“Help me! I’m stuck!”
My daughter was an energetic two-year-old and had somehow wedged herself into a dead-end section at the very top of a McDonald’s play structure. I was nine months pregnant with my son and there was physically no way I could crawl up in and through those plastic tubes to rescue her. Thankfully, an exceedingly kind friend and fellow mom volunteered to go up and lead her to freedom down into the ball pit a few minutes later.
When our kids are small, they get stuck — in a physical sense — often. Their little bodies get wedged under beds, stranded up in trees, or hanging from a playground monkey bar, just out of reach from the next one over. They call out for help, and we or another trusted adult is there to gently pull them out, or to catch them when they jump down with relief.
What getting stuck is like for teens
But as they get older and spend less time under our watchful eyes, they move out into the world and into situations where “getting stuck” can mean something entirely different. It’s more often not a physical constriction they find themselves in, but an emotional limitation or a mental restriction.
Getting stuck is a normal part of life, those times when we all come up against obstacles and difficulties that cause us to pause, make needed adjustments, and forge on down our forward path. Sometimes, we choose an alternate path and start anew. And at times, we don’t even know we are stuck until we have the gift of time and perspective to look back and realize what was happening.
By the time our kids reach the teen years, we’ve aided them in getting un-stuck from dozens of physical and emotional situations and stages, things like fear of strangers, potty-training, food avoidances, anxieties about new schools and friends, learning difficulties, and lack of confidence in any number of circumstances.
We’ve been there, encouraging them, pushing them, cajoling them, and loving them through each little instance of being stuck or trapped. We’ve become skilled at being their tiny tugboats, helping move them upriver at those life junctures where a sandbar or stubborn tree branches were holding them back.
Then it can seem like all of a sudden, they are different people. They wake up one day with a changed face, one that’s lost any form of baby-ness. Or they have a deeper voice or acne sprouting on their chins. They are taller and larger and move with more of an adult presence in the family dynamic and getting stuck begins to take on a whole new connotation.
On any given day, you and your teen or young adult may be feeling positive and sometimes giddy with their newfound abilities and growth. It is frequently amazing simply observing their transformation into adulthood.
But even a slight turn in the river of their development can immediately turn into the psychic equivalent of the massive ship Ever Given running aground in the Suez Canal.
Our teens get stuck in scary ways
They may find themselves in a friend group that they really don’t feel truly comfortable in. But they lack the social skills and confidence to navigate getting out of it.
They may end up in a frightening situation where they are still too naïve to really grasp what the long-term consequences might be.
They could inadvertently become involved in a risky group activity that takes a turn and becomes something that they would never contemplate doing if they were alone.
They can find themselves in a romantic relationship that has run its course or has become toxic, yet they don’t understand how to disentangle from it.
They can find themselves in a class they just can’t handle but may stick it out for too long, due to embarrassment, stubbornness, or denial.
They might wake up one day to realize they’ve become fully immersed into a destructive habit or addiction and feel like there’s no way out. Fear can keep them silent and unhealthy.
They can find themselves at a crossroads of their future, looking at a career or educational situation they just don’t feel right about but believe they are too far into to change direction.
They could be deep into a mental health crisis and feel there is no joy or peace in their life and wish it all would just end.
When our teens get stuck mom’s instinct is to jump in
When we realize our child is stuck in a profound way, our parental instinct is to jump into action. We feel that urge to rescue, no matter what it takes. Small tugboat maneuvers won’t work for grave problems. We want to be the powerful excavators and dredgers that move tons of sand and pump gallons of water quickly and efficiently away from the blockage.
There is nothing more frustrating and heartbreaking to sit idly by and witness your teenager or young adult child in a painful or self-destructive situation. In matters of life and death, we of course do whatever needs to be done. We act to protect and preserve life and stability.
But what about those situations where the consequences are not quite so dire? They can still seem so huge and far-reaching at the moment, like a ship blocking hundreds of other vessels from traversing a vital waterway. Our frustration and worry can build up so swiftly, with their problems becoming all that we can focus on.
It’s really hard for parents to let teens figure out how to “unstick” themselves
It is awfully hard to let them fail the class. Or lose the friends or get kicked off the team. To stand by and to see them having to start something all over again or to fall so far behind their peers. But it’s what they need.
The consequences they may suffer are of value so that the next time they are better prepared and able to navigate the murky waters in a storm by themselves. The lessons that life teaches them are usually those that resonate the deepest, not the ones that we dictate or try to force-feed them.
The ship Ever Given was eventually freed from the banks of the Suez Canal with the help of the moon and the rising tides — natural forces that are both subtle and strong at the same time, and far beyond human control.
The next time I find myself in a situation where I’m tempted to try to exert too much pressure or rescue my stuck child, I’m going to close my eyes and picture the tide slowly moving that gigantic ship back onto its true course, out in the free-flowing waters.
I can love and care and encourage, without unnecessary involvement. My tugboat days are over.