Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Choreography of Mothering Teens


(This is a re-published and re-edited post from three years ago.)
Mothering teens.  A whole different set of skills is needed! It’s all so new and frustrating and scary and fun.  Just like when new parents are handed their first newborn, it’s so hard to describe to anyone that feeling-I think in a way parenting starts all over again at the teen age.  It has been quite a learning experience for me and I have far to go. Nothing humbles a parent like raising a teen.  (Or many of them at once!)
Here’s a recent experience to demonstrate what I’m talking about.

I received this comment years ago after I posted photos on my blog of a recent family vacation:
Do you sometimes think your daughter’s shorts are too short?
It made me laugh.  Actually the daughter in question was sitting at the computer when I read it and we both looked at each other and laughed together.
Because the answer is yes.  I do!  I  think my 15-year-old daughter’s shorts are a tad too short.  I also think she wears too much make up and doesn’t need one drop of it, so any is “too much” for me.  I am not fond of the fashions right now.  (Haven’t all mothers said this?  I know my mom did!)  And I wish she wouldn’t get so stressed about school, and friend drama and sometimes I really wish she would not be so picky and particular on just about everything. And the only nail polish color I really like on girls is light pink, and she likes yellow or blue or sometimes orange.
My daughter knows this.  Sometimes we argue about it and sometimes we downright battle about it. It’s hard. I wish she would listen to everything I have to say and do exactly what I tell her to do all the time. She did when she was little.  We could go shopping and oooh and aaah over all the same stuff.  The matching tights, the cute colorful knit dresses.  Those red sparkly shoes and the cute pink tennies. We got along great all the time.  Because her opinion and my opinion matched perfectly.
In junior high we started clashing about little things.  Maybe it was at what age we would allow her to get her ears pierced.  Or why I had to be so strict about how high the heels were that she wanted to buy for 8th grade graduation…”everyone else” was wearing those high ones, why couldn’t she? We started getting angry at each other as she pushed and I pulled -as she exerted her opinion that was different from my opinion – yes, she had somehow developed her own, how the heck did that happen?
I held her back against the growing-up-too-fast pull as best as I could.  Oh, if only I could keep her in my world, totally, completely, create that bubble.  If only I could just say yes to everything she wanted because it was the same as what I wanted, it would all be so easy.  If only she would stay my young little girl forever.
I’ve found the teen years are full of change in the parent and child relationship…that push and pull, back and forth, and a sense of loss for both of us as our children develop into adults.  We have both cried tears over the last years….over how darn hard and different it has been.  Me shedding tears of doubt – Am I doing this right?  Am I being too strict?  Should I have stuck to my guns?  Why oh why can’t she just trust that I know what is best for her? And her with tears of frustration, anger, and just plain old hurt feelings.
When it comes to raising teenagers I think there are three roads to take.  Two are easy…and so tempting because you, as the mother, can always be happy and there is little or no conflict, tears, drama.
One is the route where anything they want is fine with you.  The drinking, the boyfriends, the hotel rooms rented at prom.  Rules are a pain, and being popular is the name of the game.  There is never a fight because who wants to fight? “Yes,” is your answer, “sure go ahead honey, we’re best friends right?” You turn your head or laugh and say, “Teenagers will be teenagers, what can I do about it?”
The other end of the spectrum is just the opposite.  You keep total control.  You make all those decisions for them.  You require them to call you on their cell phones every hour because the big bad world out there is dangerous. You teach them that they can’t trust their own decisions and choices and that you have all the answers.  You criticize and control and protect and hover and warn and do everything in your power to keep them under your wing constantly.  Things stay the same as they were when they were three, seven, nine – when it was easy.  Their only choice is your way or the highway.
I have seen both styles of parenting teens and I know in my heart and from observation that both have pretty good odds of producing results that are less than ideal when it comes to healthy growth and development. The easy way, darn it, never seems to be the right way. Even so, it’s tempting.
See that place in the middle of those two extremes?  It’s tons of work.  It’s work every day, whether you are up for it or not.  As a parent we might be exhausted, sick, busy, or we might just want to keep that good mood going and not rock the boat for once.  We know we must gauge when to move up or down in that middle ground. Constantly we wonder when to let go, when to be quiet, when to just listen, when to speak up, when to hold fast, when to stay firm.
I’ve learned there are many rules or guidelines that start out one way, and end up another as teen’s progress, grow and struggle  – and as we parents progress and grow and struggle also.  Sometimes rules need to be adjusted as kids get older, and as they present a case that makes good sense.  There needs to be a gradual letting go of the reins…a handing over (literally!) of the steering wheel of life.  Trust is broken and gained. Lessons are learned and tears are shed. Sometimes consequences need to be learned the hard way – but it’s tricky to know ahead of time when something is going to be a good learning experience or digs a deeper hole with a price to high to be paid. Sometimes responsibility for decisions is given too soon, sometimes at the right time and sometimes late enough to cause major resentment.  It’s difficult to hit that “perfect timing” thing every day.  The light bulb moments us moms savor can be few and far between. And sometimes those light bulb moments are moments when my teens have taught me as much or more as I have taught them!
Every day, I’m making decisions large and small on the spur of the moment, in the heat of the moment, in the light of day and the dark of night and it all renders me mentally exhausted – weighing the pros and cons, thinking and rethinking, trying to figure out what’s really important – it’s a learning process.  And then on top of it all, I learn that what works for one child certainly doesn’t work for another. For some teens, the surefire way to get them to do something is to let it be known that we prefer the opposite. For other teens the tiniest hint of criticism from us leads to a breakdown in communication for months and we must work to regain that relationship.  I’ve had one teen say to me, “You don’t have to be so careful about telling me what you think Mom!   I want to hear what you have to say.  I need your advice!”  And I've had another child say, “This is what I want.  I know it’s right for me even if it isn’t what you would chose.”   Sometimes it's the same teen but a different week, stating both!  Keeps me on my toes, that’s for sure, and scrambles my brain at the same time.
But if I’ve learned anything in the last few years of parenting teenagers it’s this.  My role is not to turn my back and go with the flow and hope for the best and it’s not to keep them young and dependent with no choices of their own on us so they don’t really grow up.  My job is to get them to the point where they can make healthy decisions -large and small – for themselves and do it confidently and well. It’s to accept that my children may want different things out of life than what I had imagined for them when they were little children.  It’s to watch them develop their own styles and taste and opinions (which I have learned changes so quickly in these years) and try not to cringe too much when it’s not that super cute sun dress, the darling flats, the preppy shirt – or the friend, or the extracurricular activity at school – that I would have chosen for them.  
And yes, it is standing firm and strong at the same time, not being fearful of saying no, and not losing the battle against cultural norms.  Combine all that and we have a dance with the most complicated choreography between parents and teens. It is highly personal-what looks like a pair of shorts too short to someone outside of that intricate relationship, could have the most complicated story behind them-a compromise made after one hundred no’s, a battle not chosen at an emotionally delicate time in that teen’s life, a gesture of love and acceptance when she feels love and acceptance from no one.  It can’t be judged from afar, from the outside, by anyone.  This dance between teens and parents- it takes years and years to learn, it is an art-just as choreography is, dancing with trust, with compromise, with hope, with authority-but always with love.