Saturday, March 28, 2015

Raising teenagers is hard

Raising teenagers is hard.

Especially boys.  Though I haven't gone through it with a girl yet. Probably that will be just as hard in its own way.

A teenager's very job description is to figure out what he or she believes for him or her self, apart from you. So you get to experience a lot of resistance and rejection. It's hard not to take that personally.

But for the most part, it's not personal. It's just them needing the space to figure out their own opinions and beliefs, which often means coming around to the very beliefs with which they were raised.

As moms especially, we tend to think of our children as part of ourselves. Going through the teen years should permanently disabuse you of this illusion. They are not an extension of you, Mom: They are very much their own, separate selves. Accepting that fundamental separateness can be rough on both ends.

As a parent, you want so much for them to make the right choices. To build a good foundation for the future. To experience wholesome relationships. To be safe.  To steer a wide path around all the landmines and traps our culture sets before them. You want this more than anything, you ache for it. And you have wisdom to share. You could spare them a lot of hurt and pain, if they would just listen. Human nature being what it is--especially immature human nature--this doesn't always happen.

What we often experience as parents is that suddenly the entire game has changed. The strategies that used to work in relating with our children and especially, dealing with problems and discipline issues, now seem to backfire. Suddenly, it no longer works to function as "me parent/you child," or to say things like, "because I'm the parent, and I said so."

As far as I've been able to figure out, these are the new rules of play: You are no longer "standing over them" as a parent. You are coming alongside as an ally. Not always a wanted ally, but a very loyal one all the same. Not shielding them from the tough consequences, but letting them know they don't have to face life alone. You, the parent-ally, still love them, still see the good in them, no matter what. When they feel like it (which is not always when you feel like it), you let them talk (and talk) and process. You try to refrain from giving advice unless you're asked, though because you love them so much, sometimes you give them advice or share your experiences anyway. Maybe some of it sinks in. But they will probably remember more the fact that you were there, and you listened. Or that you weren't and didn't.

In my experience, the more you try to "come down" on them as a parent, the more you try to tighten things up, be strict, and control them, the worse things get. Teenagers must have the space to make their own choices. When not given that space, they act in really ugly ways, and will tend to create that space anyway, through lying, sneaking, or outright defiance and rebellion.

And yes, this means you are giving them space to fail, even spectacularly, and to experience tough real-life consequences. When this happens, you don't want to be the one standing over them, saying "I told you so. Why didn't you listen to me?" confirming their own feelings of failure and condemnation. You want to be the ally.

What they need to know is: You still love them. They may have blown it big time and made some really dumb decisions, but they themselves are not bad. Because in real life, everybody makes mistakes. That is often how we learn the stuff we need to know. Mistakes aren't the end of the road, and they don't mean the teen should label him or herself as "bad" or a failure. They need to learn that mistakes mean it's time to pick yourself up, get back on the right road, start again, and keep on walking. There are so many things that happen in life that can derail us if we don't have this kind of attitude. They need resilience to be able to grow up and succeed in life.

And, they need an ally or two. We all do.

We've gotten through teenager number one and I don't overstate things to say that it was traumatic for the entire family. Now we are in the thick of it with teenager number two. He's a different personality than his brother. Not nearly as hard-hearted. He actually feels really bad when he does something wrong. But he is also way more susceptible to the influence of his peers. Hence, we are dealing with totally different issues than we did with the first.

Parenting is learn-as-you-go. I've read a lot of parenting books, but have never read any that were as helpful as really knowing your own individual child and listening to the Spirit for clues re. what that particular child needs in a particular situation. Spending time with close friends who've walked the road before is helpful, too. Each child (or young adult) is different, each family and situation is unique, and there aren't any hard or fast rules or sure-fire strategies that always work. But a few things I have learned for myself are:

Don't harden my heart. Keep loving them, and keep reaching out in unconditional love. They may not respond, but at least they'll know I cared enough to try, and that counts in the end. Also, as a parent, I have to be the mature one--the one to forgive and reach out. Over and over again if need be.

Often when they are the nastiest, and treating you and others the worst, it's because they are feeling horrible inside, and they just don't have the experience or maturity to know how to deal with those emotions. You can help them with this. (Hopefully, you have learned how to do this yourself. If not, a good counselor is probably necessary!)

And, last of all, you will both get through it. Someday, that front cerebral cortex will develop. They'll be able to get consequences, come to conclusions, and think things through in new ways. Believe it or not, they will probably seem like a completely different person at 19 or 20.

I'm guessing that for most of us, teens and parents alike, it's a rough ride. It's a deep, narrow river dotted with class 4 rapids, not a placid lake. I'd love to have a happy-go-lucky, go with the flow, placid-lake kind of teen, but looking at my 9 year old daughter now (the youngest), I'm thinking it's not likely. Maybe they all take too much after their mom, who was a "question everything" sort of person. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, and can be a kind of strength. In the long run.