I had this moment. About 4 years ago.
I was standing among a group of people whose kids were slightly older than mine – their kids were teenagers. These were people I spent a lot of time with, people who I admired, trusted, and looked up to. And I had this moment where I caught sight of my son, just barely out of earshot, but watching me closely. I felt like I was 5 years old, with my hand in the proverbial cookie jar, caught “red handed,” and a wave of shame washed over me so quickly and powerfully, I nearly burst into tears. Just before that moment, I had been actively listening and taking part in the group’s conversation, laughing where it was intended, and giving the appropriate sympathetic nods and hums. The conversation was centered around how gross, smelly, annoying, and clueless teenagers are. The moment before my son caught my eye, someone said, “Oh you’re not even there yet. Enjoy it while you can. Teenagers suck.” Laughter ensued.
This sounds like a really mean, awful conversation among really mean, awful people. But if you’re a mom reading this – and you can be honest with yourself – I bet you’ve been there. Motherhood is a rare, natural kinship that exists between women. Even if you don’t know each other, you get it. There is less and less space out there to be a mother and not be the picture of self-sacrifice, exhaustion, and martyrdom that’s plastered on clever coffee cups and t-shirts that proclaim it’s wine o’clock somewhere. I want to take a minute and clarify something – the people standing in that group aren’t mean or awful. And they don’t speak ill of their teenagers because they’re mean or awful people. I am convinced that these kinds of conversations are born from a place a deep insecurity and fear – BECAUSE! Moms are expected to know, do, be, and have it all! And that’s just bullshit.
I looked at my son that day and made a decision. He was about ten at the time and already showing the beginnings of shifting from being a little boy to being an adolescent. I decided I wasn’t ever going to participate in one of those conversations again. (I haven’t.) I decided that I was going to LIKE having teenagers. (I do!)
My son is now 14 and my daughter will be 12 in a few weeks. One day I will write the book on how my teenagers have taught me more about love, hurt, people, learning, compassion, insecurity, and life than anyone or anything else in my 38 years of living. But for now, I’ll just tell you some very hard but freeing truths that I believe can transform the way we think about ‘raising’ teenagers.
- You’re not supposed to understand them. How old are you? If your age isn’t followed by ‘teen’ then you aren’t meant to think the way they do. Your brain is older, more developed, and more experienced.
- They’re right. You “just don’t get it” and you “don’t understand anything.” You’re going to have to get out of your own way here and just believe me when I tell you that the best way to get your kid to open up and talk to you is to tell them they’re right. And then shut up. Let them teach you about how their teenage thoughts and feelings are shaping their words, their actions, and their reality.
- Hygiene is a habit that takes time and endless repetition to master. Unless they’ve been wearing deodorant and washing their face twice a day every day since they were 2, they won’t remember to do this and will need daily reminders – for like, years. The next time their smell or their oily pimply face tells you they forgot, pick one of the bad habits you wish you could break, and remind yourself that you keep that bad habit because you’re not disciplined enough to develop a new one.
- On the subject of habits – they’re required to develop a lot of new ones through this stage of the game. Be patient. They’re going to be forgetful at the most inopportune times. Patience and some encouragement in those teeth-gritting, you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me moments goes a long way to alleviate anxiety and build trust and self-esteem. Grit your teeth. Say the cuss words under your breath. You’re an adult with coping skills and life experience. Act like one and use them.
- They don’t listen because you don’t either.
Your teenagers need you more than ever. Just because they look more like an adult, talk more like an adult, and can do more adult-like tasks, doesn’t make them an adult. They know just enough to be dangerous. Fight the urge to let them figure it out when they are seemingly pushing you away at every turn. Fight the urge to give them the ‘adult answer’ and the ‘adult solution.’ Their thoughts and solutions might surprise you.
Ask questions. Tell stories. Listen. Lean in.
They don’t need you to teach them everything. They need you to learn with them.
They don’t need your answers. They need you to help them find their own.
They don’t need you to let them grow up. They need you to keep growing up with them.