As early as age ten, kids begin cultivating habits and attitudes which blossom into full-fledged adolescence. It can be a shock because suddenly everything stops making sense. Parents tend to think their kids are gone for good. Because the changes in their personalities seem so sudden, aggressive and frightening, we assume they turn into different people. We think these new behaviors and attitudes are signs of their burgeoning (and awful) adult personalities. Generally, this just isn't true. (See Chapter 2, Part 1.)
Veteran teachers are the perfect people to ask, “Is my kid going to be okay?” because they see it all—and they see it year after year. They also see freshmen grow into seniors and then college students and even grown-up professionals. Sometimes, all a parent really needs to hear is, “This too shall pass.” Because a heck of a lot of the time, it does.
There is no doubt teens require different parenting skills and tactics than they did when they were younger. The whole family needs to adjust to meet their changing needs and demands and abject craziness. They are difficult but they are vulnerable, and parents can do much to guide and protect them. The sooner we recognize signs of adolescent behavior, the sooner we can adjust and properly tend our new landscape. If we can name a thing, we can understand it. If we know what it is, we may be less afraid of it (and I'm here to tell you, teenagers can be pretty scary). Knowing the nature of the beast figures mightily in our ability to tame it. And so. If you've heard one or more of the following come out of your mouth lately, step back and take inventory. Is it possible you have an adolescent on your hands? (Take heart: your kids aren't rotten or ruined--at least not permanently. They're just entering the wasteland of adolescence.)
Well, Friends, where do you stand? If you recognize yourself or your child here, welcome to the wonderful, wild world of adolescence!
Further Proof You’re IN IT: teens are like abusive partners
My friends (who are far more civilized than I am) beg me not to say this, but hanging out with a teenager can feel a lot like being a battered spouse. People balk at this analogy because they worry it minimizes or pokes fun at the very real and serious problem of domestic violence. I assure you, levity is not my intent. I use this model of dysfunction precisely because it is so grave and the patterns of abuse are so predictable and devastating.
Here’s what I have observed with both my students and my own kids: parents grow used to an icy distance between themselves and their teens. We learn to expect harsh criticism of our shoes, our living-room furniture, our ideas about life, the sound of our voices when we express such ideas. We seldom do anything right. Our presence—pretty much anywhere—might invoke humiliation or rage or both. Verbal insults in public become so commonplace we hardly notice anymore. And then, for some reason—we learn not to ask too many questions—our child treats us well. She says, “I love you, Mom.” He says, “Thank you, Dad.” He clears his own dishes or she remembers our birthday without being prompted. And then, like the battered spouse, we forgive and forget. We see a Ray of Hope in the Darkness! We think, it hasn’t been that bad! He loves me! She was nice to me! I can survive another day! And then the magic moment melts away, leaving the changeling who has replaced your child to continue dispensing that daily dose of nastiness.
Sounds similar to the patterns of an abusive relationship, no? Perhaps the analogy is too harsh, but either way, it’s crazy-making. Living with—and trying to communicate with—adolescents is like being on a carnival ride that looks fun and innocent, but once you are strapped in for good, it hurls you so painfully through time and space you wonder if a sadistic clown is at the helm. The whole world looks confusing and scary when you’re stuck on a joyride-gone-bad. This, my friends, is the reality of raising teens.
I am here to tell you they do mature. One of the great joys of teaching is having these very same troublemakers check back six or seven or eight years later to tell you all about their plans for grad school or the Peace Corps or a real-live paying job. In the meantime, it’s good to know what we are up against.
Developmental Reminder: Ten Things You Can’t Expect from a Teenager
If you’re butting heads with someone this age, there are a few things you should keep in mind. Through no fault of their own, most people aged 12 to 15 in middle America simply cannot be expected to do certain things.
I know all this because teaching a class of freshmen feels like being trapped with a herd of knife-bearing three-year-olds. A vocabulary lesson can erupt into chaos if the teacher relaxes for even a moment. The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry, as Steinbeck reminds us in that perennial freshman-English favorite. Teachers make lesson plans and students thwart them. Inventing creative, surprising, specific ways to torture us is a teenager's job description. It is impossible to prepare; there is no rule book; spending time with teenagers is confusing, frustrating, humbling, and exhausting.
Teachers learn the hard way about lesson plans. Like any plans we have for our children, they do not exist in a vacuum. We teach actual, live human beings and it gets pretty messy. If we expect teenagers to play along and respect the rules of the game, we’re doomed. As teachers and parents know (but I marvel at my perpetual need to be reminded), our children seldom play by the rules. Instead, they dress like hookers or draw penis graffiti on their notebooks. We have to formulate a new game plan when their hormones take over.
Teenagers are Tough. But They're Worth It.
On the bright side, living with teenagers keeps us in the moment. They are a constant invitation to remain flexible, keep learning, and see the world through new eyes. Meeting them where they are requires vigilance and super-human tenacity, but we know it's worth it. When we break through a sullen stare and connect with a teenager, when we get a glimpse of the funny, confident, fascinating grown-up lurking behind the angst (almost but not-quite ready to see the light of day) we can see it's worth it. Staying on the sunny side of the street is easier said than done when we're faced with real-live hooligans, but it’s worth it every single time.
Up Next: It’s Not Their Fault: Consider the Teenaged Brain.
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 (Even When They Act Like They Don't)
Chapter Two, Part One: "What Happened to My Kid?" A Parent's Lament