Cherish the good in your teen

May 4, 2011

I could hear the phone vibrate through the wall that separates our bedrooms. It was 10:30 on a school night, and the texts were flying fast and furious in the room next door.

I stormed into my 15-year-old son’s bedroom to find his thumbs typing away on what was probably his 300th text of the day.

“Do you know what time it is?” I fumed. “This has to stop, or I’m taking the phone away from you after 10 p.m.”

Andrew looked up at me not with the cold stare of teenage rage that I have come to know on occasion. There was no defiance in his blue-green eyes, only confusion.

“Mom, don’t take my phone. Please don’t take my phone. I get good grades; I do what you want me to do around the house; I have nice friends; I play sports.” He paused and looked up at me and said plaintively, “I’m a good kid.”


(Photodisc/Getty Images)

One of the joys, and frustrations, of parenting teenagers is when they out-reason you.

As the mother of twin teenage boys, I am struck by how much raising teenagers is like raising 2-year-olds. They are testing a foreign environment; they want to push limits. Defiance is seen not as a strategy to be employed judiciously so much as an operating system.

Yes, we tell ourselves, the stakes are higher for teenagers. It’s about getting into the right college, not the right preschool. It’s about crashing the car, not about crashing the Big Wheel. It’s about wounds that cannot be kissed away by a mom or salved by a SpongeBob bandage.

But one of the great axioms of parenting 2-year-olds applies even more to teenagers:

Catch them being good.

My kids are not perfect, far from it. There have been the occasional fights at school; they play too many violent video games; they occasionally let slip language that I fear they’ve picked up from me.

But teens, by and large, get a bad rap from adults who are scared by a world that threatens to overwhelm them, let alone their neophyte children, and who tend to extrapolate the worst from every scenario.

No, we should not ignore the Columbines or the dangers of the Internet. We should be aware that bad things happen in good families. We must be ever vigilant and should prepare our kids for the rigors of the real world.

But we should also recognize and celebrate the small moments that indicate that the surly, grumbling mini-adults we live with are well on their way to being functional, thoughtful adults. And research shows that we should not expect them to process information in the same way — or even in the same time frame — that we do.

Consider:

- You may think that the breakfast table or the drive to school is a wonderful time to get caught up with your kid. Think again: Research shows that your teen probably needs nearly two hours more sleep than you do (7.5 hours for an adult compared with as much as 9.2 for teenagers). And he needs it later than you do. Teens are just wired to stay up — and get up later — than adults.

Want to have a meaningful conversation with your son? The ride home from school or when you poke your head in to turn out the lights are much better bets.

- Your once-easygoing daughter may blow minor annoyances out of proportion while being unable to manage such routine matters as where she left her shoes. Blame her brain. Studies by University of Utah professor Deborah Yurgelun-Todd have showed that teens have a much harder time identifying emotions and even use a different part of their brain than adults when trying to.

“The adolescent brain is less able to control ... stresses,” says Daniel Weinberger of the National Institute of Mental Health.

Hmmm. Sort of sounds like the 2-year-old brain, doesn’t it?

Parenting teens requires the same infinite patience that parenting 2-year-olds does. But by the time our kids get to be teens, we are tired. Our nerves are worn thin, and we think that these teens should have figured it out by now.

But that’s our problem, not our teens’. They need us as much as those 2-year-olds did, just in more complex and unpredictable ways. And just as we endlessly praised our toddler for putting away his blocks, we must find ways to praise (without, horror of horrors, embarrassing) our teens. To send the message that they are fundamentally good people in what is a fundamentally good world.

For the record, I relented on the phone issue. In part because I knew that sheer fatigue rarely allows Andrew to stay awake much past 10:30 anyway. In part because I knew what he was doing was really just the 2011 version of what I had done when I was his age.

Mostly I relented because Andrew was right. He is a good kid. Not perfect, but good. And on that night, that was more than enough to savor.

Tracy Grant, the editor of KidsPost, will write about parenting issues in Local Living every other week. Send questions, ideas and rants to grantt@washpost.com.

Editor’s note

Today we are excited to introduce additions to Local Living in print and online that broaden our coverage of parenting. Tracy Grant, the editor of KidsPost and mother of twin teenage boys, channels years of journalistic and personal experience with kids into a biweekly column that mixes opinion and advice. Online, our On Parenting blog is a resource for parents in the Washington area and beyond. Blogger Janice D’Arcy has written about talking to your kids about Osama bin Laden’s death and navigating Nationals Park with little ones. We hope you enjoy these new features. Please e-mail us at localliving@washpost.com and let us know what you think.

Liz Seymour, Local Living editor

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