Most parents do not relish parenting teenagers. Teaching them to drive is terrifying. Catching them drinking – and puking – for the first time is appalling. The horrors of teenage sexuality. The surliness, the lying, the sleeping until 3 pm…
Dealing with teenagers is a grind, a bore, something to be SURVIVED.
Sure, parenting teenagers is tough. It’s the F**K-You-Now-Tuck-Me-In phase. Constant emotional whiplash. Hold me close, now get away.
But I loved being a teenager. Luckily, as a 13 year old, I ended up at a summer camp in Pennsylvania called Longacre Leadership. Six idealistic high school teachers bought a 350-acre farm in the mid-1970s and turned it into a haven for teenagers to learn leadership, community responsibility, communication skills, and how to drive a tractor, pick tomatoes, and milk a goat.
I went there for five years, including three as a counselor, and my kids spend the summers there today. The Farm celebrates teenagers, and all the chaos that goes along with their need for experimentation, rebellion, and adult guidance. Longacre Leadership formed me as a teenager and helped me see what a magical, powerful time adolescence is in a kid’s — and a parent’s — life.
This particular parenting phase is fascinating. Teenagers need adults just as much as toddlers do. But at the same time, they are constantly — rudely, emphatically — pushing us away. Teens crave their parents’ love, approval and attention. But paradoxically, they do not want us to understand them.
The teen battle cry is “You just don’t understand me.” What they are really saying is: I don’t WANT you to understand me. Teens need to separate from parents and be different. They want adult respect and advice — but not necessarily from us. The solution here is not to shift away or to turn a blind eye to teenagers’ rebelliousness, secrecy, short-sightedness and stupidity. Part of the answer is to let other adults into their lives.
My 15-year-old recently decided to go to boarding school to get a heavy dose of other adults, and to distance herself from us.
That’s not rejection – it’s independence. Ditto for sleep away camp, a church youth group, spending the summer with Grandma or a favorite aunt, working part-time or for the entire summer, and developing friendships with favorite teachers. Other-adult relationships are essential for teenagers.
How can this be? Why don’t they want US? Just a nanosecond ago, we were their heroes. The leg they clung to the first day of school. The person they woke at midnight after a bad dream.
And now…our kids hate us?
This is a good time to remember time-outs are not just for five-year-olds. Adults need time-outs too. Give yourself a break when your teenagers exasperate you. Fake maturity and wisdom…even if inside you are seething.
For instance: a recent conversation with my 17-year-old son.
Mom: So, you going to the concert this Saturday?
Mom: Are you taking someone?
Mom: A girl?
Mom: And her name is?
Son: Mom. I don’t want you to know who I’m taking. I don’t want you Googling her name. I just don’t see why you need to know.
Mom: Um, ‘cause I am your mother?
Mom: Okay…Can I ask you a generic, hypothetical question instead? Do you like sporty girls? Pretty girls? Smart girls? I am just curious because I have known you for your whole life and I’d like to see how you’ve turned out.
Son: Mom, this is what you don’t get. I don’t want you to know the names of girls I like. I don’t want you to understand what kind of girls I like. I don’t even want you to know that I like girls. So stop.
He was laughing by this point, so I stopped interrogating him. And I started laughing, too. Sometimes, that is the best you can hope for with your teenager. And it is actually totally, utterly, awesomely priceless.