The Awkward Years

Parents dread it. Teens live it.

Posted Feb 12, 2016

Adolescence: those years where your child defines him or herself both with you and against you. Socrates complained that young people were tyrants back in his time, so as a Greek I know there was a mother out there complaining about my ancestor-cousins thousands of years ago. What does it all mean?

public domain photo
Source: public domain photo

It simply means that if every generation has the same complaints about teenagers, then there is nothing to see here.  Of course, we all wish we could just sail through this part of parenting.  As parents of a once-bouncy, talkative child who suddenly makes drama his or her middle name turns sullen, offers one-syllable answers and eye-rolls at every utterance we make, we enter uncharted territory and can’t help but picture this nightmare lasting well into adulthood. Although it’s true that I’ve spoken to parents who say they never had to go through any of this with their kids, I often wonder how much of it is BS and how much is the result of a faulty memory. The rest of me is simply envious.

One of the clearest memories I have of my daughter’s 7th grade school year was parent orientation.  There we were – hundreds of scared parents wondering if our kids had the maturity to walk from class to class, please multiple teachers, control their screaming hormones and actually make sense of their lives as they continued to be fed anything academic.  The principal, no doubt a war-torn veteran, was clear when she described the beginning teen years: this is when your child will act as if they need you the least, but in reality, they are screaming for your guidance and encouragement at every turn even if their outward apathy does not hint at it.

Author Stephanie Meyer of Twilight Saga fame offers the following: “I think being a teenager is such a compelling time in your life —  it gives you some of your worst scars and some of your most exhilarating moments. It’s a fascinating place; old enough to truly feel adult, old enough to make decisions that affect the rest of your life, old enough to fall in love, yet, at the same time too young (in most cases) to be free to make a lot of those decisions without someone else’s approval.”

By the time my daughter turned 13, I had already been around the block when it came to dealing with her off-task behaviors at school. I feared what lay ahead in a more uncontrolled setting like middle school, and it was not long before I found out. Her science teacher called to discuss her behavior in his class that day. He had in no uncertain terms told her (when she asked) that she could NOT climb atop a chair to present her science poster to his class. So she didn’t. She got up on the lab table instead.

As I listened to the teacher’s complaint, I was already planning our daughter’s next grounding stint for her antics at school. Some of these groundings were more inconvenient to her father and I than they were to her, and by this age, discipline was met with outward apathy on her part. She successfully masked any hint of the inconvenience it caused, always finding something entertaining to do to get through it as her teenage apathy reigned supreme.  While my tone over the phone to the science teacher was deadly serious, there was, however, another part of me that was silently chuckling. After all, the teacher had not said the lab table was off-limits.

British writer Quentin Crisp once said, “The young always have the same problem – how to rebel and conform at the same time. They solve this by defying their parents and copying one another.”  Makes me wonder if other students took her lead, but at the time I did not want to know. All I thought about was how she probably would never be able to hold down a job someday.

You can be the calmest of parents – even in an excellent mood — and your teen will challenge you. If you have other issues plaguing you at the time, it will feel as if your half-grown kid is purposely trying to push you over the edge. Sometimes I think they think it’s their duty to do this. In her Psychology Today article Teens and Parents in Conflict,  Dr. Terri Apter writes, “Recent discoveries that the human brain undergoes specific and dramatic development during adolescence (with the frontal lobes - which allow us to organize sequences of actions, think ahead and control impulses - bulking up in early adolescence before gradually shrinking back) offer new physiological "explanations" of teen behavior, particularly of their impulsiveness. At the bulking stage, there may be too many synapses for the brain to work efficiently; the mental capacity for decision-making, judgement and control is not mature until the age of twenty-four. But no underlying physiology explains the teens' experience of parents."

public domain photo
Source: public domain photo

So perhaps it’s best to take a few steps back and remember that kids this age have physiological reasons for behaving the way they do. After all, they’re probably not enjoying any of it either. Their bodies and brains are changing at such an alarming speed, it's hard for them to keep up with it all. The main thing to keep in mind is that YOU are the adult and it’s your duty to guide them, not compete with them. That's not easy when they begin to sound so adult-like.  If, like Socrates, you understand going into all this that your child’s behavior is normal, however, you might be able to digest it a bit better. Teens will distance themselves from you, they will form alliances with people outside the family and they may act as if you mattered little to them.  In the end, however, they are merely trying to become somebody.  After all, even adults in mid-life and beyond often grapple with their identities, so why is it a stretch to fathom how tortured your teen might be at the outset of these feelings?

My advice? Savor even the awkward years. I could wish you a speedy flight through these terrifying times, but remember that your child’s teen years signal that their time with you at the helm is drawing to an end.