Tag Archives: teenager

Teenagers: a Whole New Relationship

I (Dave) had a conversation with a mom recently who had some concerns about her teenage son. These concerns were of the normal kind: he’s becoming more remote, less talkative, seemingly out-of-reach for this home-schooling mom who has been actively involved in his life. And she is very involved, thoughtful, careful, and supportive, which makes the current slowdown in communication especially difficult for her. Our conversation took an interesting turn for me when we left behind the discussion about his needs and began to talk about her needs and desires.

For parents, it’s all about the kids. We are the adults, and we give while they receive; we sacrifice, and they grow; we support and encourage and build the structures that provide a launching pad for their future success. Every parent would agree with this ideal, but this altruistic perspective can overshadow the equally powerful ways that we parents are blessed and encouraged and helped by our children. The parent-child relationship is a relationship, after all: it’s a two-way thing. Sure we have to be careful not to burden our children by looking to them to satisfy our adult needs. But at the same time, it is foolish to think that being a parent is all give and no receive.

And so the conversation turned for me when we acknowledged that her teenage son isn’t the only one going through a massive transition. She also is transitioning from a mother with a young child to a mother with grown man for a son. This isn’t happening quickly of course: he still lives at home, eats what is served him, and lives by some measure according to his parents’ rules. But he is beginning to change: he will take less pleasure in childish interactions and will need less from his parents, even as he faces some very adult problems. As he separates—for this is what’s happening—mom is feeling the change acutely. At this point, it’s natural for parents to wonder why we aren’t able to engage our children as we once did.

All this is complicated by the radically different way that kids and adults think of this transition. Kids passing through adolescence believe they are becoming less like their parents. After all, parents want to continue to enjoy the things of childhood with their kids (toss a ball, read a favorite book, lie in bed and talk, etc.). Because kids no longer want to do these things, they believe that they are outgrowing their parents. It would never occur to them that they are in fact, finally, growing to be more like them. It is difficult for both parents and kids to know how to shift the conversation to more mature matters. When and how, exactly, do we stop talking about favorite childhood storybook characters, and begin to talk about sex, drugs, rock and roll, death, and taxes? That we are in no hurry to make this transition isn’t a mystery.

It’s important to understand the dramatic change that we parents are going through at a point like this. For better or for worse, we are losing a relationship with a child. The time has come to begin to get to know the man or the woman that has taken over our baby’s room. It’s critical that we speak honestly and truthfully about what’s happening.

To be honest is to own our feelings of confusion and grief, as our children change. We are losing something good, something simple, innocent, and sweet, and neither parent or child can really prepare for the confusion that comes with this radical change. Most parents don’t want their children to remain childish, but that doesn’t make the loss of child-like qualities less jarring. We have to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge the difficulty of this change. It’s natural, and ultimately good, but painful nonetheless. We also should be able to own the fact that we have been committed to nurturing and guiding our children, and they will need this less as they grow. It’s not easy to let that go.

To be truthful is to name what’s happening in our children, and name it well—they are growing up. They are growing in strength, responsibility, power, and maturity. It’s important that we choose our words carefully here! It is too easy to be frustrated with their silence and isolation and moodiness and abrasiveness, and name these as problems, and point to them as the cause of family tensions. How much more encouraging and empowering to give them words for the positive transition that they are pulling off, even if it isn’t always smooth sailing. Strength, single-mindedness, courage, intelligence, passion, joy, and a keen desire for justice can be found in every teenager. Sure these new attributes are often to blame for clashes with parents, but we should see them for what they are—a part of their differentiation … and the beginnings of their adulthood.

Our children will probably always need us … or at least there will always be ways that parents can help their children. We see their strengths clearly, and we can speak up about them. We also see the weaknesses, but we know the world will do a fine job of pointing these out. We get to bless our kids. And maybe, as we encourage them to charge forward into adulthood, we will continue to get the blessing that only a parent can receive.

 

This post first appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog

What We Don’t Know

We could talk your ear off about childhood and parenting. Between the two of us, we have lots of experience and training. Anghelika directs a parent-participation preschool, and has worked with kids and parents for 25-ish years. Dave teaches and tutors kids from 1st to 12th grade and is a clinical psychology student. But ask us about the kid in our house who is finishing High School and we are no longer experts. We are parents. And being a parent is totally different than knowing a lot about parenting.

It’s so comforting to be old, experienced, and learned. Except when it’s not. Because our kids, who are entirely unique and not necessarily inclined to behave according to expectations, always surprise us.

In the field of psychology, there’s an eagerness to establish a science of how people tick. This will, it is believed, counter the assumption that the cure of souls is a touchy-feely affair. There is a lot of good research out there, and lots to learn about how people work, generally speaking. But the best minds in psychology (in our opinion) are the ones that recognize that people are too complex and … well, alive, to fit neatly into a formula about how humans grow or develop.

Generally speaking, as educators and parents with an almost-empty nest, we know some stuff about parenting. But parenting, like counseling or teaching, is not really general. It’s personal. As parents, we have the same problems that all parents have: we get confused, frustrated, and disappointed. We worry, panic, and despair. We also laugh, cry, hope, and rejoice. Not much of it is scientific. Not much of it is predictable, even if a scientist might be able to predict it. Yes, we are a bundle of contradictions. We’re parents: we can’t be systematic or formulaic with our kids.

One of the best things that we can do is to keep learning from one another, because when we engage with other parents (and the occasional expert), we get to have our assumptions challenged and we get to learn tricks about making good soil in the gardens of our homes. But, we have to remember that what happens in gardens is often mysterious. We can prepare the soil, but we can’t make the flowers grow.

So we do our best to prepare the soil, but then we stand back and watch with no small measure of wonder at the growing of our kids into amazing individuals. We try to be present, to let them reveal to us who they are, and we get ready to be surprised and inspired.

We have seen some pretty surprising and inspiring things in our home. We could talk your ear off.

[This post originally appeared on the Parenting On The Peninsula blog]

Home For The Holidays … Fight

Our daughter, who lives and studies in Seattle, spent thanksgiving with her boyfriend’s family. She reported having a good time, and said that it was “… so quiet and, well, polite!” … as though these things were foreign to her family experience. Hmm. But before you worry about what goes on in our house, what she was hinting at was that she’d become accustomed to the occasional food fight, or end-of-night wrestling match on the floor with her brother, or with her father.

Is this really the point of comparison between the boyfriend’s family and ours? Nothing about politics? Religion? We can’t escape it. Our family has a bit of a history …. Dave’s mother used to say how glad she was when he started bringing Anghelika home for the holidays because it meant that she didn’t have to worry (as much) about being tackled in the kitchen after dinner (tackling still happened). Recent years have seen epic battles with Dave and his sisters on the ground wrestling amongst the cat toys in his parents’ house. So what can we say … it’s a kinesthetic thing. We won’t say we’re surprised the daughter has come to expect some contact sports during the holidays.

Sure enough, this Christmas, the girl provoked her seventeen year old brother (who as an 11-year old, after only a few karate lessons, once took down 180-pound Dave during a little “playful” jostling, surprising himself no less than dad). In no time, she was having the kind of holiday she had been yearning for.

It's all fun and games ...

It’s all fun and games …

... until you remember that you are in art school and your brother is on the wrestling team

… until you remember that you are in art school and your brother is on the wrestling team

Happy holidays!

Happy holidays!

This post first appeared on the Parenting On The Peninsula Blog

Scrimmage

We’ve often observed our kids, who are now 17 and 20, going through seasons of growth and coping, and we’ve used different kinds of language to describe the experience: mood swings, expansion and contraction, equilibrium and disequalibrium. Anghelika describes the way a child can feel stretched and challenged in uncomfortable ways by a world that seems too big, and then soon after can come to a place of feeling more comfortable ‘in their skin’. When children are being challenged and stretched, it can be hard times for families.

We have been through innumerable such cycles with our children. We’ve suffered through the tense times when our child seems to hate everything, wants no help, chooses to be alone. These are terrible times, because, of course, she can’t be alone—she lives with you. And she can’t really go without help, because she’s dependent. And when someone you live with hates everything, that’s kind of a downer, because you’re going to be collateral damage. We found these times really hard, and we celebrated the return to equilibrium. As we learned a bit about how these things worked, we began to ‘tolerate’ the down times because we knew that better times were coming. But what if we were missing an opportunity to celebrate the hard times too?

After twenty years of parenting we can say that family is a lifestyle of challenge and change. Family is not a formula to master, or a parenting book to finish, or some season to get through. It’s life: we change our children and they change us. In our experience, families (our own included) tend to get labeled … as healthy or unhealthy, functional or dysfunctional. But looking back, no family qualifies exclusively for a single prize. Family is not a race where you either win or you don’t. It’s a scrimmage, where every player gets a little better by the end of the day … and gets a few bruises to help them remember the day’s work.

We might have been too quick to wish our way past the bad-mood days. We might have taken them too personally, as a sign of our faulty parenting, or of a child’s rebellion against our ideals. Even when we recognized that it wasn’t about us, we might have looked forward to a child ‘getting over it’ so we could be a “happy family” again. But we are starting to recognize that families are not supposed to be … anything really. They are not validated by the amount of happiness enjoyed by its members, or by any other ideal. They are a place where life happens, and that means whatever we bring to the party, that’s the life we are going to have, and the family that we are. And if we can accept that family is not some ideal that we have to achieve, but is the very mechanism by which we will grow together, then we may embrace the struggles as the way we all, parents and children alike, get better at living this life. To look at it another way, family holds us together when we might otherwise drift apart in trying times: it’s a mechanism of love.

If we could go back and give our younger selves advice, we’d say, for every lesson you think you need to teach your child, there is probably a lesson or two you need to learn yourself, so slow down and don’t be in such a hurry to fix the problem of the day. A child in distress, in rebellion, or in a bad mood, is not an obstacle on your path to a perfect family. On the contrary: this is what families are perfect for. Responding in love and patience when one of us is in danger of falling away.

 

This post originally appeared on the Parenting on the Peninsula Blog

Conversations Without Questions

I (David) recently had a conversation with my 16-year old son during which I tried to talk to him for 15 minutes without asking a single question. Why would a parent of a teenager do such a thing? … Because I was told to. I’m a clinical psychology student, and in one of my classes, we are exploring the benefits of eliminating questions from counseling interactions. This was homework.

In this conversation, I took the opportunity to address a behavioral concern. Our son is great, and doesn’t give us much to worry about; but he’s a teenager, and we live together, and this means we occasionally struggle with opposing perspectives. While we talked, I had to work hard to swallow several questions. Instead, I described the behavior I had seen, and told him about my confusion regarding his choices. When he spoke up, I tried simply to understand his perspective and reflect his words as best I could.

It’s crazy hard to avoid questions in a conversation with teens. Questions are so easy: “What were you thinking?”; “Did it occur to you to think about someone other than yourself?”; “Are you planning on doing your homework anytime soon?” Questions like this are not productive. Of course there are times when legitimate and important questions need asking. But think about it: one of the great challenges of the adolescent and teen years is feeling like your parents don’t get you. What a revolution we could start in our homes by dialing down the interrogations and instead working hard to show our kids that we understand. Look at it this way: we already know the answers to each of the above questions (“I don’t know.”; “No.”; and “Whatever.”) It’s not that hard to remember what it was like to be a teenager.

Questions remind kids of school, especially when coming from an authority (like a parent). When we ask a question of a young person, they just know that there must be a right answer, and it’s probably not the one they are thinking of. We’re learning that our goal when asking questions is often not to learn something from our child, but to make a point of our own. To a kid, questions don’t feel like an invitation to dialog, but direction. Rhetorical questions might be fine when making a speech or preaching a sermon, but they are not the best choice when talking to someone we care about face to face.

If you’re like us, cutting back on questions will feel like quitting coffee. Easy to talk about, hard to do. But we don’t have to overthink it: when we’re concerned enough to have one of those talks, start by saying something true (“Homework is a pain …”) and see where it leads.

In my conversation with my son, during which I asked zero questions, I managed to reflect what he was saying, and even, in a couple cases, put words to what he wasn’t saying. When I did that, he would nod his head and agree with me. Imagine that.

Finally, after we had each said our piece, and there had been a period of silence, he looked up with a slightly uncomfortable expression … “Is there some question I’m supposed to be answering now?” When I assured him there wasn’t, he said, “I’ve heard you.” And he had.

[Originally posted in the Parenting On The Peninsula blog.]