This is Adolescence: 18

Lisa writes: 18 is a year overflowing with contradictions. Eighteen wants to be a child forever and yet he cannot wait to grow up. He loves his house and cannot wait to leave it. Eighteen is our teen living in our home and in the same momentous year, an adult residing in another state. On the eve of his 18th birthday it seems almost as if nothing has changed and then one morning in August everything is different.

18 is a year of contradictions, of being our child at home and an adult living in another state.

18 is the year I have dreaded since the day he was born. It is the year that I will begin to know him a little less, the year when more of his life happens away from our family than within it. But 18 is also the year I am most grateful for, that as his childhood ends it has been filled with joy and he has thrived wrapped in our love and that of his brothers.

Eighteen cannot believe he is 18. When I tell him that he must register for the selective service and to vote, that I can no longer deal with his doctor, the health insurance company or his college housing office, he is taken aback. Eighteen wants to be an adult, but not if it means a lot of paperwork.

Eighteen wants to spend every spare minute with his friends. He dreads the day when one by one they will leave for college and he tells me how much he will miss them, how much their closeness has meant to him and that he hopes they will stay that way forever. While I am indebted to these wonderful boys who have taught my son so much about friendship, I ignore the tightness in my throat and do not say that I feel the same way about him.

Eighteen is a writer. He hears words and their lyrical cadence in a way that leaves me in awe. He seems to know the natural crescendo of a good story and holds the reader in his grasp. He does not believe my praise, parents are biased, what do we know? His English teacher offers him wonderful encouragement suggesting he write more. I whisper a private prayer of thanks to the gods of high school education.

Eighteen is an athlete and, as a senior, a team captain. He has always been the youngest but finds himself suddenly a role model for younger boys. I watch him learn to lead. In the heat of a game he grapples with his own emotions, keeping them mostly under control as he attempts to inspire those around him. I whisper more thanks to more gods who have given my child this chance to grow.

Eighteen needs to show me he is a grown up, even at the times when I know that he is not. When he is unhappy with me he reminds me that soon he will be gone and then I will not be able to tell him what to do. Eighteen tells me this both because he wants me to acknowledge his independence and because he wants to hurt me that little bit, because in getting ready to go, some small part of him is hurting too.

When Eighteen defies me, I can see that my arsenal for controlling him is severely depleted.

Eighteen is brimming with confidence. His confidence comes from the physical strength and stamina of youth, from being surrounded by those who have known and loved him most or all of his life and from the fact that we may all be at our most beautiful the summer of our 18th birthdays.

Eighteen loves senior year in high school and life at the top of the social food chain. He loves knowing most of the teachers and coaches in his high school and the way they have begun to treat him and the other seniors like young adults. While I delight in seeing him so at ease in his world, I also know that there is nobody less secure than a college freshman.

Eighteen thinks the drinking age is 18. I am the bearer of bad news.

Eighteen thinks he should not have a curfew. I bear more bad news.

Eighteen’s personal hygiene is impeccable. He has never needed to be reminded to shower or brush his teeth. He rarely leaves a mess in the house and usually cleans any garbage from my car when he borrows it. Yet, Eighteen still leaves every article of dirty clothing on his bedroom floor. He has been told 4,287 that there is a laundry hamper in his room. Fearing that he has forgotten, I remind him again. He wonders why I do this, and so do I. Surely there is a point where I should give up, but how will I know when that is?

Eighteen is changing in his older brothers’ eyes. Getting ready to go off to college he somehow seems to be getting closer to them in age. Siblings loom so large in our lives.  Eighteen has lived a life in awe of them and all that they could do whether it was ride a bike without training wheels, drive a car or just stay up late. But now he has done things that they never did and they are a bit in awe of him.

In the summer before he leaves, Eighteen wants to push his father and me away and hold onto us at the same time. I am told that as the reality of their leaving begins to confront some kids, they “soil the nest,” at times giving parents some of their very worst behavior. I try to remember that this is temporary and that if I have learned anything about parenting it is that a markedly changed adolescent will be returned to me come the winter holidays.

Eighteen lies on the floor petting his dog. I am in the next room, but I can hear him telling her that he will miss her. He does not remember life before this dog and is old enough to fully understand that this means that in the coming years he will experience the loss of her. He feels love and he feels fear. He has heard that kids get “the call” at school about their dogs and he does not want that call.

I can tell Eighteen what to do and what not to do, until he leaves for college. But that would be foolish. We are on a trial run for adulthood, so I let him make most of the decisions and step in only when I cannot help myself. I try not to treat him like the child he no longer is, he tries not to act like the obnoxious teenager he no longer is. Most of the time we are successful, sometimes we fail.

Eighteen is no longer simply living in time, but is now truly reflecting upon it. He feels his own childhood slipping away and, while there is much to look forward to, he understands that for the first time there is now much to look back upon as well. Eighteen experiences that sharp pain we feel as adults when we know that a time in our lives that we have loved has passed and that we can never really return to it. As he lets go of his child self and readies to leave, he is fully conscious of the fact that life has painted a bright red line and he is crossing over it.

Eighteen leaves little gashes on my heart, like stinging paper cuts, as time winds down and we no longer have months or years but rather weeks and days. I miss him before he is even gone and I grieve once he has left. Eighteen drifts slowly away the summer after graduation and then one morning I load up the car and he is really gone, and I can do nothing more than help him on his way.

This is Adolescence

This is the final essay in the This Is Adolescence series which began with 11, and covered 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, and  17.  If you are looking forward to adolescence, living it or reflecting upon it, each of these beautifully written essays will make you think.  Conceived by Lindsey Mead and Allison Slater Tate, the entire series will be published in full in Brain, Child’s Special Issue for Parents of T(w)eens, coming in Spring 2015.



Why Teens Terrorize Us

Lisa writes: I have a teen in my house who is leaving in a few short weeks. Despite the fact that I know that it is only a matter of days until I will bemoan his departure, I am still surprisingly adept at flying into a rage at him. His need to assert his newly adult self and my need to control what happens in my home are too often on a collision course. Despite our deep and abiding love for them, teens continue to terrorize us, creating the type of stress that scientists have now begun to measure.

teenager, teen boy

One day your young person borrows your car, drives to a summer job and spends the day as an income-earning citizen fully capable of responsible employment. That very afternoon, your kitchen is trashed, there are dirty clothes carpeting the floor, and a well-established curfew has been dispensed with like it wasn’t even there. Your authority has been trampled. Your gas tank and refrigerator are empty, every inch of your car teems with discarded Gatorade bottles, beef jerky wrappers and trash that is simply beyond identification.

You remind yourself that this is what teens are like, alternately capable young adults and selfish self-involved children. You recall that it is the age, that they do not stay like this. If there are older children you throw your mind back to their transformation and then you turn around, willing yourself to be calm, and shriek, “WTF, that is the last time you borrow my car.”

I am alternately trying to figure out how to say goodbye to a child I love beyond reason and so apoplectic I cannot even speak to him. The seesaw that is raising a teen is a source of much stress. Some of it is undoubtedly my fault (or any parent’s fault) as we lurch around and grapple for steady ground as our children travel the rocky road to adulthood.

It is not me, it is the facts.

For any parent who thought the teen years were stressful, research has recently arrived to say just how right you were. A poll released this week by the Harvard School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Public Radio found that fully one-third of those adults living with one or more teens had experienced a great deal of stress in the previous month.

In the NPR broadcast highlighting this study and the trouble of living with teens, one mother explained, “I love this child more than I love myself, and I know what’s around the corner and I’m trying to tell him and he’s just ignoring me, and I really can’t say or do anything about it. I just have to let him experience it and hope and pray that it’s not a life-changing mistake.”

She continued,”Everything I demanded, he fought back. Advice? He didn’t need it. Conversation? He didn’t want it. It was hands down the toughest journey of my life so far….”

Dealing with Terrible Teens

In order to deal with their stress, Clinical psychologist David Palmiter suggests parents seek support from other parents, that they share concerns and decisions. Parents, dealing with their own teens can provide us with camaraderie, encouragement and constructive solutions. Sites like Grown and Flown can be a forum for just that kind of conversation about the Trouble with Teens!

It’s tough to retain your equanimity when teens lash out but University of Virginia Professor of Education and psychologist Peter Sheras urges parents to do otherwise. “What all this research really says to parents is, ‘Don’t freak out,’” Sheras says. “What you are experiencing, lots of other parents experience, too, so don’t take it personally when your child says, ‘I really hate you, Mom.’”

Teens terrorize us because:

They are neither one thing nor another. They are capable of being sane mature adults and petulant children, in the very same conversation. They have the bodies of grown ups and the emotional range of toddlers.

They are risk seeking missiles whose favorite phrase is “I got this” when it is patently clear that they’ve got nothing. Our protective urge is undiminished but our ability to assure their safety is vastly reduced. This alone can result in sky-high stress.

They routinely overestimate their competence in dealing with adult matters. Even in the face of bad outcomes teens can struggle to see either their fault or how they could have done things differently. As parents with a lifetime of experience, this is painful to watch.

They inhabit a world of very real consequences. Their missteps can have profound effects on their future (and on others) yet they struggle to understand the gravity of their attitudes and actions.

They live on an emotional rollercoaster and as Lisa Belkin pointed out, they want us to ride it with them. She so aptly explains that we do not need to climb aboard with them (although it takes parents a while to learn this) but this still means that there is a fairground ride operating in our homes.

It all happens so quickly and we can barely catch our breath. At age 14 only 13% of teens had used alcohol in the previous month by age 18 that number is 41%. Similarly before age 15, 16% of teens have had sex and four years later that number is 71%. By the time the leave for college 54% of kids have been sexting.  Much is changing in their lives, experiences and perspectives and as parents we can struggle to keep up.

It is just hard dealing with anyone, at any age, who already knows everything. This impenetrable fortress of knowledge is just one more battle ground in the fight between experience and the hubris of youth.

Adolescents confuse understanding with agreement.They think saying so, makes it so, according to Sheras, “They think if they explain something to you adequately, you will agree with them. So when parents say, ‘I’m not going to let you do that,’ adolescents almost universally say, ‘You don’t understand.’”

The influence of their peers outweighs ours. It is excruciating when you child values the insight of a peer (a mere child) whom he may have known for weeks or days, over the person who loves him the most and has his interest at heart (and BTW is an adult). It is hard not to wonder where their critical thinking has gone.

The balance has shifted. When our kids were small and we were unhappy with them or disciplined them, they got angry or contrite but they were not indifferent. If, in doing our jobs as parents of teens we make them unhappy, they may now withdraw. Punishing our kids always felt bad, but the silent treatment or their physical retreat makes it even worse.

I have long subscribed the U shape theory of parenting which suggests that the most challenging days are at the beginning and the end and that the sweet spot of parenting lies in the middle. I once told my brother that I would do a deal with the devil if my then 6, 9 and 10 year olds could stay little forever. The devil wasn’t buying and my kids became teens.

When Teen Music Went Silent

Mary Dell writes: At last week’s ceremony for the new Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship at Harvard, honoree rap artist Nas remarked  “Hip-hop is important like computer science. The world is changing. If you want to understand the youth, listen to the music. This is what’s happening right underneath your nose.” Though the value of computer science and the eternal bond between youth and music are indisputable, hip-hop is not anywhere near my nose. In fact, once Steve Jobs invented the iPod in 2001, the teen music we shared in our home went radio silent.

nas, lifeisgood, hip-hop music

 

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The Real Reason I Love Longhorn Football

Mary Dell writes: Fall is my favorite season. Along with the just-turning foliage comes the return of my preferred spectator sport – Longhorn football. My passion stems from the Friday Night Lights elements of my upbringing and the four years I spent in Austin as a student at the University of Texas.  I am a genuine Texas fan and spent many happy game days at DKR – Texas Memorial Stadium.  But the real reason I love Longhorn football is that our son is a big fan, too.  Now a fun and shared pastime, following the sport during his teenage years was more like a lifeline that kept our relationship afloat.

UT Football, Longhorns, college football, UT stadium, Texas Longhorns

While he was in high school, he developed the evasive skills that all teenagers acquire fielding questions from well-meaning neighbors, family members, and perfect strangers. Where do you want to go to college/ have you taken your SATs/ what do you want to major in? Against that backdrop of inquisition, we had moments when our disagreements over studying, tests, and college applications would have made for excellent reality television.

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A Last Lesson on the Importance of Friendship

Gabby, a Grown and Flown friend, writes: One of the good things about being a parent three times over is that I am more focused on life’s ordinary moments as my last child inches her way toward leaving the nest.  Recently, I was packing to go away for a rare “girls weekend” when my daughter sat down on the edge of my bed and asked me about the friends with whom I was traveling.  Ultimately, our conversation shifted into a philosophical one about her own friends and the importance of friendship.

I will readily admit my many failures as a mother but one of the things I am most proud of is the way I have communicated through action (and words) how much my friends mean to me.

importance of friendship, friendship, high school friends, high school girls

I am inordinately grateful and comforted when I look at my two older children who have already “flown the nest” and see the kinds of friendships they have established.  They demonstrate to me that they understand how to be loyal, inclusive, trustworthy, forgiving, and supportive in times of trouble.  They accept and celebrate differences. I am wowed by the way that they have chosen their inner circle (with an extended selection of friends beyond this)  based on “matters of the heart”  and common values.

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