We are approaching a milestone in my house, where my oldest daughter is entering her teen years. Growing up, I was taught that teenagers were shifty, sneaky, untrustworthy, terrible, liars, cheaters, drunks, and sluts. In other words, my parents projected all their own bad behavior, along with a heaping dose of shame and judgement, onto the concept of what an adolescent is. When I was a teenager, if I was rebellious, it meant I was “bad.” Yet for me, rebelling against my parents’ constructs were most likely what saved me. It took a long time for me to deconstruct my normal teenage reactions to abusive people as not being “bad.” Because of my parents’ projections, I carried a lot of their shame. Yet, from my own experience, and from the experience of observing other teenagers, I knew they were wrong. Teenagers are not shameful people. They are beautiful, challenging, and complex, but not shameful. What’s shameful is neglecting their need for love, safety, and belonging.
I’ve always liked teenagers more than toddlers, generally speaking. Unlike my parents, I have admiration and respect for the developmental stage in which young humans try to figure out who they are, and challenge themselves and others in what they believe. Teens are full of passion for life, push back on what’s wrong with the world, and optimism for the potential to grow and change. They are learning how to express their increasingly complex emotions. I’ve had the opportunity to teach and mentor this age, and I think there is so much magic in the mind and heart of someone on the cusp of adulthood. Teenagers need the safety, nurturing, protection, boundaries, and wisdom that a healthy adult can provide, yet they are capable of soaring to astonishing heights of creativity and inspiration. It’s a fascinating combination.
Of course, that’s all good in theory. The reality of living with a teenager full of passion is that sometimes it burns up all the oxygen in the room. Enter my kid this morning, who had a “typical” teenager meltdown. For the last few days, she’s been acting shockingly selfish and entitled. She’s been indulging in self-pity and crankiness. She missed out on spending time with a friend because she was lazy about getting something important done. She’s testing basic boundaries, and she was downright cruel to her siblings. When she acts this way, my own rage over the injustice of her behavior builds up. Plus, she was already cranked to ten this morning before I was out of bed and had my coffee. Ugh. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about parenting, it’s that the most difficult conflicts are always before coffee. Right now, I have a lot of my own childhood trauma unpacked and scattered about, and any kind of intensity can quickly escalate my poor CPTSD brain into overload. So needless to say, I don’t have a lot of confidence in myself right now when it comes to handling other people’s shit.
But then, something interesting happened. Rather than react to my own rage by taking it out on her, or trying to escape or internalize it, I shared it with her. I was livid that she would intentionally hurt someone in our family. I pointed out that I would be livid if someone hurt her, and I think she got it. My anger was righteous. After some clear consequences for her actions, and a very frank and direct conversation, she was given some time alone to sort herself out. And she did. She came back, legitimately changed for the better, and we had a long hug.
I think a lot of parents worry about losing their children at this age. Their kid is suddenly acting very different from who they thought they were, and it’s unsettling. I don’t think there is such thing as losing a kid as a teenager. By the time they are teens, there is either a foundation of trust, or there isn’t. My parents lost me at a young age, so by the time I became a teenager, they no longer had any say into my life. Looking back on my relationship with my kid, there are thousands of conversations and situations in which she was seen and heard in a way that I never, ever was when I was a kid. She knows that an instance of bad behavior is not an equivalent to being a bad person. Bad behavior is a temporary choice, not a life sentence.
In a way, I am looking forward to seeing what kind of mistakes my daughter makes in her teen years, so that I can show her the love and grace I never had. It’s foreign ground to me, and yet it’s what I know everyone’s heart longs for- a soft place to land.