Friday, July 18, 2014

The Emotional Whiplash of Parenting a Teenager

Being a teenager is hard – being the parent of a teenager may be even harder. Any parent of an adolescent knows the pain of being rejected, neglected, or artfully critiqued by their teenager. But being pushed away is only the half of it. Raising teenagers becomes that much more stressful and confounding when teenagers interrupt weeks of frostiness with moments of intense warmth and intimacy.
It goes something like this. Your daughter has been so busy with her friends, schoolwork and activities that you’ve hardly seen her for days. When you do connect, it’s only because you’ve cornered her to nail down some logistical aspect of family life or she has recruited your help with what might literally be a thankless task. Then something knocks her off balance – a run-in with a friend, an unexpected defeat – and she comes in close. Like a swimmer grasping for the edge of the pool after a rough lap, she clings to you to catch her breath. Bonding supplants eye-rolling, and she gives you details about her trying day instead of the usual one-word report. She entertains your advice and may even nestle by your side on the couch. You have been dreaming of this day: the one where your daughter wants to be your friend again, hear your wisdom and draw comfort from your physical presence.

Then she pushes you away. Hard. She has her breath back and wants to return to the water, her world away from you, and she gets there by pushing off the side of the pool. This may take the form of picking the dumbest-fight-ever, criticizing you in a way that is as petty as it is painful (“No offense, but your breath smells weird”), or abruptly walking away. You could have communed all day, but your daughter needs to push away as soon as she is restored. To linger feels babyish, which is just about the last thing any normally developing teenager wants to feel.

Some parents, feeling too hurt by the push-off or taking their teenager’s rejections too personally, choose to make themselves unavailable. In some ways it does feel better to avoid episodes of emotional whiplash. But being unavailable comes at a cost. Unavailable parents miss out on some wonderful, if brief, moments with their teenagers. Worse, their teenagers are left without a wall to swim to and must navigate choppy waters all on their own. Parents who stay in place can obtain a measure of protection by readying themselves for the kick that will certainly come. When it does, they may say, “Hey, that’s not nice” or “Actually, that is offensive” or something else that allows them to stick up for themselves while communicating that they’re not going anywhere.

I’ve heard exasperated parents refer to their teenagers as “toddlers on hormones” or (with regional flair) “toddlers with MetroCards.” They’re reliving the push and pull – the snubbing and the clinging – that come with caring for a young child. Only this time around, they’ve traded the cuddly charms of story time for the drudgery of curfew enforcement. Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter and a heavyweight in her own right, tenderly noted, “There are few situations in life more difficult to cope with than an adolescent son or daughter during the attempt to liberate themselves.” Raising teenagers tests the sturdiest adults, even – and perhaps especially – on the good days.
By Lisa Damour

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