Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Roseanne & the Next Generation... Cultivating Trust for the Older Adopted Child in the New Age of Social Media

With the television on for background noise while I was working at my computer, I happened to catch an episode of the television show, Roseanne the other day. It only took a few minutes before I became completely distracted by the episode’s focus on the unrelenting conflict between Roseanne’s dumbfounded parent and her fast-emerging teen daughter, Becky. Roseanne might as well have been a single parent for this episode, as her husband, Dan, felt compelled to maintain a neutral position—”Just like Switzerland!” an exasperated Roseanne shouted at him. In its day, Roseanne frequently was touted for its wit and realism in the portrayal of the all-too often vexing task of parenting in this fast paced world we live in. This particular episode’s well-orchestrated storyline brought the viewer in on a glimpse of the turbulence surrounding one parent’s difficulties coming to terms with the abrupt changes that accompany the emerging teen—complete with bad attitudes, angry retorts, slamming doors, the silent treatment, pulling away from the parent’s influence, and the push for greater independence… and privacy.

One of the more poignant scenes transpired when Roseanne was conducting a spring cleaning of sorts in Becky’s bedroom, a rather thin disguise for her ulterior motive: she had hoped to come across any clue as to what was going on that might be causing her daughter’s unseemly behavior. The episode hit its climax when Roseanne spotted Becky’s diary, and had to be convinced it was only right to put it back, unread, so that she’d protect her daughter’s privacy. However, only after she had put it back did she find another diary stowed underneath the mattress. Realizing that the first diary, seen in plain sight was a decoy, the temptation to crack open the “real” diary was even more so. This “real” diary surely held the kind of clues that Roseanne thought would help her best support her daughter. Once again, Roseanne’s sister convinced her that Becky had her right to privacy, and there were some things she simply did not need to know.

Mother and daughter were able to reach a ceasefire after Roseanne admitted to Becky that she had found her diary, but she had held back from reading it out of respect for her privacy. Although this initiated the closure of the episode’s premise, something still did not sit right with me, and then I inadvertently came across its original broadcast date: 1989. Twenty-five years ago! Computers were not widely available and/or utilized as they are now, there was no Internet, and there were no cell phones. Really, the only source of interface teens had with their peers, or anybody else outside of school or at live, social gatherings was the landline phone… at home. It was a completely different world back then.

Teens’ issues surrounding their natural push for independence are the same, and still play out in much the same explosive ways between them and their parents. Yet, the potential for how others today might negatively influence the vulnerable teen is overwhelming for even the more knowledgeable parent to wrestle with. Social media—cell phones, texting, instant messaging, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, FaceTime… all compete for the way a teen may immediately gratify their rather normative need to socialize, and connect with others. Even the most conscientious parent cannot effectively monitor it all, let alone begin to impose the most fundamental limits still needed by even the most grounded teen.

Although privacy was the overt subject being explored in this episode, the actual driving force behind the struggle between Roseanne and Becky was the matter of “trust.” Could Roseanne really trust her normally sensible, loving daughter to use good judgment, and make responsible decisions in the face of those ready to harmfully influence her? Or, can Becky really trust her mother to respect her enough by “letting go” rather than getting into her business, even if it meant letting her make mistakes, and still being supportive? For my purposes as a (single) parent raising a pair of brothers I had adopted from Brazil when they were older, with the eldest at the threshold of his teen years at the time, the prospect of “trust” was a sticky, multi-faceted unknown from the start of our father-son relations. Even today, four years later, I still find myself at odds, forgetting that their trust still often needs to be earned in the face of an unforgiveable past. I have to lean heavily on disciplinary practices that foster open communication, even if it means forsaking old-fashioned punishments designed to set limits and reinforce boundaries.

It did not take long before both my sons had adapted to the mainstream of the American way of life, with its emphasis on immediate gratification and self-absorption famously exploited by our teens today. I watched helplessly as my eldest fast became overtaken by his first cell phone, and then later fall deeper into the abyss of the “new” social mainstream with his first iphone. I had set the precedent from the beginning, and still remind them every so often that it is my right as a parent to instill boundaries and monitor their social media actions to ensure they’d remain safe, respectful, and with at least the semblance of a foothold on reality whenever there was cause for concern.

Phones remain out of sight during “family time”, and they “park” their phones at night in my office at bedtime, keeping at bay any temptation that would disturb their much needed rest. If an inordinate amount of time should go by during the day, and my eldest hasn’t moved from his perch, transfixed by the constant shuffling between texting, games, videos, and his music, he is simply told it’s time to “take a break.” He puts away the phone for the time being (if he doesn’t want me to take it away from him, only to get it back at my convenience rather than his), unless he should be called to answer the odd text. I also might go into their phones and run through whatever texts, pictures, Facebook rants, etc. that are available, enabling me to ensure their good judgment, mostly when I have cause for particular concern. Even so, on the surface, I keep to myself most anything I’d come across, as it would likely be considered only mildly “inappropriate” by the most sanest of adults, even if it happened to concern an unflattering comment about me. As such, perhaps as a function of denial on their part, for the most part, I have still managed to maintain an acceptable level of discretion between us.

I am careful not to hound them on whatever tidbits I’d come across for more than what they are willing to tell me about their personal social lives on their own. Still, it doesn’t stop me from casually broaching an issue linked with a particular string of texts that bears relevance to what normally should be discussed between parent and child—incognito, of course. Self-respect and respect for others has tended to underlie much of what I’d emphasize when attempting to use my information to circumvent potentially acrimonious, very misguided influences. When that’s not enough, and I should happen upon something more serious, such as the girl talking about her cutting habits, or the string of explicit sexting that could have come straight out of a porno movie, I’d command a more direct, open discussion. Even if I seem to be doing most of the talking, at the very least, they usually seem receptive and do listen while I responsibly carry out my parental duty. It’s a delicate balance, but along the way, the greater has been their confidence in being treated more as a partner in the making of adaptive social choices.

The conclusion of the Roseanne episode was simple, yet oh so fitting as Roseanne sat down with her daughter to clear the embittered air between them. “So, here’s my peace offering,” Roseanne proposed as she handed over the screws to Becky for assistance in putting the bedroom door back on its hinges; its removal had glaringly symbolized the breakdown in confidence between them. “You know,” she continued, as she started to hoist the door back upright from the floor, “I guess I don’t understand everything you’re going through, but then again I don’t think you understand everything I’m going through, either. So, I’m giving you back your door because that’s the way I’d want to be treated… So, here’s your door.” That final affirmation seemed to shake Becky out of her dazed disregard for her mother, as she tentatively got up to help with the door. As they worked together to replace the door on its hinges, Roseanne continued, “You can keep it closed whenever you want to. Sometimes, I hope you will open it up and let me in. But no pressure.” Becky could only stare back at Roseanne, as she apparently was fighting back tears that would betray the kind of intense vulnerability teens today still struggle to contend with, and that still justly commands their parents’ prudence.

Dr. Gary Matloff is a licensed psychologist, and a proud single, adoptive father to a pair of brothers, now thirteen and sixteen years-old. He is the author of See You Tomorrow… Reclaiming the Beacon of Hope— A true story about resilience, and the journey of a lifetime for this pair of brothers and their new father against the sometimes all too uncompromising reality of adopting older children and international adoption.


  1. Good Lord!! No wonder teens and particularly adoptees have trust issues!!

    1. It is definitely a more challenging world out there!