Because my job is writing books for, about, and from the perspectives of young teens, I stay in close touch with people who are in middle and high school. I also started writing when memories of painfully awkward cafeteria snubs and flirtations were still hideously fresh, so I never got to experience the blissful amnesia about adolescence that is the well-earned compensation for achy knees. On the other hand, I have two kids of my own, and the emerging wrinkles to prove it. So I come to you, my fellow parents, in a spirit of camaraderie, to share both our most common assumptions and the adamant refutations of them that I’ve collected along the way:
They hate us.
Hate is a strong word. Usually, our teens are merely mortally embarrassed by us. They fear they are irreversibly like us, and/or that our weirdness reflects badly on them right when they don’t have much coolness to spare. Also, they often hate how much they need and love us, exactly when they want to not.
Other times they actually do just hate us.
They never listen.
They occasionally do. They often don’t do what we tell them to, but that’s not the same as not listening. They are too busy asserting their independence, or possibly playing GTA V. Or, they didn’t hear us! (Sure.) But then they’ll hear much more than we realize we’re saying. What imprints on them most indelibly, like a tattoo they better not get, is what we communicate about who they are. It’s a delicate dance, encouraging them to reach their potential and pick up their socks, yet not labeling them as lazy, stupid, rude, or worse.
They don’t communicate.
They may no longer clamber onto our laps to babble enthusiastically about their day, but they still want to connect as much (though usually not at the same time) as we do. Car rides are good for this, with the lack of eye contact and the enforced togetherness. Another good spur is to ask for their help or opinion, and then stay quiet and receptive while they respond. It’s not easy, putting down your phone and fully attending — but the payoff is huge. Their insightful analysis may surprise you. It’s also a precious chance to hear how they think. But mostly it’s just a kind, generous thing to do. Think about how deeply good it feels to have somebody truly listen to you. Plus if you model being a genuine and respectful listener, your teen might eventually learn to reciprocate.
You went through similar things as a teen, so you have good advice to share.
Okay, you clearly survived your teen years, not that long ago. But if you force yourself to remember in detail the anguish of a specific horrible event from then, you’ll recall that clueless-adult-imposed solutions are maddening, not helpful. But you’re not clueless the way those adults were? Fine. What if you came home today in a state – after the worst imaginable day of work, needing simply to rant and complain – and your confidant said something like Well it’s not the end of the world? Or told you here’s how to solve the problem… Would you be comforted?
A broken heart or a rising panic feels awful no matter your age or what caused it. Often a loving listener is all that’s needed. Not advice. Definitely not minimizing condescension. Maybe some ice cream straight from the container, though.
They will always be like this.
It’s the terrifying thought that strikes smack in the middle of your teen’s worst behavior: this is the kind of person my child has become. I have failed at the most important job of my life because my kid is rude, a failure, a nasty jerk, a selfish clod; just like her other parent – or worse, just like ME. And I am worse than this foul thing I’ve reared, because who raises a beast like this?
But just as she will not always win the game, or get the lead or an A, or stick up for the kid who’s being teased on the playground the way she did so naturally that time – this horrible persona won’t be the lasting totality, either.
We’re all so complex. He is not simply his best self or his worst. She is neither the baby she was nor the adult she’ll eventually be. Find times amid the clamorous whirl of homework and overfilled schedules and inevitable arguments to laugh with your teens; they’re increasingly funny and sweet, and will show it when they can relax around you. Remind them about the awesome aspects of their personalities and review your Lamaze breathing to get through the rest.