January 20, 2020
January 20, 2020

Negotiating the Adolescent Years


This article refers to the child as ‘she’ for easier reading, but its contents are written for parents of both male and female children.

And so, they grow and they change and they let go and they begin to find themselves. As your child develops into adolescence she experiences what is arguably the most difficult passage of time in her life thus far. Through this period she will experience rapid changes within her physicality, her self-awareness, her understanding of the world around her, her relationships, her own identity, her vision of the future, her own sense of value and purpose, her social life, her sense of responsibility… and the list goes on and on and on. This is both a traumatic and liberating period of transition for her and you have to help her through it.

“Parents are sometimes a bit of a disappointment to their children. They don’t fulfill the promise of their early years.” Anthony Powell

This very astute observation by Anthony Powell says more about how your child will perceive you through her adolescent years than it does of you as a parent. Don’t be too concerned; rather, find some comfort in knowing that she will be disappointed in you no matter how well you do your job. However, if you do your job well, she will emerge from this prolonged period of enlightenment with a healthy amount of respect and love for you that will help her to overcome her disappointment of you.

So what goes on in the mind of an adolescent?

It’s a bit of a silly question in some respects, because we’re all different. However, parenting your child through adolescence will require you to make changes in your approach to her. The rules of the game will change daily and you will need to adjust if you are to stay in it.

It’s natural for to parents make assumptions about their adolescent children. There is a tendency to recall their own time of adolescence and assume that the thoughts, feelings and experiences they had back then will give them an insight into the minds of their own children. To a certain extent that may work for you, but it is so important to maintain an open line of communication with your child. If she knows that she will not be judged, ignored or dismissed when she opens up to you, she will be far more inclined to communicate with you. Avoid platitudes or hackneyed responses to your child’s communications with you – they are hardly likely to serve either one of you well.

If she’s hurting, and she tries to express that to you, the last words she needs to hear are ‘you’ll be fine’. Even if said sincerely, they show little thought or heart-felt expression. She may not need great pearls of wisdom from you. She may only need you to listen – to ask her how much she’s hurting is or who it is that’s hurt her. She may just want to hang out and watch a movie. Whatever she needs, it isn’t an off-the-shelf response. She needs to know that you care and that you understand her. She doesn’t need ‘answers’ all the time. Sometimes all that she wants is to be heard; to be ‘got’; to know that she’s loved.

But understanding her doesn’t provide you with an “Access All Areas” pass to your child’s inner self. She is becoming independent of you now, so her secrets are, by right, her secrets. If she wants to share them with you, she will, but you don’t have a right to make demands of disclosure from her because she has as much right to her privacy as you do to yours. If you don’t allow her this freedom she may withdraw and your line of communication will be lost – or at least compromised.

Your adolescent child is not very different from the little person who you dressed in a uniform for her first day of middle school. What is different is her new-found desire to be independent of you. These years may be as traumatic for you as they will be for her. You are having to let go of the person you have spent years investing in and connecting with.

You may think that she is becoming ungrateful. It’s more likely that she is distracted, overwhelmed and confused. Be gracious with her – she’s going to need more grace than you think you have, but if you don’t want to fail in this final stage of parenting your child, you must find it. Dig deep – really deep. She may well take more energy out of you over the next 5-7 years as she has done for the previous 12-13 years.

Your child is developing her own social network now; one that has nothing to do with you. Even at the age of 11 or 12 she may need to start excluding you so that she can develop a life away from you. These are the beginnings of her independence. It’s painful for you but it is good. You have to let her do this and if you can, try to facilitate it. I allowed my children to have their friends around. They had their own rooms and those were their territory. This gave my children a sense of independence and provided them with an environment in which they could begin to develop their own social lives.

Adolescents are wonderful. They have so much energy, belief, drive, ambition and vision. All these things need channeling if they are to reach their full potential.

Your child hasn’t suddenly become unruly. Not if you’ve brought her up well. She is more likely to be struggling to find the balance between her dependence and independence. The person she is and the person she wants to be. This is a frustrating time for her. She wants to be free of you but she still needs you. She has no home of her own, she has no financial independence, and she has no transport. She needs you for these things and it annoys her that she does. How can she be independent and yet needy? It doesn’t sit well with her. She will take her frustrations out on you because she knows you will love her no matter what. For a while, you will be her dart board with the ugly faces of misunderstanding, loneliness, isolation, helplessness and identity crisis pinned to it. Every time she throws a dart, catch it. Don’t let it penetrate you and cause you pain. She is throwing without knowing why. It’s not you she’s aiming at – it’s the faces on the dartboard.

Patience and tolerance are great attributes to be calling on right now. During this period of turmoil for her, your calmness will be a welcome antidote. It will help her to regain her emotional equilibrium. If you retaliate or respond explosively to her seemingly bad behaviour you may only make things worse. Don’t throw the darts back at her (remember, they weren’t aimed at you), lay them down. Be slow to respond. Be reasonable. Let her know that you want to help her and that you are not out to win a fight. A gentle answer will help to quench the fire within her – every time. You won’t always get the reaction you desire but her heart will take it in and it will do her good.

Every time you approach your child, do it from a place of enquiry instead of knowing and her responses will better equip you to understand her. Provide her with the meaningful, affirming words and acts of love that she craves. Things that will appease her frustrations, heal her wounds, fill her emptiness, silence the noises, make sense of her confusions and quell her fears.

Understanding your own mind

As your child starts to tear herself away from you, the pain will become excruciating. You may feel rejected, neglected, unloved, disrespected, unwanted, worthless…. You may begin to feel that all these years of loving her, caring for her and investing in her have been a waste; that it was all futile because here she is, growing up and leaving you without even so much as a ‘thank you’, and what’s worse, you don’t have someone to share your feelings with. No-one with whom to talk through the difficult time you are going through. No-one who understands exactly what it is to be losing this child – your child. You are alone.

She has found other people to share her life with. She can’t go to the cinema with you this Saturday – she’s already arranged to go with someone else. She doesn’t need you to prepare dinner for her tonight – she’s already eaten. She won’t be home this evening – she’s staying with a friend. Suddenly, she doesn’t want you anymore.

You have been replaced.

Replaced by ‘friends’. People who did not comfort her when she was sad; didn’t look after her when she was ill; didn’t take her on holiday every year; didn’t feed her or clothe her; didn’t pour a lifetime of love into her. Who are these people? These imposters? What right do they have to take your child away from you? Why do they get to ‘have’ her all of a sudden? They’ve done nothing to deserve her love and devotion. You may be feeling angry, hurt, bereaved, robbed, jilted, abandoned-.

Your instinct is to tell her how she is making you feel. You want her to know that she owes you and that you don’t deserve to be treated this way. You have earned her love and respect. You want something back in return for all the years you’ve given her. Really? You think she owes you?

Did she ask to be brought into this world? No. Did she not deserve to be fed or clothed or loved? Yes. When your child was born, you became indebted to her. She’s now breaking free. Free to be whoever she desires to be. Free to live the life she wants to live and there’s nothing you can do except watch and hope. Your role as a parent was to prepare her for adult life. Now that she is reaching for it, don’t hold her back.

Take joy in knowing that her independence from you is a sign of how well you have done your job; that your investment is paying off; that you have played a big part in making her the person that she is. Of course you want to be loved back – it will come, but don’t demand it. She has to focus on herself for a while. Her self-centredness is not wrong, yet it is inevitable. She is trying to find her place in the world. She must do this by herself – without you.

Nevertheless, she still needs your guidance and support. You will feel used. That’s how adolescents can make you feel. Don’t worry, they don’t stay that way. Keep on loving her. She still needs your love even though you don’t feel appreciated. Stay involved as much as she needs you to but don’t interfere. Wait in the wings until she calls on you. Continue to support her even though you feel your heart is breaking into pieces. Stay focused on her. This is a torrid time for you, but she is also struggling and she can’t be concerned with how you feel; she’s not responsible for your feelings. Yes, you need to deal with your own anxiety and pain, so take time out for yourself. Go to your friends or family, see a counsellor, join a support group, but for your child’s sake, don’t offload your troubles onto her.

She is sensing a gulf opening up between you. How could you possibly know what she feels or thinks? You’re too old and out of touch. She has her peers for that now. What once was a family home is fast becoming a lodging, soup-kitchen and virtual ATM. She comes and goes as she pleases; wrestles the TV remote away from you; eats your dinner without any thanks; locks herself away in her room for hours on end; takes every penny you have – and then some; leaves her laundry lying strategically around her room for you to collect and lays the blame firmly at your door if something isn’t clean on a certain day; demands that you taxi her to her appointments and pick her up again at a moment’s notice – all of which you do lovingly, if not sometimes with a little hurt. You want to be so much more than just her taxi.

How can you stay relevant to her? How can you still be a meaningful part of her life? How can you stay connected to her? Well, a good way to join this party is not to gatecrash but to get yourself invited, and if you do get invited, to know your place. She needs to know that you are still for her and that you haven’t become her enemy. Remind her of this. Be a good listener. Take an interest in all aspects of her life. Offer to give her a lift to the cinema instead of waiting to be asked. Maybe vacate your home now and then so that she can invite her friends over (leave plenty of pizzas in the fridge). Serve her, be generous to her, lavish her with love. She won’t show you anywhere near the kind of appreciation you deserve – maybe none at all sometimes, but she won’t shut you out of her life either, because she knows you care.

The more she knows you care, the more open she will be with you. However, you need to remain very understanding and open-minded for a while. You may find that some of the following adolescent thinking strikes a chord with you:

1. You are to be the object of ridicule. This means that you are to make yourself available to be laughed at when her friends are around. She must be allowed to make fun of you. Your taste in clothes, music and hair-style are all up for grabs. Take it on the chin and smile. It’s your job as the parental object of ridicule. But she is not allowed to disrespect you. All must be done in fun.

2. You may provide sustenance at certain times. Adolescents are prone to forget to perform even the most essential tasks – including eating. Force-feeding is out of the question but pro-active provision is allowed. At times, you may have to just leave it outside the bedroom door.

3. You are to provide money for clothing but may not attend the purchasing ritual. This is reserved for closest friends only. However, when no friends are available, you may receive an impromptu invitation. But be prepared to stay at home should a last minute phone-call mean that your place has been given to the aforementioned friend who is -‘oh joy!’- suddenly free again.

4. You are to adopt a flexible attitude regarding agreements with your adolescent. The changing of her mind regarding all things is to be expected at all times. You may remind her of her constant failure to honour her agreements but don’t expect much change for a few years – seeds lie in the ground a long time before growing and bearing fruit.

5. You are to listen to all complaints made against teachers at school while knowing that 99 times out of a hundred your child hasn’t been hard done by and is almost certainly at fault for being disciplined in school. But keep an open mind. There was more than one occasion when I had to call a teacher to account for bad behaviour towards my children. Be sure to encourage your child to live within school laws, whether she agrees with them or not. This is a lesson for life. She will have to learn to abide by laws and rules if she is to fit into society – better that she learns that now.

6. You will be the facilitator of at least one hour of loud music being played every day. For some reason, adolescents wish to share their music with you even though it may not be to your taste. After said hour, you may enforce a 23 hour ban on loud music.

7. You shall make your mobile phone available to her for emergency texting when she has run out of credit on her phone. Usual message sent: “run out of credit, can you call me back?”

8. You will dry her tears when she has fallen out with her friends forever and a day (usually the ‘forever’ part gets forgotten). Actually the ‘and a day’ often turns into less than hour when she receives a phone call while telling you that she doesn’t know what she’d do without you, and instantly finds her tears have dried up and she would much rather make up with her friends than continue finding comfort in your arms. You’re job – albeit a brief one – is done.

9. You will worry, fret and panic when she goes AWOL. She will disappear for hours without telling you where she is. She will go straight to a friend’s house from school and forget – yes, forget to come home. She will fail to turn up for dinner when you have lovingly prepared her favourite meal, and call you to tell you she is eating out with friends when the table is already laid. You will often be found calling friends, family and the local hospital to locate her hours after she was due home, while imagining the worst-case scenario, yet hoping and believing through a tight chest and knotted stomach that she is ok. As she walks through the door in the dead of night, completely unaware of the distress she has caused you through her thoughtlessness, and as you greet her through tear-filled eyes and a heart filled with relief and anger you will stand there shaking from head to toe trying hard to scold her, finally succumbing to your desperate desire to hold her and never let her go.

Not only did I allow my children to invite friends back late at night, I would cook for them. I didn’t try to involve myself in the conversation; I stayed in the kitchen and minded my own business unless I was invited to join in, but all the time I tried to stay relevant to my children by allowing them to be themselves while making myself available to be whatever I could be to them.

I didn’t try to be their friend – I was their friend, but from a safe distance. Now it was my turn to observe the boundaries and not step over them. If I did cross the boundaries I was made to know it in no uncertain terms. If they needed to talk, they could and I would listen, but had I been an inflexible, hard-lined, dogmatic parent, they probably would not have felt the freedom to share their thoughts and feelings with me. I created the environment that allowed them to be expressive instead of trying to force them into communicating and connecting with me on my terms.

The day the child realises that all adults are imperfect, he becomes an adolescent; the day he forgives them, he becomes an adult; the day he forgives himself, he becomes wise“âEUR¨ Alden Nowlan, Writer and Poet.

All this liberality may make me sound like a push-over. Believe me, that’s the last thing my children would call me. According to them, despite my ‘cool’-ness, at the time I was still too harsh on them. I was demanding, unreasonable, unfeeling, insensitive, overbearing and a host of other terrible things.

I would show them a great amount of tolerance, understanding and patience but they never saw that. What they did see was my frustration, disappointment, anger and pain at their repeated disregard for my requests and boundaries and their own broken promises. I would let them know how disappointed I was, and sometimes tempers would flare on both sides. My failure to stay calm throughout some of our encounters didn’t do me any favours – nor them, but I always apologised for any bad behaviour on my part. However, I made certain they knew when I thought their behaviour was disrespectful and unacceptable. They hated being told that, but deep down they knew it was true and the seed was planted. Later, it would grow and bear fruit – they eventually acknowledged that they understood what I had tried to teach them, but they didn’t agree with me on everything. Maybe I wasn’t right about everything.

We may not return the affection of those who like us, but we always respect their good judgment.” Lillian Gordy Carter, Mother of the former US President Jimmy Carter

Don’t try to be a ‘perfect’ parent. You will fail. A wise man once said ‘no man is equal to his own rhetoric’. If you think for one moment that your child will not be disappointed in you then your expectations of yourself may be too high. She almost certainly will be disappointed in you, and she will let you know where you have failed, how you have fallen short in your role as a parent and how much better you could have been. Some of what she says will be true. The rest of it will simply come from her own idealistic expectations of the kind of person she wanted you to be and which you have failed to be.

As wounded and inadequate as you may feel, you should not take her criticism and disappointment to heart. You may have done your best, but even with the greatest resolve in the world, it was never going to be good enough; it was never going to be perfect. However, one thing you will have done as a good parent is to equip her to deal with life’s imperfections – you being one of them.

Eventually, she will let go of the disappointment and as your relationship with her continues into adulthood she will realise in her maturity that the world is made up of imperfect people who go about life in an imperfect way. However, she will gradually and continually discover the many treasures that you have deposited deep within her throughout her life and she will eventual come to realise that even a flawed diamond has great value.

When it finally dawns My children, having reached adulthood and each in their own time have told me how they now understand so many of the things I had taught them but which they had not accepted at the time of being taught; that they had finally ‘seen’ it. It seems to me that they have come through that painful period of their lives equipped with good values, healthy outlooks, gracious hearts and not a little wisdom.

Of course, just like me, they have their shortcomings, and, like me, they are on a pilgrimage. They will spend a lifetime working to better their own hearts and minds, dealing with one imperfection at a time. Just like I am doing. Our job as parents isn’t to ‘create’ perfect adults. It is to guide our children into a way of living that we ourselves value but which also allows them the freedom to choose their own path and develop their own character. If we have done that then we can ask no more of ourselves and no more of them. We can be content with the knowledge that despite our mistakes, shortcomings and flaws, we have, on the whole, not let them down and given them a good start in life.

You will not always be guardian to your child, but you will always be her parent and you can also remain her friend. She won’t need you in her life in the same way anymore, but she may like to include you. Should you fail to negotiate her adolescent years with some sensitivity, a little humility, a lot of patience, a huge amount of generosity and a great deal of understanding, you may fall short of providing her with the complete upbringing you had intended for her and which she deserved. Redouble your efforts during this delicate and exacting period of her life. Nothing less will do.

In all that you do, understand this: that your role as a parent is to teach your child to become independent of you – to help her to be free. And so, onto the final part of this chapter.

Letting go so your child can grow By far one of the most satisfying yet painful experiences for a parent is seeing her child grow into an adult. This is arguably, the most difficult aspect of being a parent – having the desire to hold onto that which you love most while knowing that to truly love her, you must let her go. It is joyous yet sorrowful; exhilarating yet frightening; liberating yet isolating; fulfilling yet emptying.

Your child – soon to be independent, is learning how to ‘be’ without you. You have no choice – let her. Don’t cling to her or she may push you away. Don’t dump your pain on her or she may resent you for it. Yes, these changes are painful for you too but they are not your child’s responsibility.

The relationship with your child, which has been a more-than-significant reason for your sense of purpose and fulfillment since she was born, is seemingly drawing to an end. It feels like it’s all over bar the shouting. She’s growing up and getting ready to fly and she’s taking your heart with her. You are experiencing a kind of bereavement. The grief is overwhelming. You are losing her.

But that’s not really the case. It just feels that way. You can’t help your feelings, but you can help what you do with them. Use them positively. Don’t allow your sorrow to overwhelm you. Focus on the positive aspects of these experiences: she is becoming an independent person; she is finding her own identity; she is dreaming of having a life of her own, of making a difference in the world; she is finding her purpose and establishing herself in society. Aren’t these the very things you brought her up to do? Isn’t this the person you wanted her to become? Have you done your job well? Yes. Good for her! And good for you!

This pain will pass. It’s a part of the parenting process and as such, has its place in your lifespan – but it’s not forever. The day will come when your child will begin to show you gratitude for all your investment. You may not get all the praise and recognition you think you deserve, but you are not looking for that – right? You are looking for the joy of knowing that you played your part in making her what she is today. That’s your reward. That’s where the fulfillment is. But she will bring you what she can by way of thanks and recognition as and when it occurs to her.

She may offer you a hug when you least expect it. She may ask you to go to the movies with her one day. She may call you while she’s sat waiting for a train just to say ‘hello’. She may post a comment on Facebook telling the world how great she thinks you are. She may ask you if you’d like to just hang out one evening. She will have her way of showing you how much she loves and appreciates you but it won’t necessarily be your way. Receive it for all it’s worth – graciously.

It may be years before she comes back to you with the kind of affection you feel you need from her. She may never come back to you with it. She may simply pour it all on others. What matters is that you know that the fruit she is bearing in her life is, to a large extent, due to you and the love you have poured on her. Let that be your reason for smiling. Let that be your reward. Demand nothing from her – she owes you nothing. Yet maybe, because of you, she will live a purposeful life; one that bears the fruit of someone who had a loving parent. It’s time to let go of her now so that she can fully blossom into the person you have desired her to be all her life – when she was a 2 year old playing around your feet; when she was a 4 year old on her first day at school; when she was an 8 year old coming home to show you proudly her school project; when she was a 10 year old telling you what she wants to be when she grows up; when she was a 12 year old staying over at her best friend’s house for the night; when she was a 14 year old crying on your shoulder because she had fallen out with her best friend; when she was a 16 year old attending her graduation party; when she was an 18 year old celebrating her first day as an adult. Yes, your job is almost done. Time to let go so she can grow.

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