Monday, February 18, 2013

Teenagers, it's hard for us too.

A teenager who was
 nice to me
I am grateful for a lot of things but I am deeply grateful for this: with few exceptions, my teenagers were nice to me.

I wish I didn't know how unusual my experience was, but reminders like this are everywhere:

Across from me in a restaurant, a woman was seated with two boys, around nine and fifteen. From the way one, but not the other, interacted with her, and from the way each behaved as though the other weren't there,  I'm assuming they were her sons.

The younger boy, clearly relishing her attention, engaged his mother with jokes and chatter and stories. The older boy, slumped in the corner of the booth like a crumpled shirt, said nothing. 
While the younger boy chatted, the woman sat forward in her seat smiling, nodding, listening, smiling, nodding, listening... During pauses in the conversation, she turned to the older boy and made polite attempts to include him all to which he responded with long looks at his phone, impatient shrugs and a very irritated look of "How would I know?"  

I wanted to slip her a note: "It gets better." But that would have been presumptuous. For all I knew the behavior of her fifteen-year-old was an improvement over the way he normally punched his brother in restaurants.

To be  scorned by a child who has adored you for years is the hardest, most bewildering experience parents describe in the parenting years. It's expected and it's expected to be hard. But like labor itself, it hurts more than you think it should.

"How would I know?"
It starts suddenly, with the  whatever stage. It evolves into the later What?? Nothing! Nothing's wrong! Stop asking me that. Just leave me alone. Why are you like that all the time? stage which lasts another year or so but feels like longer. Finally, in the last stages, convinced of how little they want from us, we find other things to do and other children to talk to, and try to remain silent while they negotiate life without us.

We  have been told to let the rope out, that they are entitled to their growth, their distance, their isolation. Still, it ages us, wakes us in the night, makes us cry. We know we'll live through it,  and so we brace, we accept, and above all, we wait.

Why are you like that? they ask us with that squint.

I love teenagers, they are mighty and mystifying and with rare exceptions, I've not looked into a teenage face and failed to see traces of the little person they once were behind that squint. But it is their parents, with their fixed, neutral expressions and hidden hurt and unwavering resolve to stay near, who have my heart.

And I wish
if only for a few moments
that a teenager...

...could view their separation through the eyes of the parent who - with no warning -  has been shown the door but instead, moves to the other side of the room like a quiet child who still wants to see what's going on.

...who feels powerless in a world of influences beyond the home - could know their power to hurt a parent with a single look, a single, scornful statement: Why are you like that?

...who feels insignificant without a circle of friends - could know the way their single bad day will - instantly - reverse the most wonderful day in the life of a parent.

...who should be allowed to make a bad decision, to act like a jackass - would remember that it isn't possible to act in any way that will change the way a parent loves them.

...who would be crushed if a peer were to treat them with the contempt and disrespect that they inflict on a parent, could know it hurts just that much. 

...could remember that there are other teenagers who experience the reverse - parents who have given up on them, taken back their own freedom, ceased their communication - and would trade places with a luckier teenager in a heartbeat.

But most of all, I wish that teenagers, who need more than the air they breathe to be loved for who they are, could see that equal to their efforts to journey away, is the parent's determination to walk with them, even if at enough distance  to avoid getting stepped on.

All four of my teenagers evolved into adults I admire and adore. Today I enjoy relationships with them that are among my most rewarding, energizing, inspiring - and loving.

It does get better. It is worth the wait. But for some parents, it isn't free. 

Teenagers, I wish you knew, it's hard for us too.


  1. I have taught teens for over 13 years and they are amazing. They really get a bad rap...they never cease to surprise and please me every day. My greatest concern for them is that technology is making them lazy and unmotivated...but if adults see that and believe in them, there is really nothing they cannot do in their teens. Enjoyed your post!

  2. I work with teenagers on their writing at our local Boys and Girls club. The way they respond to the support, and the things they have to say about life, are amazing. Thank you, Pam.

  3. Thank you for this Susan. It really touched my heart. I have a 20 yr old daughter and a 17 yr old son and they are both very sweet..I've been given the eye rolls, and they spent lots of time in their rooms, away from me, but that's about the extent of it. But has been so difficult for me to not be the center of their universe anymore. Your piece reminds me that I am not alone and that I am grateful that my kids actually made the transition with kindness.

  4. Great post. I've been there and fortunately, I have a great relationship with my daughter. I'm now preparing to watch her deal with her own teenage daughter a few years from now.

  5. I was also very lucky that my children both liked me when they were teens. There were moments, of course - but we never had the silent, sullen, battle-lines-drawn teens that I know many have. I worried that their lack of rebellion was going to be a problem down the road, but at 21 and 23 they seem to be ok!

  6. I can relate to this post! I have six children. Only two are yet to be teenagers. My 14 year old daughter is my youngest teen, with her siblings being all boys. I adore my teenagers. I feel for them, so I am slow to react. I'm pretty understanding, but I'll admit, there is a line that can be crossed, when I must get a little angry. You're does get better. Love, love, love them all the way through it.

    Nice post!

  7. Thank you Amy, Janie, Sharon and Beachlover for these thoughtful comments. Like all of you did, we had our stretches when we were not each other's favorite person. And I do remember worrying over the difference between a changing person and a changing relationship. But I learned that the best advice for parents of teenagers comes down to: don't personalize. And of course, stay near.

  8. Susan: It's like Erma Bombeck said, motherhood is the only place where you get fired after 20 years of service and nobody acknowledges how painful that is. Beautiful post. Keep conversations going with your kids, and they'll stay in touch. But, yes, you still have to let them go. It's like dropping them off at the first day of school while knowing that you won't be picking them up :).

  9. Thank you Donna, and for sure, those wonderful conversations are what I love most about having grown children.

  10. I feel beyond blessed that my boys at the age of 18 are still so kind and respectful. I think we skipped that stage thankfully! I have watched some of my friends go through it and it is not pretty! Just keep loving them...that's all you can do! As always your blogs!

  11. This really hits home for me, as a mother of a 16 and an 18 year old. They're pretty nice to me for the most part, though I do get my fair share of "whatevers".
    I think what's important is what you said about us still loving them even when they're jackasses. I think that if they know that, they're more likely to go through the stages and come out of them as respectable adults.

  12. Stephanie, thank you. Sixteen and eighteen are the years right before they come of out the "tunnel of me" so you're almost there! As I've said, my favorite relationships today are with my grown children. We gave each other plenty of space to grow into our roles, and I did my share of eye-rolling too :)

  13. What a moving post - and so true. I have 4 grown children too - and have struggled with that feeling of being at loose ends when they're gone. But there are also so many things to enjoy about them grown. One daughter is so distant - it's very hard for me - but I remember she is her own person and respect the distance she seems to need. My mother used to say a good mother isn't necessarily someone to lean on, rather someone who makes leaning unnecessary - so in that regard - their independence is a good thing.

  14. I often joke that I need to think of a more appropriate way to say this but, "I love teenage boys!"
    Seriously, my boys make me laugh more than anyone else. They also break my heart easier than anyone else.