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