The Difficult Times of Parenting Teens
A distressed dad sat in my office, tears in his eyes, describing the last two years of his life. His 15-year-old son, Joey, started having problems at 13 years of age—poor school performance, lying, hanging out with troubled friends, anger, and breaking house rules. This semester was going a little better, but he was worried. After the turmoil of the last two years, he was waiting for the other shoe to drop—a telephone call from the school, Joey not coming home on time, or a screaming, yelling episode. He felt bad. He had lost whatever parental confidence he had gained during Joe’s childhood. He was filled with self-doubt.
Through his tears, I could see his deep love for his son. I felt his enormous fear. What if Joey never emerged from his adolescent turmoil? What if he failed high school? What if he ended up in jail? Would if he became a drug addict? What if he died? These are our parental worst nightmares. They wake us up in the middle of the night and keep us awake. Eyes wide open, there are times we feel hopeless. There are times we feel helpless.
I remember those nights. My daughter’s teen years had their share of upheaval. We were not immune to those moments of intense fear. I had my own share of trouble as a teenager. My father suffered over me too. He used to say—“I can’t wait until you have teenagers! Then you will know what I am going through!” I hated when he said that, but of course he was right.
Early adolescence (12-16) is particularly rough on kids and parents. I remember when my 15-year-old daughter told me that she had been in a bad mood for the last two years! No kidding!
As adults, it is hard to recapture that early adolescent experience. We remember the broad outline of what we did, but how we felt and what we experienced has faded from view. And our worry makes it hard to really understand what they are feeling. Mostly when you ask your kids—“Why do you feel this or that way?” they don’t know themselves. Powerful emotional currents sweep through their developing bodies and minds, spinning them around, turning them up-side down, and sometimes, in-side out. They yell at us—“You don’t understand me!” And they are right.
Early adolescence begins the traverse on a tightrope from childhood to young adulthood. It is when they first step out on this high wire. It’s scary, heady, and exciting.
What is important for parents to remember?
You know who they were and who they can be. I remember, as if it were yesterday, looking into my daughter’s eyes when they were babies and young children. Unencumbered by life experience, I saw their “true spirits”. I watched them interact with the world as young children—I saw them as they were. Then as young teens, they start to lose the connection with themselves. But we remember and we can help them remember.
I recall when my youngest daughter, at 13, was crying in the middle of the night. She called for me and I came. Through her tears she cried—“I don’t know who I am anymore!” I told her—“I know who you were, who you are, and who you will always be.” Now it is your job to see who you really are.
Express your confidence in your teen. Wow! This can be hard! All too often, locked in power struggles and tossed around by our own fears, a lot of what comes out of our mouths can be negative. Kids take what we say to heart. If we tell them they are mess-ups, they will try to get an A plus in messing up! That’s not what we want!
Instead, even in the darkest moments, provide a message of hope and confidence.
“Joey, I know you are struggling and in pain. But I have faith and confidence that you will find your way back to yourself. You have so many inner resources. You will be able to use them to help you obtain your goals”. This message helps young teens find the inner strengths that they do have.
What helped you during your difficult times as a teen or as a parent of a teen?