There are few creatures more feared and maligned than the dreaded teenager. If you listen to the media, they are hormone-fueled, technology-addicted monsters who will bring chaos down on previously peaceful homes. They play their music too loud or tune everyone out with their ear buds. They are rarely seen outside the glare of their chosen device and barely speak aside from grunts and grumbles. Their thumbs are hardened by non-stop texting and their focus is on their peers above all else. Parents who have made it through the teen years with their grown children often take on a glazed look when recounting the battles they faced with their offspring.
I taught eighth grade for ten years, so I’ve known more 13-year-olds than most. I think (hope) my experience in the classroom will help me navigate the next seven years after which my first daughter, Karys, will turn twenty and my second daughter will enter the teen years herself.
First, I remember that we’ve already been through many of the stages we’re bound to encounter in the next few years. We’ve gone through the sleepless nights of newborns and the tantrums of terrible twos and threes. We’ve gone through the heartbreak of friendships lost and the elation of new friends found. We’ve practiced letting go and urging Karys’ independence since she took her first steps. When I was teaching, I described working with teens as being on a perpetual rollercoaster ride with highs and lows following each other in an endless loop. Sometimes the moods changed minute by minute, and we never knew what was around the corner. The best strategy I found was to surrender and go along for the ride.
I won’t lie…spending time with so many young humans in the throes of adolescence was sometimes tough. They were constantly pressing their boundaries as they figured out who they were and where they fit in their families, their school, and their communities. But they were also hilarious, smart, creative, and open to trying new things.
My friend Gretchen, who is nearing her third decade of teaching sixth grade, always says that if she’s having a hard time with a child’s attitude, she tries to imagine them as a tiny baby, as we all are at some point. I’ve used her strategy many times in teaching and in parenting. It’s easy to look at our kids with pride when they’re doing what we’ve taught them to do. It’s harder to say, “Oh, my baby,” when they’re screaming and blaming you for whatever isn’t going right in their lives, but the latter is probably more necessary than the former. Underneath the attitude and disconnection is a child who is dealing with changes to every aspect of their life.
I like to think that I’ve been preparing to be a mom of a teen since Karys was born. I’ve actually been preparing to mother her through this phase since I was a teen almost three decades ago. I remember vividly the times that I (by all accounts a “good” teen) tuned out my parents and other adults thinking that there was no way they could ever understand anything about me or what I was going through. Most of these conflicts were founded in frustration I realize now: my frustration at feeling misunderstood and my parents’ frustration about how to understand me. But I’ve worked hard at being the kind of mom who will answer any question my daughters have as well as I can. I’ve worked to remember that when they are at their meanest they may be hungry, tired, or hurt. I try to get to the bottom of how they’re feeling and help them find ways to put their emotions into words. I try to remember that they are entitled to big feelings just like I am and help them find tools to deal with those feelings without hurting other people. We’ll get through this together by loving each other and remembering that we like each other, too.
I asked Karys what she thought I would need to know to be her mother after her birthday in a couple of weeks, and she said, “Just keep being who you are, Mom. And also, don’t let me be a jerk.” I could say the same to her.