Some of my best friends are teenagers, but I wouldn't want my daughter to marry one. Taken individually they are a delightful breed, funny and creative and scintillating conversationalists. This does not ameliorate the fact that, in general, Teens: The Care and Feeding Of, can make the most doting parent tear her hair out and long for the comfort of a padded cell.
When you have toddlers and your days are a grisly blur of diapers, vomit and temper tantrums you look forward with intense longing to the day when little Dimples is old enough to be a bit more independent. I hate to burst your bubble, but that's not what happens. Sure, they sleep 10 hours at a stretch, but they don't start until 2 a.m. You don't have to change diapers any more, but no matter how many chore-charts you make the kid's not going to take the laundry downstairs – if the door is left open, the stench emanating from a teenager's bedroom will set off every smoke detector in the house.
Are you wondering what it's like? Imagine a six-foot two-year-old who's missed his nap, with a large unsavory vocabulary and the keys to the car.
They will draw you, a suave, rational adult, into the Vortex of Horror right along with them. You know better – you've done the reading, you know they will lack the synaptic development to realize the full import of their actions until their mid-20s. You know their job right now is to separate from their parents and become their own people. You know that the opinions of their peers carry more weight than yours at this point in their lives. Heck, you were a teenager yourself once and it wasn't so darned long ago, either – you remember what it's like.
The problem is, you also know that – on some secret, subterranean level – the person that you spent the last decade-and-a-half nurturing is still in there. You can occasionally see a flash of the delightful person whom you adore, and – rarely – you may get a sign of recognition or even affection out of him. These symptoms lead you to think that you can still reach this child, that you can provide him with the guidance he so sorely needs and lead him back into the light.
You can't win, because they don't care. You may give an impassioned performance of Speech #64, “Don't Spend An Hour In The Shower Every Morning” - your stirring impression of Yosemite Sam on methamphetamines never fails to impress an audience. The next day your sleep-addled teen will think (if he thinks at all), “Mom said something about showering in the morning – better take a good long one today to shut her up.” 60 minutes later, when you're shrieking and foaming at the mouth because he's missed the bus and is going to be late for school for the 95th day in a row, he will think (if he thinks at all), “Jeeze, there's no pleasing this woman.”
It's been a fairly typical week in our house (population: Angst). Lance and I are only mildly shell-shocked, and can still complete the occasional thought if we sit in a darkened room with a white-noise machine. This morning I got to wondering what I would tell us, if we were somebody else.
Don't take it personally. They don't mean it personally – to them, you are not a person.
Pass the buck. A parent's natural tendency is to shield their child from upsetting things but by the time they're in their teens they must learn to reap what they sow. There's also, admittedly, a certain childish, vindictive pleasure to be found in dumping a kid's mess right back in his lap. When the chemistry teacher sends you a curt note to the effect that your daughter has missed the last week of class, send back: “As we've discussed, the student in question has a medical condition that makes it impossible for her to arrive at school before lunch period – we can't get her out of bed in the morning with a packet of gelignite and a blaster. Attached please find her cell phone number. Good luck and may God have mercy on your soul.” Take the Summer School tuition out of her allowance.
Take it easy. Tomorrow – at least it will seem like tomorrow – they will be gone. You will miss them – a lot - and there won't be any more chances to be the kind of parent you want to be. You will remember the helpless laughter you shared with them a lot better than how insulted you were that they thought you didn't know that they were sneaking out of the house at night, when the outside stairs go right past your bedroom window.
Get a life. You can make every insult, disagreement and rule-bending incident into a Battle of the Wills. You can even “win” most of them. What you'll win is a young adult who wants nothing to do with you. Your teenager still needs a parent; they need strong boundaries, stability and unconditional love, because their own emotions and lives are so chaotic. They need you to be dependable and trustworthy because, right now, they know they're not. You can't do this if you're so wrapped up in their drama that you can hardly function. Do a little separating of your own – go out with your spouse and your friends a little more, spend some more time on your own work and hobbies and indulge yourself a bit more than you're accustomed to do. Nourish your soul however you can, because your teenagers will leave it in tatters if you let them.
Hang on tight to your sense of humor. You need it now more than ever. Like that two-year-old throwing a fit, your teenager's feelings are very close to the surface, so don't ever, ever laugh at him – but vent a lot to your mate until you can each see the humor in the situation. Watch funny videos, read funny books, go to comedy shows. One of the unexpected benefits of having teenagers around the house is that they hear some fantastic jokes, so put aside your language filter and your sense of decency for a moment and ask to hear them. You'll love laughing with the kids again, and they'll love trying to shock you.
Talk to other adults in their lives. With the possible exception of first-period teachers, it may be an enormous relief to you to find out what other adults in your teenager's life think of your child. You may be pretty well convinced that his only hope for success in the outside world is to find a gig biting the heads off bats, only to find out that their friends' mothers envy you your polite, thoughtful, delightful child. Their teachers and coaches see your teenager at his best, and finding out that the kid really can behave like a Homo sapiens in public takes a lot of the pressure off.
You're both under pressure, after all. One reason your kid is such a snot to you is that he feels safe at home; it's not easy being the Center of the Universe, you know. Everyone's always looking at you and judging you and the decisions you make now will affect the rest of your life and your parents just don't understand.
There oughtta be a law.