(I have loads of drafted unpublished posts and I found this the other day. I imagine I didn’t post it because it might have caused offence to said teenage offspring. They are both out of their teens now, and this still rings true, so here it is).
Unless you have teenage children, you really have no idea how stupid, emotionally unstable and embarrassing you are.
In the glory days when they are young, you are perfect. You’re the best Mum – the prettiest, the cleverest, the kindest. You can do no wrong. Children have fights in the playground over who has the best mum or dad.
Then, overnight – and without warning – you become persona non grata. It starts with the rapidly dropped hand in sight of the school gate and the cheek turned away as you lean down for your goodbye kiss, and is followed up quickly by eye-rolling and a reluctance to be seen in public with you. Then before you know it you are – apparently – a fully fledged psycho.
I’m happy to say that these stages of teenager-dom are close to being over in my household. In fact, one of my children is no longer actually a teenager, and has moved out to his own place. But I do still have one hormonally charged resident sharing my home, and although I’m fortunate that for about 98% of the time she is absolutely the light of my life, during the other 2% she comes close to driving me to the sort of psychosis she thinks I exhibit anyway.
I read somewhere once that teenagers are particularly sensitive to changes in the volume of voices. I hope I did anyway, as every time I am even slightly irritated I am accused of shouting when I’m pretty sure I am not. The problem is though that then we get into a cycle. Because originally I was mildly irritated about something like – oh I don’t know – the sink being full of washing up when I got home from work. But then I’m irritated about the fact that what we seem to be debating now is not whether it is reasonable to fill the kitchen sink with your redundant plates and mugs – often along with uneaten food – but whether or not the amount I am ‘sooooo upset’ about it is commensurate with the crime, which apparently hadn’t been anticipated*. And if I’m not careful, I can then find myself shouting things like – ‘if you want to see me soooooo upset I can do that if you like’, and I end up looking like the teenager while she sighs and does the washing up.
So the other great thing about being the parent of a teenager is not only that you can be stupid, embarrassing and emotionally labile, but you can be a complete loser as well.
This dynamic is made more difficult by being a single parent. If you’re still happily ensconced in wedded bliss with the other parent of your teenager – or maybe even if you’re still ensconced but not necessarily happily – you should have at least one other adult in the house to support you during these interactions. How I’ve longed for someone to say ‘don’t speak to your mother like that’. Also what your teenagers don’t realise is that when they say we are being unreasonable, horrible, or difficult, we are often wondering if we are or not. Am I an awful parent? Am I? There is no one to debrief with, no one to back you up, or to discuss where you might be going wrong, or could take another approach, and it makes it all that little bit harder.
I have been extremely lucky that my own teenagers have been largely lovely**. We’ve even reached a stage where sincere apologies and reparations are made after there has been an incident. But as a parent, I’ve learnt that you also have to be prepared to apologise when you’ve overstepped the mark, and that admitting that sometimes you’re not sure, or you find it hard seems to build trust and understanding. It’s ok not to be the expert, to be fallible, imperfect. And to be honest – whilst they are struggling with never being a teenager before and all that brings, we are also struggling with never having been a parent to a teenager either, so we’re going to make mistakes. When you do this, of course, it does mean that you’ve gone full circle from superhero to real actual person, but it also seems to open up the door to a new type of relationship – a more adult and authentic one. And you teach your children that it’s ok to make mistakes so long as we learn from them – the first stage of which is admitting them.
Of all the phases of parenthood, these teenage years are the ones with the highest anxiety. You must let go, you must allow them to start to assert their independence, go their own way, take some risks. Even though every fibre of your body is saying ‘stay home with me, where it’s safe!’. I have successfully traversed the nail biting experience of knowing your child is in another country alone, of first forays to nightclubs, of driving with their friends down the coast for the weekend. Every parent of a teenager will know the horror of the unanswered call, the text message with no response and of waking up in the early hours of the morning and discovering their teenager is not yet back from their night out in the city.
I’m no expert, but I’ve tended to allow a higher level of independence than many parents, often out of necessity rather than choice. As a single working parent, I couldn’t drive my children everywhere, and we live in a major city. They’ve been navigating the public transport system near and far for years, and learnt to drive right in the city centre (literally terrifying for everyone concerned). My son was at school in the UK, flying back and forth on his own. Both children have made the long trip to and from the UK alone – the first times only just in their teens. I like to think that these experiences have contributed to making them the independent, brave, adventurous young adults they are today.
However, on the rare occasion, I’ve put my foot down with regard to what I’ve felt was an unreasonable request. And when the inevitable onslaught of begging, and accusations of unfairness and being horrid etc etc has begun, I’ve asked them this. Do you think I am saying no to this because I’m a dreadful person who just wants to ruin your life (as suggested) or….could it be something else? Then I’ve made them tell me why. And of course, it’s because I love them and I want them to be safe. Even very bolshy teenagers seem to find it hard to remain quite so indignant in the face of this. And if they carry on being rude or difficult, unplug the internet and take the modem to work with you. If nothing else it will make them come out their rooms.
I would say though that it’s also my experience that teenagers often ask to do outrageous things in the hope that you will say no, in order to absolve them of the embarrassment of declining to do so, even though it would be achingly cool or would ingratiate them with someone cool if they did. I’ve been happy to be the fall guy and have everyone think I’m a bitch – to the extent that we even had a code which would tell me in a text message that I should say no, prior to the call asking me. I won’t tell you what that code was so as not to embarrass my kids, but you should think about setting one up with yours.
So if you’re currently parenting teenagers, good luck! But remember – like all those other stages, even when it feels like it’s lasting forever, it will be over before you know it. And then adulthood beckons – so enjoy them while you can.
*even though I have repeatedly, since the beginning of time, been expressing irritation at said dishes in the sink…
**well I would say that wouldn’t I? But it’s true.