The bumper sticker on the car ahead of me this morning read, “I have teenagers. Pray for me.” I laughed. But then I got to thinking about the sentiment and it made me kind of sad. What is it about the developmental phase called “the teen years” that is so terrifying and difficult for so many families? Why do we all cooperate in reinforcing the idea that teen years are impossibly painful? Why aren’t we instead celebrating the joy of becoming that is going on before our very eyes?
Now, things aren’t perfect in my home, either. With three teens and a soon to be 10-year-old, life is hardly dull. Kids knock heads with each other and with us — regularly. But I wouldn’t trade in this period in our family life any more quickly than any other. It’s truly a miracle to watch my children and their friends in the process of becoming the adults they will be. Their bodies and ideas are often equally awkward and unfinished but their struggle to master both is fascinating. Negotiating their transition from childhood to adulthood means that we are all making adjustments. As is always the case, this stage of my children’s development is making me continue my own growth in the ways I manage human relationships.
When someone asks me for advice on how to handle a teen, I ask them first to tell me about that child when she or he was 2. People are remarkably consistent. Often what we see at 15 is a reprise of what went on in the toddler — just in a much bigger body.
Most people laugh with recognition. The stubborn two-year-old is now a stubborn teen with 13 years of practice. The manipulative toddler is now a master of family politics. The sulky child has become the sullen teen. The dramatic young child can now win Academy Awards. The first rule for dealing with teens is a sense of humor. Picturing your kid at two (pudgy little arms and legs and baby curls) when the teen self is giving you a hard time is a great way to put things back into perspective.
Having done that, it’s not a big step to remember what worked with this kid way back in babyhood. Some kids just need a hug. Some need an explanation. Some need an indication that yes, we really are listening and we understand how hard life can be. Some need a joke. Some need clear but kind limits. Some need their parent just to shrug and let them figure it out for themselves. You already know what works best with your upset child. Stop being so impressed with teenaged angst and tantrums and remember what helped quiet, soothe, and settle your baby .
So often we really do make our own problems. How we respond to teenage tempers and unreasonableness can make things so much worse. Some parents meet teen yelling with adult yelling, teen insults with adult insults, teen threats with even bigger adult threats, or teen putdowns with adult versions.
This kind of escalation seldom works for long. Little kids will react with fear and capitulation when adults are out of control. But teenage kids recognize huff and puff when they see it and develop an essential disrespect for the adults who are even more unreasonable and out of control than they are. Once that disrespect is established, it’s almost impossible to have any influence on what your teenaged son or daughter does.
If we are going to help our teens learn to negotiate the inevitable conflicts and hurt feelings that are part of all relationships, it falls on us adults to act in an adult manner. Nobody responds well to an argument that’s out of control — not at 2, not at 16, not at 35. It didn’t work to try to argue your 2-year-old out of a tantrum. It doesn’t work with a teen. For that matter, it doesn’t work with your spouse, friends, or family. Irrational noise may get everyone to leave you alone for awhile, but the original problem doesn’t get solved.
People who have genuinely close relationships can step away from their anger and hurt (if not immediately, then a little later) and work with their kids or partners or friends to discover what is really going on, what everyone’s needs are, and possible win-win solutions. If you’ve been able to slip through life so far without learning these skills, your teenager will certainly make it obvious how bankrupt you are.