Parenting Case Study: Where Did My Baby Go?
Under the florescent lights of the school gym, Nancy’s eyes welled with tears. In a voice touched with panic and sadness she asked me, “Is he going to be okay?” Her son Ben—normally an academic superstar—was carrying a solid ‘D’ in my freshman English class and hadn’t turned in a scrap of homework for six weeks. Worse yet, she said, he had become sullen and secretive. His usual gregarious personality and passion for joke-telling had morphed into bitterness, sarcasm and refusal to make conversation with anyone—even family and friends he had recently adored. He had become mean, she explained as she choked back her sobs, especially to his parents and siblings, which was making everyone miserable. Ben’s insults had become so nasty and so personal it was hard to ignore him and act like everything was okay.
Ben had been a motivated, champion swimmer since he was quite young. His passion—along with his training and competition—had shaped the family’s schedule for years. Now, all of a sudden, Ben seemed to resent both the sport and his parents’ support. He was verbally abusive when they woke him for morning practice and refused to keep track of his own equipment. When Nancy scolded him for another missing pair of trunks or goggles, Ben would threaten to quit swimming forever and swear he hated it, anyway. As a matter of fact, she admitted, a couple of weeks ago Ben had skipped out on afternoon workout to hang out in a nearby park. He lied about it to his parents—which angered them—but his response upon getting caught absolutely flummoxed them. Pressed to explain his actions, Ben just shrugged his shoulders and mumbled. Part of the trouble, Nancy surmised, was his new group of friends. Ben seemed to have dropped all the buddies he’d grown up with—good kids whom his parents knew and loved—in favor of some awfully sketchy characters.
Nancy’s hardworking son had turned lazy. The boy once so passionate about so many pursuits —model rockets, growing tomatoes, reading Harry Potter—had become deeply apathetic about every single thing under the sun. The social child with the engaging personality had isolated himself from the world. “He would be plugged into his headphones 24 hours a day if we let him,” Nancy cried. “I just don’t know what happened. It’s like my son is gone.” She asked again, “Is he going to be okay?”
Who Left the Demon in the Bed?
If you have adolescent children, Nancy’s lament at a parent-teacher conference might sound familiar. Whether you feel like you are losing your family, your hair, your tenuous grip on reality, or your ever-loving mind, once your kids hit puberty your life gets jacked-up, and fast. Hang in there, moms and dads . . . you’re not alone. We should definitely talk about it over a glass of wine. As soon as possible. Preferably someplace public, away from sharp objects, and filled with reasonable, peaceful people over the age of 30. Who will bring us more wine.
I mean it. Let’s make a date.
If, on the other hand, your kids are slightly younger—say, under the age of ten or eleven—listen up. If they still generally like you and smell pretty good most of the time, drop everything right now and go smell them. I mean it—put your nose as far into their personal spaces as they will allow and inhale the sweet aroma of them. If they will still let you smother them with kisses, do that too. Do it while you still can, my friend, because soon, all that is going to change. (Once you have finished your smelling and kissing, please return to this manuscript. It all turns in the blink of an eye and you might as well start preparing. But hang on tight – what you are about to hear may make your head spin. In this case, smell again. Kiss again. Repeat.)
Medieval literature is rife with tales of the swapped child, or changeling: a troll or faerie switched with a human child under the cloak of nighttime. It’s a haunting theme: parents find hideous, malformed beasts in place of their cherubic, beautiful children. Scholars tell us the trope helped people justify unexplained diseases and disorders. Anyone who has spent time with teenagers knows it is also the only explanation for what happens when our kids hit puberty. Sweet and loving daughters and sons are replaced—it seems like it happens overnight—by unrecognizable creatures.
I’ll tell you the worst part: it sneaks up on you. There is no formal announcement: "Mom, Dad, I've made my transition into adolescence! Things are about to get real." Puberty comes like a thief in the night, and there is little you can do to prepare yourself. If you are like me, you knew the adolescent years would be tough. You knew because you were once a teenager yourself. You may, in fact, have uttered words to this effect: “Dear God, I hope my kid doesn’t act like me . . . . “ Most probably you heard the parents’ curse: “I hope someday you have a kid of your own who acts just like you . . . . “ You have read parenting books, attended seminars, baked millions of cupcakes and stayed involved in their schools. You secretly pat yourself on the back about how well your kids are turning out and what a great job you are doing not repeating the mistakes your parents made. You are prepared for—almost looking forward to—the kooky teen antics which will challenge your family someday, because you know you’ve got this.
Oh, Dear Reader. Brace yourself. It happens overnight . . . and it is ugly.
Up Next: YOU ARE HERE: How to Tell You've Entered Teenage Wasteland (even if your kid is only 11 or 12)
This is the first part of Chapter Two of my in-progress manuscript. Earlier chapters:
Chapter One, Part One: You Are Not a Failure and You Are Not Alone
Chapter One, Part Two: Teenagers Need Us
Beyond Mama Bear Live Event! September 29, 2016, Denver South HS (presented by Denver South PTSA). Free and open to all: please join us!