Raising Teens: Lessons Learned from my Youngest Son

Raising Teens: Lessons Learned from my Youngest Son

Being needed, wanted, and adored is the parenting trifecta that gets us through the sleepless nights, the relentless demands, and the bodily functions of early childhood. There is something about the helpless dependence, passionate attachment, and jubilant ardor that offsets the challenges associated with parenting youngsters. Moreover, we are in control. We are bigger, more knowledgeable, and just simply in charge. If our child isn’t complying, we usually can “make them.” This sense of Some of the most important lessons on parenting, I learned from my youngest son.control, coupled with those wonderful feelings described above, defines what parenting is typically about before the tween and teen years. Even though we all know adolescence is inevitable, we often remain under the delusion that somehow our wonderful parenting, or our child’s easy-going disposition, will prevent the door slamming, sullen silences, reckless button pushing, poor decision making, and disrespectful dialogue identified with the teenage years. We hope that through studied intervention we will remain in control throughout our child’s at-home years.

Surprise! If you have done your job right, and even if you haven’t, the push for independence can’t be avoided. Just like learning to talk and walk, this is an important stage of child development. While they begin to navigate their world with one foot in childhood, and another in adulthood, they will each struggle to create their own path, have their own opinions, and separate themselves from their parents. Some will do it with more grace than others, but no matter what, the process is happening, it is inevitable, and it is actually healthy. But, they probably won’t want you, they think they don’t need you, and they love you, but the adoration stage is over, and you just don’t have the same level of control you once did.

The reality is this can be quite painful for parents, who still associate “parenting” with the emotional trifecta outlined earlier. Sometimes, none of the warm and fuzzy moments from early parenting stick around during the teen years. Other times, remnants of the cuddly and loving child remain, so although you may have a screaming teenage daughter one second, you have an engaging chatterbox 30 minutes later. Or perhaps you have a withdrawn, monosyllabic son, yet he kisses you on the cheek and tells you he loves you every night before bed.

Parents respond to all of this in a variety of different ways including despair, depression, shouting matches, tears, threats, authoritarian attempts, rage, and resignation. In fact, some parents so desperate to feel needed and wanted bend over backwards to create new dependencies, intervening in situations that ironically stunt adolescent growth and can build resentment over time. As a prior psychotherapist and school counselor, and as a current school administrator, I have seen parents lie for their teenagers, protect them at all cost from inevitable consequences, and interfere in situations that would be best left for their child to handle alone. I have seen parents give in to a variety of demands, put all of their efforts into being the “cool parent” or work hard to be their teenager’s friend, or even a great “friend” to their teenagers’ friends.

All the above responses are done in an effort to regain the emotional triad, and to get control back to its most comfortable locus, you. Most of us try everything and anything to make this happen, yelling one minute, taking car keys away the next, driving your teenage daughter and her friends to the mall laughing along with mean-spirited gossip, relenting about the party you told your teenage son he absolutely could not attend. We are, after all, just struggling through this in the same unchartered way that our children are. Unfortunately, there is no prescription for perfect and painless parenting. Furthermore, just to confuse and confound us further, we will make what may be perceived of as a mistake, yet it turns out to be the right move, and execute brilliant parenting maneuvers that turn out quite badly.

I have raised five teenagers, two of them stepdaughters, and three of them sons very close in age and much, much larger than I am. I have had wonderful, joyful moments with each and every one of them, and I’ve also had moments of rage, and floods of feelings so intense that I did not feel in control of myself, let alone them! My youngest, and only remaining teenager is 18. A single mother since he was 11, we shared a special closeness, and of course, he had me all to himself when his other siblings went off to college and careers. People envied our comfort with one another as well as our shared humor. For several years he attended the school where I worked as Dean of Students, and people marveled at how well he handled this. He found his way to my office several times a day, sought me out in the dining room to say hi, and he and his girlfriend were fixtures on the bench right outside my office door.

You know where this story is going, don’t you? Yes, he has turned out to be the one most intent on creating separation. He is the most direct button pusher, after all, being so close for so long he knows what will make me react strongest. As the youngest of five, he was definitely slotted into the adorable role, and he has spent the last few years doing whatever he can to not be so adorable. He can be brusque, uncooperative, argumentative, and most importantly, determined to do his own thing in his own way. Having him in my life not only helps me become a better parenting coach, it also frequently breaks my heart, forcing me to recalibrate the relationship, my attachment to it, and my commitment to his character, and to our growth. Some days, he tests boundaries and I test parenting theories. On other days, he goes in for a direct attack, and I forget everything I have ever learned or ever taught. Raising him has helped me distill my beliefs around parenting down to three principles:

1. You can only control one person, and that’s yourself…and sometimes you can’t even do that! So by golly, your primary “control energy” needs to stay focused on you.
2. Reaction creates escalation, so you need to do whatever you can (and you may fail) to not react.
3. Seeking agreement or approval from your teenager is futile, meaningless, and about ego, not child rearing.

When you can remember this is at the core of effective adolescent parenting, it will bring you great relief. If you silently repeat these three non-negotiables (my own personal shorthand (“Linda, collect yourself!”) I calm down, detach, and look to adults for whatever Being needed, wanted, and adored is the parenting trifecta that gets us through the sleepless nights, the relentless demands, and the bodily functions of early childhood. There is something about the helpless dependence, passionate attachment, and jubilant ardor that offsets the challenges associated with parenting youngsters. Moreover, we are in control. We are bigger, more knowledgeable, and just simply in charge. If our child isn’t complying, we usually can “make them.” This sense of control, coupled with those wonderful feelings described above, defines what parenting is typically about before the tween and teen years. Even though we all know adolescence is inevitable, we often remain under the delusion that somehow our wonderful parenting, or our child’s easy-going disposition, will prevent the door slamming, sullen silences, reckless button pushing, poor decision making, and disrespectful dialogue identified with the teenage years. We hope that through studied intervention we will remain in control throughout our child’s at-home years.

Surprise! If you have done your job right, and even if you haven’t, the push for independence can’t be avoided. Just like learning to talk and walk, this is an important stage of child development. While they begin to navigate their world with one foot in childhood, and another in adulthood, they will each struggle to create their own path, have their own opinions, and separate themselves from their parents. Some will do it with more grace than others, but no matter what, the process is happening, it is inevitable, and it is actually healthy. But, they probably won’t want you, they think they don’t need you, and they love you, but the adoration stage is over, and you just don’t have the same level of control you once did.

The reality is this can be quite painful for parents, who still associate “parenting” with the emotional trifecta outlined earlier. Sometimes, none of the warm and fuzzy moments from early parenting stick around during the teen years. Other times, remnants of the cuddly and loving child remain, so although you may have a screaming teenage daughter one second, you have an engaging chatterbox 30 minutes later. Or perhaps you have a withdrawn, monosyllabic son, yet he kisses you on the cheek and tells you he loves you every night before bed.

Parents respond to all of this in a variety of different ways including despair, depression, shouting matches, tears, threats, authoritarian attempts, rage, and resignation. In fact, some parents so desperate to feel needed and wanted bend over backwards to create new dependencies, intervening in situations that ironically stunt adolescent growth and can build resentment over time. As a prior psychotherapist and school counselor, and as a current school administrator, I have seen parents lie for their teenagers, protect them at all cost from inevitable consequences, and interfere in situations that would be best left for their child to handle alone. I have seen parents give in to a variety of demands, put all of their efforts into being the “cool parent” or work hard to be their teenager’s friend, or even a great “friend” to their teenagers’ friends.

All the above responses are done in an effort to regain the emotional triad, and to get control back to its most comfortable locus, you. Most of us try everything and anything to make this happen, yelling one minute, taking car keys away the next, driving your teenage daughter and her friends to the mall laughing along with mean-spirited gossip, relenting about the party you told your teenage son he absolutely could not attend. We are, after all, just struggling through this in the same unchartered way that our children are. Unfortunately, there is no prescription for perfect and painless parenting. Furthermore, just to confuse and confound us further, we will make what may be perceived of as a mistake, yet it turns out to be the right move, and execute brilliant parenting maneuvers that turn out quite badly.

I have raised five teenagers, two of them stepdaughters, and three of them sons very close in age and much, much larger than I am. I have had wonderful, joyful moments with each and every one of them, and I’ve also had moments of rage, and floods of feelings so intense that I did not feel in control of myself, let alone them! My youngest, and only remaining teenager is 18. A single mother since he was 11, we shared a special closeness, and of course, he had me all to himself when his other siblings went off to college and careers. People envied our comfort with one another as well as our shared humor. For several years he attended the school where I worked as Dean of Students, and people marveled at how well he handled this. He found his way to my office several times a day, sought me out in the dining room to say hi, and he and his girlfriend were fixtures on the bench right outside my office door.

You know where this story is going, don’t you? Yes, he has turned out to be the one most intent on creating separation. He is the most direct button pusher, after all, being so close for so long he knows what will make me react strongest. As the youngest of five, he was definitely slotted into the adorable role, and he has spent the last few years doing whatever he can to not be so adorable. He can be brusque, uncooperative, argumentative, and most importantly, determined to do his own thing in his own way. Having him in my life not only helps me become a better parenting coach, it also frequently breaks my heart, forcing me to recalibrate the relationship, my attachment to it, and my commitment to his character, and to our growth. Some days, he tests boundaries and I test parenting theories. On other days, he goes in for a direct attack, and I forget everything I have ever learned or ever taught. Raising him has helped me distill my beliefs around parenting down to three principles:

1. You can only control one person, and that’s you…and sometimes you can’t even do that! So by golly, your primary “control energy” needs to stay focused on yourself.
2. Reaction creates escalation, so you need to do whatever you can (and you may fail) to not react.
3. Seeking agreement or approval from your teenager is futile, meaningless, and about ego, not child rearing.

If you can remember that this is at the core of effective adolescent parenting, it will bring you great relief. If you silently repeat these three non-negotiables (my personal shorthand is “Linda, collect yourself!”) you can calm down, detach, and look to adults for whatever camaraderie you may be tempted to seek from your teenager. In fact, I often find it has the added impact of getting us both out of the quicksand and into the surf, where we can enjoy a shared laugh and a good bowl of ice cream between waves.

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Linda Rosenberg McGuire is an avid blogger, speaker, parenting coach and consultant whose focus is supporting, coaching and educating parents and teachers as they live and work with the teenagers in their lives. She works with schools to inspire and reinvigorate their faculty so they can successfully work with the most challenging teenagers. Linda also helps parents understand and respond to their teenagers effectively, stressing the importance of listening, limits and building a sense of competence and independence in their adolescents. She is currently the Dean of Students at Westtown School in West Chester, PA. Linda has 30 years of experience working with children, most of that time focusing on teenagers and their relationships with their parents. Linda got her start as a caseworker and trip leader for teens-at-risk, eventually working as a psychotherapist in community mental health as well as a school social worker and counselor. She has spent the last 12 years in independent school administration, working as both a program director and a dean.

Linda Rosenberg McGuire

Linda Rosenberg McGuire is an avid blogger, speaker, parenting coach and consultant whose focus is supporting, coaching and educating parents and teachers as they live and work with the teenagers in their lives. She works with schools to inspire and reinvigorate their faculty so they can successfully work with the most challenging teenagers. Linda also helps parents understand and respond to their teenagers effectively, stressing the importance of listening, limits and building a sense of competence and independence in their adolescents. She is currently the Dean of Students at Westtown School in West Chester, PA. Linda has 30 years of experience working with children, most of that time focusing on teenagers and their relationships with their parents. Linda got her start as a caseworker and trip leader for teens-at-risk, eventually working as a psychotherapist in community mental health as well as a school social worker and counselor. She has spent the last 12 years in independent school administration, working as both a program director and a dean.

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