Sharing music saved my relationship with my teenager

It started from an accident. At the suggestion of a friend, I sent my 15-year-old the song “If You’re Feeling Sinister” by Bella and Sebastian.

“Cool song,” she texted back. “I like.” It was only five words, but it was the most she had intentionally said to me in months.

Over the past few years, my once lively daughter has become sullen, with anger and resentment swirling around her. Several factors seemed to contribute to this. Covid-19 certainly played a big part in her blackout, depriving her of prom, graduation, and the busy social life that fed her extroverted personality. But her friends suffered losses too, and I didn’t know anyone who hid in their rooms and stopped talking to their parents. Somehow I became an enemy, and nothing seemed to bridge the growing chasm between us.

We’ve been a team for years. A single mother, I relied on her and she relied on me, more than was usual in a mother-daughter relationship. But all that has changed.

“I’m trying to understand you,” I told her one day, careful not to make eye contact.

“I just don’t want you to know me anymore,” she replied. “I don’t even know!”

She was right, of course. How could I know her if she doesn’t know herself? It became clear to me that our unusual closeness was actually part of the problem. She had to break away from me, but how could she do that while I was trying to support her? We needed a new way to connect.

A few hours after her text, during which I could hear Bella and Sebastian’s song playing on loop, she came out of her room and sat down to lunch with her sister and me for the first time in weeks. I tried to engage her, asking a few tentative questions: How was her science project going, where is her best friend camping this summer? It soon became clear that I had broken it. She rushed to her room and slammed the door behind her.

As a psychologist, I trade words – I felt out of my depth communicating through music. So I called my friend Shannon Lorraine, a former musician in the Seattle band Withholders.

“Try this,” she said, “On a Plane Over the Sea,” by Hotel Neutral Milk. But don’t get too excited when she shows interest. Play it cool.”

I sent my daughter the song and suppressed my desire to follow it up with lyrics. This time she left her room for a few hours. I called Shannon and told her, “I feel like you’re a snake charmer. Tell me what to do next.”

She continued recommending songs and gradually the cloud around us cleared a little. But words were still hard to come by.

In the end, Shannon ran out of referrals. I let Spotify take over for a while and it offered songs by bands I’d never heard of: The Postal Service, Françoise Hardy, Beirut. But if I wanted a relationship with my daughter, I realized I couldn’t rely on an algorithm, so I started making my own suggestions: Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, The Cure, and my childhood favorite—Malvina Reynolds. They were little snippets of my past, of me, that I hoped would connect us in ways that words seemingly couldn’t.

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