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Imposter Parent, Imposter Teens

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Photo by Sol Vazquez Cantero

I’ve been watching my kids find their way at the start of this school year, trying on new identities as 6th-9th-12th graders, and it’s been making me think of what it’s like to feel like an imposter. Other adolescents I’ve talked to this month have also expressed insecurities about starting school, starting their own new identities in their new grades, with their new teachers and friends.

The thing is, I know what it feels like to feel insecure — in my parenting, in my job, in my social interactions. With parenting, I talk to parents with insecurities every day.

Try to remember what it was like when you first brought your child home from the hospital after birth. No matter how many classes you went to, books you read, parents you consulted, doctors you interviewed — no matter how prepared you were — when that newborn baby wailed in the middle of the night, you likely felt a bit like being an imposter.

How did I get here? Yesterday I was not a parent, and today I’m a parent, just like that. The funny thing is, I don’t feel much more confident or secure in my role as a parent today than I did when I wasn’t a parent yesterday.

Bringing home a newborn was not the only time I have felt like an imposter. In medical school, I was allowed to write orders. “This patient needs ibuprofen 400 mg every 8 hours for 2 days.” But the nurse or respiratory therapist couldn’t follow my orders until they were signed by a “real doctor.” Sometimes the nurse or respiratory therapist stood over my shoulder teaching me, letter by letter, exactly what to write.

After four years of medical school, I got my degree. People called me “doctor” for the first time, but I still felt like an imposter. With a new M.D. behind my name, my orders were valid and the patient could get the medication I ordered without a senior doctor co-signing my orders. But I knew I was no different and knew no more than I had the day before.

After three more years of residency training, I was a bit more confident. All along the way, more senior doctors would tell me to “fake it ‘til you make it.” They taught me every detail of a patient’s care so that, when I was faced with the same patient situation in the future, I could remember what I had learned. We were supposed to introduce ourselves as “doctor” until we believed it ourselves.

In 2005, I walked into my first day as a practicing pediatrician. This time, I was the doctor the patients were coming to for advice. Yet, again, I felt like an imposter. I knew I had no more experience than I had in my last month of residency. It was terrifying.

One of my first patients at the practice was a mom with her newborn baby, who also happened to be her fourth child. I’ll never forget the nurse, Andrea, telling me after she weighed and measured that newborn: “This is a good one for you to see. It’s her fourth baby, so she knows more than we do and won’t have questions.” And Andrea wasn’t wrong. To this day, a check-up or sick visit for a third or fourth child is generally less complicated.

Can you think of a time in your life when you felt like an imposter? I felt like an imposter in my early medical training, and I regularly feel like an imposter with my parenting. Even speaking or writing about parenting, I feel like an imposter, as I’m still learning and screwing up as I go.

Right when you get confident parenting an infant, they become toddlers smacking you in the face and throwing themselves on the ground. You fake it ‘til you make it and know how to handle the tantrums. When you master the preschool years, then you are faced with the social dramas of 4th and 5th grade. When you learn to parent a middle schooler who didn’t make a sports team, then you have a high schooler kicking and pulling away from you, searching for independence, or having her first heartbreak. We all fake it ‘til we make it at every stage.

Today I want you to think about a time in your life when you felt like an imposter, when you were supposed to act like you knew what you were doing but, on the inside, you felt like everyone was watching and judging you and you were internally insecure and crumbling.

And then I want you to extrapolate that to your teen and tween sons and daughters, because in a lot of ways, the entirety of adolescence feels like periodic imposter syndrome.

After the first day of high school recently, my son came home and declared that “being a freshman is like the bottom of the social ladder. Even below kindergarten.” My husband and I laughed and told him he was not wrong.

The most secure, confident teenager has insecurities and wants a group. The strongest, most talented adolescent gets her heart broken. It’s impossible to make it through adolescence without some stumbles. Much like us, they have to fake it until they make it.

Adolescents are tribal, and everything goes better for them if they have a group to blend into. So our kids gravitate toward sports or choir, theater or student council, debate or cheer. When they were in elementary school, we could control their groups, couldn’t we? Don’t like Sara’s attitude? Be conveniently unavailable to drive your daughter to her house. Want your daughter to socialize with smart, sweet Sally? Invite her to the birthday party, try to be friends with Sally’s mom.

But at our kids’ ages, in middle and high school, we have to let them go a little bit, which isn’t easy. We have to trust them to find their own way and their own friends during an egocentric time in their lives when they think the whole world revolves around them.

Take yourself back to your middle or high school for a minute.

Do you remember how awful it was to have to change clothes in the gym with everyone around?

Do you remember having a giant pimple on your face, and it seemed like everyone in the school was seeing it under a magnifying glass?

Do you remember the electrified air when you walked by your first crush, every flip of the hair and cross of the legs calculated in case he or she was looking?

Do you remember the fear of being on your period and having a leak onto your 8th grade clothes?

The horror if your 9th grade teacher called on you when there were upperclassmen in the room?

Wearing the wrong thing?

Saying the wrong thing?

Is there anyone whose son or daughter hasn’t experienced not being invited to an event, or hearing that someone talked about her behind her back, or seeing a photo of herself that made her doubt her beauty and strength?

And most of us didn’t have to deal with social media when we were growing up. I can’t even imagine the social pressures that come with that stress.

Regardless, I want to remind you all of this, because while it can be hard to be the parent of an adolescent, it is also truly hard to be an adolescent some days. The best we can do for our sons and daughters is to be there for them as they try on different identities and try to figure out who they are instead of who we want them to be. Be the safe place where they don’t have to be an imposter, where they can just put down the mask and be themselves.

Lately in my practice, I’ve talked to a lot of children who are heading back to the classroom. Some were in virtual school the entire last school year and three months of the prior one. Some started at a new school and never set foot in the building last year, so this year they are new all over again, feeling like imposters.

I am starting to see slow improvements in the general mental health of the teens I talk to, but last year was rough. Being an adolescent in a global pandemic is challenging.

There are two main things that helped me move from feeling like an imposter-syndrome pediatrician to feeling like a pediatrician.

First, it was, like all of the senior doctors told me, faking it until I made it. That’s what our kids have to do, too. Somewhere in the middle of the 7th or 11th grade year, they will find their people and group and footing. And by 8th grade or 12th grade, they’ll have made it, at least until next year when they advance to high school or college and have to fake it again. Faking it, feeling insecure, and feeling vulnerable are all very hard. Finding the place you belong takes a lot of energy.

The result of that stress might look like your teen stomping off to her room or telling you the sound of your breathing is too loud, or shouting “leave me alone” from the hallway, or telling you you’re “the most annoying person in the world.” Every one of these has happened to me recently.

It’s easier to have compassion as a parent when you think about how stressful it is to feel like an imposter. Sometimes we can help them fake it until they make it by not saying what we want to say and just letting them be.

Second, what got me through my imposter syndrome was having smarter people -- nurses, respiratory therapists, janitors, doctors, patients -- show me and teach me until I was confident in my own abilities. And that’s where we come in, because we are the senior humans, the survivors of adolescence, the ones who have made it, at least in their eyes.

It’s OK if they don’t know everything, and it’s OK if we don’t know everything as parents. In order to not feel like an imposter anymore, you just have to keep showing up and putting in the work, knowing it’s OK to make mistakes. One of the best ways we help them is to try to see life from their perspective and remember what it felt like to find our way as a 13-, 15-, or 17-year-old, especially at the beginning of a school year or transitional year.

Month by month in my pediatric practice, as I showed up and treated infant after child after adolescent, I finally started to believe in my abilities, and that is what will happen with our kids as well. We just have to be sure that we build them up during the process instead of constantly analyzing, criticizing and, ultimately, bringing them down.

We can tell them stories from when we felt insecure. Some days, we may just tell them to grit their teeth and get through one day at a time, until they don’t feel like an imposter anymore. And just like the senior physicians who called me “doctor” when I didn’t feel like the title applied, it is our job to tell our sons and daughters they are smart and beautiful and strong until they believe it themselves.

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