Being needed, wanted, and adored is the parenting trifecta that gets us through the sleepless nights, the relentless demands, and the bodily functions of early childhood. The helpless dependence, passionate attachment, and jubilant ardor offset the challenges associated with parenting youngsters. Moreover, we are in control. If our child isn’t complying, we usually can “make them.” This sense of control, coupled with those wonderful feelings, define what parenting is typically about before the tween and teen years.
Even though we all know adolescence is inevitable, we often remain under the delusion that somehow our wonderful parenting or our child’s easy-going disposition will prevent the door slamming, sullen silences, reckless button pushing, poor decision making, and disrespectful dialogue typical of the teenage years. We hope that through studied intervention we will remain in control throughout our child’s at-home years.
Surprise! If you have done your job right (and even if you haven’t) the push for independence can’t be avoided. Just like learning to talk and walk, this is an important stage of child development. While teens and tweens begin to navigate their world with one foot in childhood and another in adulthood, they will struggle to create their own path, have their own opinions, and separate themselves from their parents. Some will do it with more grace than others, but the process is inevitable and healthy. They probably won’t want you because they think they don’t need you. They love you, of course, but the adoration stage is over. You simply do not have the same level of control you are accustomed to.
The this can be quite painful for parents who still associate “parenting” with that emotional trifecta. Sometimes, none of the warm and fuzzy moments from early parenting stick around during the teen years. Other times, remnants of the cuddly and loving child remain, so although you may have a screaming teenage daughter one second, you have an engaging chatterbox 30 minutes later. Or perhaps you have a withdrawn, monosyllabic son, yet he kisses you on the cheek and tells you he loves you every night before bed.
Parents respond to all of this in a variety of different ways including despair, depression, shouting matches, tears, threats, authoritarian attempts, rage, and resignation. In fact, some parents so desperate to feel needed and wanted bend over backwards to create new dependencies, intervening in situations that ironically stunt adolescent growth and can build resentment over time.
As a prior psychotherapist and school counselor and especially in my current role as a school administrator, I have seen parents lie for their teenagers, protect them at all cost from inevitable consequences, and interfere in situations that would be best left for their child to handle alone. I have seen parents give in to a variety of demands, put all of their efforts into being the “cool parent” or work hard to be their teenager’s friend, or even a great “friend” to their teenagers’ friends.
All of these responses are an effort to regain the emotional triad, and to get control back to its most comfortable locus, you. Most of us try everything to make this happen, yelling one minute, taking car keys away the next, driving your teenage daughter and her friends to the mall laughing along with mean-spirited gossip, relenting about the party you told your teenage son he absolutely could not attend. We are, after all, like our teens, struggling through uncharted waters.
Unfortunately, there is no prescriptionfor perfect and painless parenting. Furthermore, just to confound us further, we will make what we think is a mistake, yet it turns out to be the right move. Conversely, we might execute brilliant parenting maneuvers that turn out quite badly.
I have raised five teenagers:two stepdaughters, and three sons very close in age and much larger than I am. I have had joyful moments with each one of them. I’ve also had moments of rage and feelings so intense that I did not feel in control of myself, let alone them! My youngest is 18. A single mother since he was 11, we shared a special closeness; he had me all to himself when his other siblings went off to college and careers. People envied our comfort with one another as well as our shared humor. For several years he attended the school where I worked as Dean of Students, and people marveled at how well he handled this. He found his way to my office several times a day, sought me out in the dining room to say hi, and he and his girlfriend were fixtures on the bench right outside my office door.
You know where this story is going, don’t you? Yes, he has turned out to be the one most intent on creating separation. He is the most direct button pusher – after all, being so close for so long he knows what will make me react strongest. As the youngest , he was slotted into the adorable role, and he has spent the last few years doing whatever he can to not be so adorable. He can be brusque, uncooperative, argumentative, and most importantly, determined to do his own thing in his own way.
Having him in my life not only helps me become a better parenting coach, but also it frequently breaks my heart, forcing me to recalibrate the relationship, my attachment to it, and my commitment to his character, and to our growth. Some days, he tests boundaries and I test parenting theories. On other days, he goes in for a direct attack, and I forget everything I have ever learned or ever taught. Raising him has helped me distill my beliefs around parenting down to three principles:
- You can only control one person, and that’s you…and sometimes you can’t even do that! So by golly, your primary “control energy” needs to stay focused on yourself.
- Reaction creates escalation, so you need to do whatever you can (and you may fail) to not react.
- Seeking agreement or approval from your teenager is futile, meaningless, and about ego, not child rearing.
If you can remember that this is at the core of effective adolescent parenting, it will bring you great relief. If you silently repeat these three non-negotiables (my personal shorthand is “Linda, collect yourself!”) you calm down, detach, and look to adults for whatever camaraderie you may be tempted to seek from your teenager. In fact, I often find it has the added impact of getting us both out of the quicksand and into the surf, where we can enjoy a shared laugh and a good bowl of ice cream between waves.