In a couple of days, I will have a teenager in the house. My daughter has been counting down to this day for the last year. To her, this is a very big deal. To me, this is a reminder that life is going much faster than I realize. I ask myself, how is it possible she is already thirteen? Looking back in totality, the years seem like a blur, which is so weird because within those years there were moments when the seconds ticked by as if they would never end.
What does it mean to parent a teenager? Without us even realizing it, our parental brains flip over a new page of expectations now that our child is a teen. On that page are topics around increased responsibility and trust. In fact, just the other night, parental expectations started to get the best of my husband. He had asked our daughter to empty the dishwasher, one of her regular responsibilities, yet when he mentioned it to her he was met with her best eye roll of exasperation. The eye roll triggered his frustration, so I pulled him aside. He thinks he shouldn’t have to ask multiple times, that it should just be done. I don’t disagree, but in these situations, regardless of the age of our child, we have to take the time to consider things from their point of view. Our daughter gets distracted, because let’s face it, there are a hundred other things to do that are more fun than putting away the dishes. I asked my husband “Why are you so fired up about this?” He replied that he feels he is always the one cleaning everything up. He feels she is old enough to take more responsibility in taking care of things around the house, because if she doesn’t, what’s her place going to look like when she’s on her own? I said to him “Well luckily you are not going to have to live there.”
I’m sure that many of you can relate to my husband’s frustration. In fact, many of you have probably said (or thought) the same things. I completely understand, but let’s break things down. Why does she have to empty the dishwasher? This is an agreement we have with her that if she wants a phone, she must pay for part of the monthly fees. Emptying the dishwasher is one way she earns money. This is a huge incentive for her because life without a phone is unfathomable for a teen. From our perspective as parents, everyone who lives in the house must help around the house.
This is a pretty reasonable request, so where does the emotion come in? For my husband, the emotion enters when he has to ask multiple times until the chore is done. Now we must decide what is most important – that the chore be done by a certain time every day or that it gets done? Once you decide which is most important, you must enforce it without a reaction. It does no one any good to get upset in the process.
During our discussion, my husband also drew the conclusion that if we are not more firm with her about picking up her things and doing her chores the first time, she will have a messy apartment in the future. Why do all of us parents jump to this conclusion? We do it all the time and not just with a messy room, but with bad grades (they won’t get a job) or with arguments with friends (they’ll be lonely). We believe that one unemptied dishwasher at age 13 will lead to being featured on an episode of “Hoarders” in 10 years. Parents are so dramatic and then we use this drama to justify some of our crazy. We all need to relax and address only the problem that is right in front of us.
It’s easy to see how we get carried away worrying about the teen years. A lot of things change and neither the parent, nor the child, is ready for it. For years we have blamed these changes on hormones, but a recent article I read states the behavior of teenagers is actually related to changes in their brain. (Hormones are an indirect influence at best.) Research shows the brain of a teenagers is more sensitive to emotional reactions than the brain of a child or of an adult. In other words, emotional stimuli that seems moderate to an adult or a child, can set off an extreme reaction in a teen. Our teens may not even understand or be ready for these reactions. I think this is so important to remember, our teens are not ready for their emotions. They don’t know how to handle them so it is our job as parents not to react, but to sit with them through this sensitive time.
After all this, I’m not sure I really answered my original question of what it means to parent a teenager. Maybe that’s because if you strip away everything on the outside our role is ageless - we are the safe place where our children can always find unconditional love and belonging.
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I started writing this blog because I wanted to have deeper conversations beyond "How are you?", "Busy", with other parents. Over the years I've shared personal stories, articles, authors and topics to facilitate conversations with parents about the joys and the challenges of parenting.