The Gift of the Truculent Teenager

As an educator of teachers and counsellors, I never had to wait long to hear the next sentence that contains an expletive alongside the word “teenager.” Having raised three of my own, I’m not unrealistic about the challenges that they can bring. In addition to the expense it takes to keep them in operation, there are numerous aspects to deal with. We have to get used to the weekend nights out without much idea of what’s going on, when even the liberal-minded need to practice a degree of denial. There’s also the claiming of TV rights and all the F-words — the endless fussiness of food and fashions, the facial wars, friendship feuds, fury and fun (the “fun-to-them” kind). All that and we haven’t even mentioned the A-word yet: attitude.

There are many strategies we can employ for the dour and dirty — curfews, groundings and reasoning; swearing, banishing and bullying; loving, bribing and humouring. I find none of these to be sustainable for long, and when we mix them up too obviously, our lack of consistency might even have us laughing at ourselves (and that’s the good news, because let’s face it, laughs might be few and far between over these lean years).

The best advice I’ve had, and the best advice I can give, is just roll with it. We can all agree that these are the years our children are in a “difficult” stage in their lives. When we can resign ourselves to the reality that these are also the years we are in a difficult stage, things get easier. Yes, rescued again by the inner philosopher.

Colourful block-long graffiti from the 2009 Brooklyn, New York, Art Under the Bridge Festival
Thanks to See-Ming Lee for this block-long Flickr Creative Commons image from the Dumbo Arts Center: 2009 Art Under the Bridge Festival.

There is, however, one thing that often gets in the way of the inner philosopher — and that’s our own inner child. When that gets triggered, we can become rather dour and dirty ourselves.

The developmental task of the teenager is to find out who they are. To do this, they need to go inward. And when they do, the last thing they want is someone shouting to get in there with them or, conversely, to drag them out. So they put up their walls and shut us out. When they do that, we have only two real choices.

One, we can wait for them to come out. This usually happens around 17. They won’t realize all that’s happened to you during the past few years, though when they notice you again they might rib you about all the grey hair you have. There are degrees of the “wait” option, of course. We can still be vigilant on their behalf, choosing our battles and our weaponry with great care.

Alternatively, we can keep ranting and raving about our unfulfilled desire to live with a civilized human being. The effect of this is that they have to go further inward (often literally to their own room with door closed) to keep all the noise down. Because there is one thing we can count on — they won’t “get” what we’re on about. And you know the other thing about this pathway? It becomes a bit too obvious that it’s about more than our teenager. They’re hitting on issues that are ours to sort out — namely, our issues around rejection and abandonment. If we have unresolved issues in this area, then we experience their barriers as personal. It’s a simple equation with a known result — we love them and they push us away. Is that a theme you’ve touched on before? Ah, that’s where our little dears become a gift — reflecting to us yet more of our unresolved issues prior to fleeing the nest.

And of course our certainty that they despise us (they don’t) becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because if we keep haranguing them, then our relationships might not recover when they come out again in due course. It might take until they are mature adults to think they can begin real relationships with the parents who have never accepted them (their view of those years).

So, just like when we had children in the first place and so many inner and outer adjustments had to be made, once again it helps if we can get over ourselves and see our children through the last, painful stretch into adulthood. The fact is, they’re much better equipped when they have us standing alongside them. And we may grow old that little bit more gracefully.

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