When Parental Authority is Undermined

April 15, 2021

For many women, learning to step into our genuine, inner authority will be a major piece of psychological work. The challenges of parenting can be part of what helps us find our firm stance, as we discern what values matter most to us, and become used to inhabiting our own “no” in the face of pressures from both our children and the culture. We may decide, for example, to go against the collective grain, and keep video games out of our home as our children’s friends all begin to play them. Standing up for our values will take courage and an integrated sense of our own deep knowing about what matters most to us.

Recently, I have heard stories in my practice of a mother’s authority being challenged on a different level. As our children grow older, we may find that our authority as parents is challenged by those around us, including other parents. As our children pass through the perilous terrain of adolescence, it is natural that they look outside the family for mentors to guide them to adulthood. At this stage, children need to separate from their family of origin psychologically, a process that requires discernment about what parental values will be kept, and which will be jettisoned. It is normal for there to be some friction between parents and children at this time. But when forces outside the family work to undermine parental authority at this point in a child’s development, a normal stage of negotiating separation can become a wedge inappropriately driven between parent and child. At such a time, it may be important for parents to stand up and reassert their authority in the interest of protecting their child.

My client Emily gave me permission to share the following story. Names and details have been altered to protect privacy. When Emily’s daughter Clara was 13, she made friends with a girl slightly older than her named Gretchen. Emily took an immediate liking to Gretchen and Gretchen’s mom Andrea. According to Emily, Gretchen’s family was artistic, eccentric, and interesting. Andrea and Gretchen welcomed Clara into their lives, and it wasn’t long before she was spending part of almost every day at their house. At first, Emily was pleased to see that Andrea and Gretchen were exposing Clara to new and interesting things. Emily gave permission for Clara to accompany them on occasional weekend camping trip with other families.

But Emily started to notice some changes in Clara. After spending time at Gretchen’s house, Clara would return home sullen and irritable, looking for any excuse to pick a fight with her parents. She became withdrawn, and spent most of her time alone in her room. She had always enjoyed accompanying her parents in their occasional attendance at a Unitarian church, but now she flatly refused, and became angry when asked whether she wanted to go. Emily was perplexed. Probing her daughter to understand what was going on, she asked Clara whether spending time with Gretchen made her unhappy. “No!” Clara responded with great heat. “You’re the ones who make me unhappy!”

Fortunately, Emily was now alert to the fact that something was amiss. She began doing some research into the “camping trips” that Clara had attended, and learned more about the values and beliefs of Andrea and her family. It turns out that Clara’s friend and her parents were part of a new age cult. They had effectively been indoctrinating Clara into their belief system, and while doing so, had undermined Clara’s attachment and connection with her mom and dad – and Emily’s parental authority. Once Emily realized what was going on, she moved deftly to re-establish her role in her daughter’s life, while helping her daughter get some healthy distance from Gretchen and her family.

When Emily told me about this incident, I could sense her fear. Had Clara been older, had things gone a little further, Clara might have estranged herself from her parents under the undue influence of Andrea and the cult. Emily also felt angry – at Andrea, but also at herself. She could see that she had been taken in by the charm of Andrea and her family, and that it had been convenient for her to let Clara become so attached to them.

Most parents won’t face a situation as extreme as Emily’s. However, many of us can relate to a time when someone outside the family came to have an inappropriate amount of influence over our child. At such a time, it can be important to be honest with ourselves about the need to take the time to reconnect with our children. It is our responsibility to make sure that we are the primary influence in our children’s lives. Afterall, it is likely that no one cares for or knows our children as well as we do.

In speaking about this incident, Emily and I referenced the fairy tale “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” In the tale, the town of Hamelin is overrun by rats. The townspeople hire a piper with the magical ability to lure rats to their death with his music. When the townspeople neglect to pay the piper his fee, he lures the town’s children away. Interestingly, this tale is, as far as I can determine, the only Grimm’s fairy tale that is based on an actual event. The earliest written record from the town of Hamelin in Lower Saxony is a 1384 document that states, “It is 100 years since our children left.” According to historical records, a large number of the town’s children disappeared or perished sometime in the 13th century, though the cause remains a mystery. The fairy tale is a fitting metaphor for those times when we may have allowed someone to exercise an inappropriate degree of influence over our child.

Reconnecting with our child in the aftermath of a disruption in our connection will require time and careful attention. Spending time with our child engaging in fun activities of his or her choice is a good way to cultivate a renewed attachment. We will also need to assert our parental authority in a loving and caring way. Re-establishing sensible boundaries and making our expectations clear will be important ways that we do this.

In 2006, Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate published their important and bestselling book Hold onto Your Kids in which they discuss the importance of parents being the most important and influential people in their children’s lives. There is much in this book relevant to the topic covered in this blog. Readers can also watch a lecture on the same subject by Dr. Mate.

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

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