Congratulate me - I am a Parent of a Teenager, or POT. Oh, technically she’s not a teenager - she’ll be just 12 in November. But she’s been well into puberty for a year, and where her body goes, her psyche, behavior and attitude follow.
You know, I’ve done this before. My son, now 44, was once a teenage boy. He did what many boys do - barely spoke to me for several years, and occasionally took my car at night and went Lord knows where. Once he got it stuck in the mud behind a convenience store and the police brought him home. Another time they caught him swimming in the public pool at midnight. He did twenty hours of community service.
Amanda’s mother, now 31, was once a teenage girl. She spoke to me a great deal. She also spoke on the phone a great deal, and I remember our life together as a constant battle to prevent her from using the phone late at night. (This was before cell phones). She ran up over a thousand dollars in phone calls to psychics and sex-chat lines, and I ended by cutting the wires in the phone jack in her room. POTs are sometimes driven to bizarre actions in a desperate and futile attempt to keep some control of the situation.
So here I am on my third go-round. (My stepdaughter Leah doesn’t count, as she lived with her mother, who took the brunt of it.) It should be easier this time, because I’m not doing it alone. All POTs sorely need a woe-sharer and perspective-provider, and Joe is a most magnificent partner. On the other hand, I’m 67, and have been heard to mutter, “I’m too old for this shit.”
Many parents turn to books to help them through all the ages and stages of child-rearing. My Bible is Get out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? by Anthony Wolf, a clinical psychologist. When I’m living with a teenager, I’m always talking to other parents to find out if theirs is as horrible as mine. Wolf’s book is full of dialogues and situations that sound as though he’s been spying on us. It reassures me that this is all normal, and I’m not alone.
A strange experience for POTs is to hear about their child from other adults - coaches, teachers, friends’ parents. We met last week with all of Amanda’s teachers, and the praise flew around the room - responsible, mature, engaged, willing, bright, asks good questions. The one that moved me close to tears was ‘happy.’ But I did wonder if they had the right child. It’s enough to make you believe in doppelgangers.
Wolf says the child self and the becoming-adult self live side by side in the teenager, and if things are going right, she will reserve the child-self for home, while the outside world gets the grown-up. “The self that adolescents bring out to deal with the world is in fact a truer reflection of the level of maturity that they have achieved.”
The adolescent’s job is to break away from her parents. The stronger the bond, the fiercer the struggle. And the feelings are ambivalent. It wasn’t all that bad being a little kid - it’s tough to give up all the perks of childhood and venture out into a world where you’ll have to make your own way and do your own laundry, especially when you secretly fear you won’t be able to. All the feelings of loss and fear distill into anger at those all-powerful creatures, your parents.
out into the world source:flickr.com
Most of my interactions with Amanda are at meals and in the car. In about fifty percent of them I am the target of her contempt. She may tell me that the way I eat apples is disgusting, or ask what that red bump is under my nose. She can express contempt silently, with only a glance or a glare. This morning I put on my turn signal earlier than she considers appropriate, and the scorn shivered about her skin like heat on a pavement.
I usually handle all this loathing pretty well. But sometimes in response to withering contempt, I do wither. I feel despicable and disgusting. Other times I fume silently: ‘All I do for you...you can walk home from the bus stop in the rain...forget about the earrings I was going to buy you...and the Halloween costume? you can just go as a bitch.’ The worst is when I giggle; teenagers hate to be laughed at. But what else can you do when after 60-odd years of eating apples an 11-year-old tells you you’re doing it wrong?
I have read Wolf’s book twice. What I have taken from it is the following: teenagers lie, disobey, and refuse to do household chores. The job of parents is to cope with this. Wolf accepts the reality, doesn’t waste energy in wishing it were different, and advises us how to handle it. “You do not win the battle for control with teenagers.”
The lying is interesting. They will lie adamantly, indignant at your doubt, surrounded by all the evidence that belies them. When called out, they will say something like, ‘oh, I forgot.’ Wolf gives spot-on, very amusing examples of this, and says, “If the trustworthiness of teenagers is the foundation of integrity in our society, we are in big trouble....Lying is bad. I am not defending it. But it is also the normal response of the vast majority of teenagers either to cover up a wrong or to manipulate a situation to advance their cause.” All we can do is verify when possible, especially if the issue is important, and call them on their lies.
Though adolescent in her moods and attitudes, Amanda is still only 11. Her sins are mostly venial: leaving dirty dishes in her room, watching Netflix when she’s used up all her screen time, putting on makeup the minute she’s out of my sight. Sex, drugs and booze are still a little way down the road, though I know we’ll get there sooner than I wish. But Wolf’s general approach to disobedience applies to all levels of crime. We must not abandon our rules and requirements, but restate them firmly each time they are ignored. We should be judicious in devising and imposing consequences Piling consequence on consequence produces only a thick book of crimes and punishments, and a child grounded until she is 37. We probably don’t want them around that long.
As for refusing to do chores: “An absolute fact of adolescence is that if you do not nag, they will not do what you want...If having a teenager do nothing is acceptable to you, then do not nag. But if it is not, you are stuck with nagging.”
I always find myself surprised when it works. I tell her to change the kitty litter and walk away before she can argue. I repeat it every hour or so, always with no emotional involvement. She waits long enough to make it clear that she’s doing it only because it suits her, not because she has to obey me, and then she goes into the atrium and cleans the litter.
Teenagers are masters of manipulation and diversion, swift to turn a discussion of homework or chores or curfews into an emotional battle with “I’m just stupid and I’m dropping out of school,” “it’s not fair,” “you don’t trust me. ” Parents have to stick to the issue at hand. They must try not to let the outrageous statements and their own guilt and uncertainty pull them into the maelstrom. When our teenagers are hysterical, we must try not to be, and reserve our creative counterattacks for our rich fantasy life.
In the face of insults, defiance, and deceit we should continue providing the basic maintenance they need (feed them, buy them clothes and school supplies, drive them here and there) as well as go on doing all the loving, special things we used to do so happily when they were young and adorable. If we followed the rule of Tit for Tat, our children would probably starve and go naked, and we would certainly have to cancel Christmas, birthdays, and all family outings.
Wolf discusses a good deal more than I have mentioned, always with humor, intelligence, and a startling acceptance of reality. He covers specific problem situations with suggestions as to how we might cope. He does not expect us to be saints during the stormy years, nor to avoid mistakes. But he helps us to trust our judgment, and assures us that it is very likely our child will turn out to be an ok human being. Not all teenagers are hellions. But if you or someone you love is raising one who is, I strongly recommend this book.
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