Your teenage son levels an angry glare at you — it’s the angriest look you’ve ever seen on his face. His jaw is clamped tight, and the muscles on the sides of his face flutter with rage. “I don’t care what you say,” he hisses through his teeth. “You can’t make me do anything.” His arms are rigid at his sides, his hands balled into tight, white-knuckled fists. He might break something. He might put a fist through a wall. Maybe his eyes are rimmed with red and it makes you sick to think of why. Maybe you hardly recognize this child.
You picture him instead as a chubby-cheeked, grinning baby. Four teeth: two on top and two on bottom. As a toddler: “Mama,” he would screech, and run to you, his dimpled hands outstretched. He had a little doll that would sing a sad song about its ice cream falling on the ground, and it would always make him cry. He’s always had so much empathy, this one.
Who is this boy in front of you? You weren’t prepared for this. No one warned you.
This is the part of parenting that nobody talks about — the moment when your nearly grown teenager looks you dead in the eye, defies you, and dares you to try and stop him. This is not a tantruming toddler, kicking and screaming on the floor of Costco. Compared to this brawny, twisted-faced rage machine, tantruming toddlers are a cake walk. Up to now, whenever he disobeyed, you had an answer. Remove his electronics privileges.
Restrict him from social activities until he straightened out. Assign extra chores. Those consequences always worked. But this is different than disobedience, a light-year away from a meltdown. This is you, skating at the edge of losing control of your child. You read all the parenting books. Participated in parenting groups online. Attended parent-teacher conferences. Loved him. Lectured him. Enforced rules.
But who is this rigid, furious creature standing in front of you?
You wouldn’t win an arm wrestling match against this child. He is inches taller than you, and, if he wanted to, could pick you up and toss you across the room. The rage in his eyes sparks a sliver of fear in you that if you don’t respond the right way in this moment, someday he might do just that. The fire in his eyes makes you fear he hates you. How can you influence him if he hates you? He used to respect you. Where did that respect go? What did you do to lose it? How do you get it back?
No one prepared you for this moment when all the time and effort and energy and tears you put into parenting would seem to amount to nothing. When it would seem you have actually lost control.
You think of all the unruly teens you’ve known over the course of your life — the ones who were always in trouble, who never could get their sh*t together. Failed out of school, got into drugs, got into trouble with the law. Your best friend in high school used to scream “I HATE YOU” at her mother. You couldn’t imagine ever saying such a thing to your own mother. She’d raised you right. Your friend’s mother, she must have done something wrong. Even as a teenager, you judged this woman’s parenting.
In fact, you’ve judged all the parents of unruly teenagers. Clearly, they must have been incompetent. Clearly, they didn’t do their job.
And now here you are, having tried your very best all these years to be the perfect mix of loving, firm, fair, approachable. You’ve had all the appropriate boundaries in place and have lectured daily about kindness and respect, hell, you’ve modeled this behavior, and yet still you see your child spiraling away from you. Have all your motherly instincts over the years been wrong? Maybe you should have spanked him after all (you did, actually, early on, until you read the extensive research that said it was both ineffective and harmful). Did you not ground him enough? Did you ground him too much? Should you have pushed team sports more? Did you let him have too much screen time?
Why doesn’t this child respect you like he used to?
No one warned you it would be a lot harder not to hit a teen than it is not to spank a toddler. No one warned you that when you only have a few years left to try to shape this child into a contributing member of society, and you’re not sure you’ve done enough, that everything will feel impossibly heavy and infinitely more urgent.
And yet, a tiny piece of you, buried in a dark corner in the back of your mind, suggests it might actually be easier just to give up. If this is it, if this raging defiance is your new normal, maybe you just… can’t. Maybe you’ll be the parent who just throws up their hands. But your love for your child overpowers this tiny voice. You will never, ever give up on your child.
He’s still standing in front of you, an almost-grownup overflowing with a rage so big, his mind is not yet equipped to handle it. New, powerful hormones course through his body in amounts that literally alter his brain chemistry. He is on the cusp of independence and yet he still must obey your rules, and sometimes that is just f*cking infuriating.
No one warned you that you could do everything “right,” and this moment might still come. No one talks about this. Still, though you may not have been prepared for this moment, you know you will never give up on your child. You take a deep breath to calm your nerves, you push away your fears, and you make a decision about how to move forward.
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