Teens And Letting Go
Three weeks after my first son, Christian was born, my sister-in-law, my neice and my nephew had made the long drive from Southern California to see Christian for the first time and to spend a few days with us. My neice was about eight at the time, my nephew about 13 years old. One morning the three of them rolled out of bed at about 10:30am, while I had been up for since about 4am. Working on only a few hours of sleep I sat and watched my sister-in-law enviously — it all seemed so much easier. She talks, they listen. They talk, she listens. She asks them to get dressed, they get dressed. They could actually sleep through the night! I watched my neice and nephew do things independently from their mother. I looked down at the little bundle in my arms and thought it seemed so far away before I would be able to enjoy even a tad bit of Christian’s autonomy from his nursing mother. It would be years before I could shower as long as I want, eat when I was hungry, and sleep until I was no longer exhausted.
Last week Christian celebrated his 13th birthday. “Those years” that seemed so far away suddenly creeped up on me without me realizing it. Looking back now the months leading up to this “teen scene” – the stage of establishing a stronger sense of independence from his parents was present for years. I noticed it first in subtle ways – he asked less frequently for me to sit with him on the couch and watch a program he had recorded, he no longer asked me to lay with him for “just a minute” before he went to bed and talk about his day, and his conversations with me became shorter, one word responses most of the time – answering politely what he was asked, but did not volunteer much more information. What seemed like a very quick transformation, had been in the works since he was his first year of life.
All of life’s daily routines that take place in the first few years of life help establish the very foundation in which teenagers use to meaneder their way through the turbulent waters of adolescence. Adolescent’s “developmental job” is to discover who they are in relation to their world and others around them. This is one of their primary responsibilities – to become their own person, not just the person people view them as (the smart kid in math, the girl in the the choir with the great voice, the tall one on the soccer team, the shy boy at lunch), but who they think they are. Teens experience individuation – the process in which they seperate themselves from their parents and caregivers. Although individuation takes place at many stages during the life cycle, the process during adolescence is especially critical and lays the founation for the coming challenges and experiences of young adulthood.
It can be difficult for some parents as their pre-teen and teen enters this stage. In my private practice I have heard parents express concern that their teenager is “oppositional, selfish, closed-off, secretive, rebellious” and worry that their child has lost their way and forgotten the morals and values that have been taught in the home. In most cases these behaviors are all part of the the individuation process, even some of the more extreme scenarios. It is typical for a teen to experiement with different things (hairstyles, clothes, music, friends) that maybe five years ago they hated. It is normal for them to “talk back.” I know this can be a very difficult one for parents, yet it is normal (again within reason). As parents we have to set some limits about what is an acceptable level of “rebellion” all in the name of individuation. A teen will express disagreements with parental views, opinions, beliefs. They will balk at requests that are made of them. They are learning what their limits are and how far they can push them, learning how to have self-expression, to have a seperate voice – but it is
important that the parents be there to guide them so this is done in an appropriate matter. Teens storming off in a huff is going to happen and that is normal. Teens calling their parents every foul name in the book after being told they need to unload the dishwaher should be addressed. Again, the parents have to find what are the negotiables and what are the non-negotioables. This is where the perfect cliche’ comes into play: choose your battles with your teen. If parents do not allow for some rebellion, secretiveness, selfishness it will
be a long, long road ahead and that road will most likely lead to resentment on both sides and unsuccessful/unhealthy individuation for the teen. This means for rockier times in adulthood when they are more on their own in their world and when the world requires them to figure things out. The teen needs to be able to make mistakes and learn to adequately prepare them for their future.
If you have ever been in the parenting section of a book store you will notice that there are thousands of books on parenting your child for every concern under the sun. There are thousands of books on similar subjects and age groups and it can leave parents reeling in what approach is the right one. It can be confusing and overwhelming for parents who are just wanting to help their child. Let me save you from hours of trying to figure out what book is the right book or what technique is the right technique. Here is the kicker: there is no “right answer.” There may be better choices but all of it is dependent on YOUR teen.
The behaviors I see now with my son, Christian are different than ones I will see with his brother, Joshua. The individuation process is still occuring for both of them, but it will quite possibly look different. Christian is passionate and vocal; Joshua is more quiet. When Christian mumbles under his breath dissatisfaction with something I have asked of him it is more his way of individuating, whereas Joshua won’t mumble anything, he is more likely to feign deafness and say he never heard me. The concept is the same, however, with both of them asserting their independence and seperateness from me as their mother. I may not like how it is displayed at times, but this was my job as their parent – to help them come into their own as people.
Ironically, Christian came in and layed with me on my bed last night and watched TV…without me asking him. At one point he said “where is it?” I thought for sure he was looking for the remote so I handed it to him. He said, “no, your hand.” A touching moment for me. I was taken back to times when he was younger and that time when my family was visiting. I found myself missing those days he was a bundle in my arms because the years have gone by in a blink of an eye and I am starting to see my child grow into a young independent man.