Medieval literature is rife with tales of the swapped child, or changeling: a troll switched with a human child under the cloak of nighttime. It’s a haunting theme. According to scholars, the changeling character justified unexplained diseases or disorders. Anyone who has spent time with teenagers knows it is also the only explanation for what happens when our kids hit puberty.
Our teenagers are unrecognizable, but there is hope. My husband and I have witnessed the transformation of our own children from darlings to demons—doesn’t it happen overnight?—and we can see the light at the end of the god-awful tunnel. More importantly, I served in the trenches otherwise known as high-school English class, where I had before me a laboratory. I observed some champion parenting and I saw some parents fail their children. Mine is wisdom learned in desperation. Few things are so humbling as realizing your clever lesson on subordinate clauses matters nothing to a teenager struggling to find her place in the world, keep her skin clear, or gain the attention of that cute guy in the corner. High school students stand on the precipice of leaving the nest and starting lives on their own. They are at a unique moment in time when they crave independence and boundaries simultaneously, often in equal measure. They are dizzyingly close to becoming the adults they will soon be, yet they are light years away. They are difficult, rebellious, confused, brilliant, impetuous, impulsive, prone to drama, and really, really stupid.
Once in a while, one of these adolescents gets lost in the forest of despair. She loses hope. He forgets feelings are temporary. Before we can help them find their way to a clearing, where they can breathe and see and feel okay again, they choose to leave us. It is a deeply unhappy fact that we have lost some of the children I have cared about. Some of the teenagers I tried to help didn’t make it; some got lost without me guessing anything was wrong. Some of them have committed suicide or made reckless choices that have killed them. Others have gone down paths that have left them lost in countless ways. Many others have strayed, have stood on the edge of the abyss, and have found their way back. These happy stories we celebrate with a metaphorical fatted calf, because those who were lost are found.
What I have learned is based on years of very real, very raw relationships with teenagers. As my children turned into people I did not recognize, who suddenly spit venom at me whenever I entered a room, I paid attention to what other parents did. It has been a hard-scrabble, often ugly process, marked more by failure than grace. Raising teenagers into responsible adulthood takes grit and generosity and super-human tenacity. It is not for the faint of heart. It might threaten to destroy you and your family and everything you hold dear. But raising adolescents to adulthood can also be the richest and most redeeming thing you have ever done. I promise you, even when you don’t recognize them, they are the same people whose very existence once brought you unmeasured joy. Even when they act like otherworldly, supernatural, switched-in-the-night beasts, our teenagers are worth saving.