of bad parenting. I certainly wasn’t. On the contrary, I had a great mother and father who were nothing but generous and supportive throughout my entire childhood. The complicated part is that it’s not always parents who put pressure on young people. No matter how great a mother’s love is, sometimes culture, friends, teachers, role models or children themselves teach the younger generation to “earn” their worth through external accomplishments.
In my case, I’d learned to earn my worth. I earned good grades, earnedfriends by being a people-pleaser. Unconsciously, to protect my ego from attack, I projected a “perfect” persona to all those I encountered. But despite my best efforts, I couldn’t keep up the act around my family. They saw a different version of me—my real, egoless self—and even though they accepted it, I didn’t. And, so, the emotional outbursts began. Even though I have the best mum in the world, that didn’t matter if I couldn’t accept myself.
It’s funny how we often treat the people closest to us—those we love and need the most, whose opinions we care about—the worst. But my hunch is that, as the fragile ego struggles to cope with perceived attacks, it looks for someone to blame. And the people closest to us are easy targets.
“If you call your ‘false self ’ out by saying, ‘Oh, that’s my ego flaring up,’ you begin to diminish its power,” says Oprah Winfrey. “You begin to recognise that you are not your past, your social status or the shape of your body. The size of your bank account has no bearing on your true self.” Now that I have learned—and am consciously learning each day—to accept myself and keep my ego in check, my perspective has shifted dramatically.
Learning this has helped me appreciate my mum: my selfless supporter, incredible listener, generous provider, who is not afraid to tell or live out the truth. It’s freed me to show lots of love and appreciation to my sisters, my husband, my dad—everyone I interact with. And most importantly, it’s helped me live out my Christian faith in fresh ways. I’ve learned that who I really am, underneath the ego, is a child of God. Nothing can take that identity away—no strained relationship, personal failure, insecurity, job loss or other attack to my ego.
So, to all the parents dealing with difficult teens, know that it will get better. More likely than not, your child’s emotional outbursts are a result of a threatened ego. They’re confused; they feel insecure. Be conscious of the pressure you may be placing on them. Make them aware that they are more than what they achieve; give them the freedom to fail and support them unconditionally. And tell them all this explicitly.
And to all the kids hating on their parents, please, chill. Recognise that your insecurities might be to blame and that you’re not perfect either. Your parents love you more than life itself, and they’re doing the best they can. And finally, to my mother. Mum, I’m sorry for being such a headache. And thank you for never giving up on me. I love you more than you know.
Happy Mother’s Day.
Maryellen Hacko is assistant editor for Adventist Record magazine. A talented artist, musician and YouTuber, she lives with her husband in Sydney, NSW.