One day, they’re still your little pumpkin, wanting hugs and PB&J’s with the crusts cut off. The next, you’re some weird old person who’s stalking them. Welcome to the special hell that’s parenting a teenager.
Parenthood is often a delight and so rewarding. But, when it comes to parenting a teenager, there’s no denying that it can also be a bit of a trial. First, you need to survive the nervous years of babyhood, when you think everything will go wrong. Then, you have to resign yourself to an increasingly independent elementary schooler. And you think it’s smooth going after that. You delude yourself into thinking your child is smart, independent, and can probably manage their own lives to some degree.
Then they become teenagers.
Your once-brilliant 12-year-old has become a 13-year-old with all the sense of a brick. Bad decisions, bad moods, and a roller coaster of affection and hostility follows.
You find yourself — daily — torn between the urge to give them freedom and keep them babies. Then, you start counting the days until they’re 18 and can be legally ejected from the home.
“Mother Nature is providential. She gives us twelve years to develop a love for our children before turning them into teenagers.” — William Galvin
The funny thing is, they’re feeling the same way. One day, they’re still your little pumpkin, wanting hugs and cartoons and sandwiches with the crusts cut off. The next day, they’re pretending you’re some weird old person that’s following them around for dubious reasons.
It’s not you; it’s not even them. It’s just that age.
The Disconcerting Physical Metamorphosis
The first hints you have a teenager in the house can be subtle. The process of childhood to a fully-fledged adult seems to happen in stages. The full-on physical metamorphous seems to start first. This is accompanied by an emotional drama that’s nearly operatic in scope.
There are crying jags and random bursts of tears. And yes, that’s from your son, too. There’s rage and anger. God forbid their favorite shirt isn’t clean for school on Monday. The doorframes can’t take the slammed doors for another seven years.
“You don’t have to suffer to be a poet. Adolescence is enough suffering for anyone.” — John Ciardi
Then comes another clue — the snoring you hear from the others side of their bedroom door at four in the flipping afternoon, for pity’s sake. It’s time to get UP already!
Perhaps it’s the moment that you turn around to answer the whined “Mooommm” you hear behind you; you’re confronted by some stranger who towers over you. And they’re hungry…
Over time, the signs become more obvious. There are … smells … coming from that bedroom. Or perhaps from the pile of laundry. And they’re odd and foreign and awful.
You know you’re parenting a teenager when your grocery bill begins to climb. This seems to be counterbalanced by the overflowing of the trash can they were supposed to take out. Even if you managed to nag them into emptying the trash at 10 p.m., it’s now filled with the packaging and remains of the seeming seven full meals they ate in the middle of the night.
“In order to know whether a human being is young or old, offer it food of different kinds at short intervals. If young, it will eat anything at any hour of the day or night.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes
Suddenly, you need to pick up extra Drano at the store. Teens with newly sprouted fur don’t know they’re supposed to clean the drain after the shower. And then there are the other substances that clog the drain… You tell yourself it’s hair product.
If you’re paying attention and lucky, you’ll remember that you now have a teenager in the house before bursting into their bedroom to check on homework or announce dinner. If you’re oblivious and unlucky, you’ve pushed open the door before knocking. After all, you’ve been doing it for 13 or 14 years, why shouldn’t you? Well, at least you’ll only make that mistake once.
If you haven’t already, you’ve decided to make them start doing their own laundry. You’re terrified of emptying the pockets. What is that? Leftover food? Cheap makeup? Body fluids? Shove it in the washer and dump bleach on it. You just don’t want to know. They’ll insist on doing it themselves, if you have one of those easily embarrassed, self-conscious teenagers. If not, show them how to use the washer and walk away. You’ll sleep better.
The Elusive Movements of Teenagers
And don’t think it’s over just because puberty seems to have finished working most of its weird magic on this new person in your house. They may be over the worst of the acne spots, emotional breakdowns, and growth spurts, but it’s not over yet. Not by a long shot. Now, some of the social aspects of their transformation seem to come into play.
You know — or at least suspect — that you’re parenting a teenager when you realize you haven’t seen your sprog in two days. You’re definitely sure you have a child. You vividly recall the 36 hours of back labor. But you’re darned if you’ve seen them, lately. You’re pretty sure they still live there. You didn’t get an invite to any graduation ceremony, so they probably do.
“When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.” ― Nora Ephron
If you’ve done a good job, your teenager is out there making a life for themselves. If you’re lucky, they’re out there making it a good one. Whether it’s school projects, a new job, or a new girlfriend, your kid has been pretty scarce. That’s when you cave and put them on your cell phone plan. (If you haven’t already.)
But, it’s certainly not like they have anything to say to you, despite the healthy charges on the cell phone bill. And it’s not like you have any idea what they’re doing or where they are. They’re not talking to you. Ignorance meets any direct line of inquiry. They don’t know where they were. They’re not sure what they were doing. They don’t remember who they were with. Apparently, your child has been taking tips from Congressional hearings on C-SPAN.
The only time they use the phone you’ve paid for to communicate with you is when they text you from the next room asking when dinner is ready. Because, yes — they are too lazy to come and ask in person. Or you know, help you make it.
“The best way to keep children at home is to make the home atmosphere pleasant, and let the air out of the tires.” — Dorothy Parker
The smartphone is for the inevitable emergency call at 2 am. If you’re lucky, it’s only a flat tire. When they first get their license at 16, any car problem is a national emergency. Whatever the hour, you rush out to rescue and console them. By the time they’re 18 or 19, however, it’s a different game altogether. You growl at them to call roadside, roll over, and go back to sleep. In fact, you may be even smiling evilly under the covers. You know they’re going to have to stand outside for hours waiting for gas delivery, because they’re the ones that were supposed to fill up.
You used to track the gas levels in your car. Now you check the mileage. Because at some point, they’ve at least realized they need to replace what they’ve used to keep you ignorant of their movements. They’re smartening up, but they can’t quite outwit you, yet.
You know you’re the parent of a teenager when you realize that a lot of your stuff has gone missing. In the larval stage, your child frequently left the broken remains of electronics, toys, and home décor for your discovery. During the teen stage, however, they trade breaking your stuff for “borrowing it.” Now that some of your interests are similar, they’re more likely to find your clothing or electronic devices strangely fascinating. And you’ll not see them again until they’re torn, broken, or need batteries. That’s when they’ll mysteriously reappear. Right where you left them.
They Know ALL the Things
After this burst of social independence, you’ll become the collateral damage of their new intellectual curiosity. Prepare yourself, because your teenager will tell you how ignorant you are so often, that you might think you’re back in high school, yourself.
Your incompetence with new technology is now the obvious signs of your increasing obsolescence and inevitable death. The political party you’ve been voting for since you can remember is — obviously — the conspiracy of a secret cadre to halt the progress of the human race. The meal you’ve worked hard to buy and prepare is cruel and inhumane and killing the planet.
But, at least they’re not really that invested in their latest manifesto. The 14-year-old that lectured you about recycling is now a 16-year-old taking 45-minute showers.
“Don’t laugh at a youth for his affectations; he is only trying on one face after another to find a face of his own.” — Logan Pearsall Smith
These later teen years can be the most rewarding. Your child has become a thinking, discerning almost-adult. You may not agree with anything they believe, but you have to admit they’ve learned to think through their ideas. You know you’re the parent of a teenager when you find yourself torn between cynicism and hope on a daily basis. Sometimes, you’re worried that people like your teenager will be in charge of the world. And sometimes, knowing that your kid has a good heart restores your faith in the future.
Revisiting Your Own Youth
You may have channeled your inner child when your kid was little, but now that they’re teenagers, you have to face your own adolescence. You know you’re the parent of a teenager if you spend hours with a broken, sympathetic heart over just how hard it is to be a teen. You remember what it’s like to feel awkward and weird. You remember the constant self-examination and crushing feelings of inadequacy.
And you know you’re the parent of a teenager if you also spend hours tearing your hair out as you see your own mistakes repeated by your legacy child. That blank look of defiance is life’s most frustrating moment, as you try to explain, calmly, rationally: been there, done that, bought the hair shirt.
“And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.” ― David Bowie
Raising children is a challenge. But it’s a worthwhile one. Not only do you learn so much about this new person you’ve brought into this world, you also learn an awful lot about yourself. Enjoy it while it lasts. Every frustrating, heart-breaking, exultant moment.
Featured Image: CC0 Creative Commons by Tawny Nina, via Pixabay