The Parenting Maelstrom: 3 Teens, 1 Home, Infinite Hormones

This is a stock photo.  If it were my family, one of the children would be trying to push the other into the surf. With more eye make-up on.

In our family, we have 3 growing and healthy teens (okay, technically one isn’t a teen until August, but whatever–the hormonal unrest started long ago, so I’m lumping her in with the other two).  This makes for a definite challenge in the parental realm as we try to navigate the clutches of puberty, neurological growth, societal pressures and, God help us, social media access.  And that’s along with, as my 94-year-old Grandma would say when I watched General Hospital as a teen at her house, “All the smut on television.”

I haven’t figured much of this out, yet, and seem to live on a wing and a prayer most days (It is a truth universally acknowledged that your Developmental Psychology Ph.D. does not keep you from crying when one of your kids yells “I hate you” right to your face. Or from wanting to yell something equally nasty back in the heat of the moment).

Parenting teens is hard work, much like any form of care-giving, parenting or otherwise, is.  The biggest  challenge for me lately has been to step back as the co-leader of the family and check my compulsive need to address any disrespect or noncompliance. When my children were younger, I felt rather confident in administering the checks and balances of my parental realm. My children needed an authority figure, and my husband and I enacted that role with as much consistency as we could provide.

And then puberty hit, and our children started thinking differently, feeling differently, and seeing the world differently.  Authority no longer had as much power or derived as much adherence as it once did.  Instead, we now find ourselves embarking on the long and bumpy road towards equality. Granted, we won’t hit it until our children are out of the house and independent adults, but the seeds of our children’s independence are being sown now, as young teens grasping for freedom while still within the safety of our home.

And although I navigate this path better some days than others, the ultimate key skill I feel I’ve had to develop more and more is a basic one: Emotion Regulation.

Emotion regulation, or emotion control, is a core skill we begin to develop as young infants. It is the ability to inhibit emotional impulses and engage in more planful behavior surrounding our emotional responses. In particular, learning how to regulate anger and disappointment is a necessity for navigating any social group.  As young children, we hopefully learn when we are younger how to tell someone what is bothering us instead of hitting them. Over time, we understand the importance of congratulating others on achieving something we weren’t able to do, like winning a competition or getting the date we wanted to the prom.

And, as adults and caregivers, we learn how to stay quiet when our teenage children attempt to provoke us into verbal combat, instead speaking assurances that we love them ‘no matter what’ when everything has calmed down.  We learn how to ignore the disgusting cess-pool of inside-out socks on the floor and instead congratulate them on their A- earned for their English project. We learn to tell them they look lovely, even when we hate (I mean, hate!) the outfit they are wearing.

Is this dress-code appropriate?  Hang on–your school doesn’t have a dress code. What?!?

Because parenting is ultimately about raising our children to be competent and caring members of society.  As adolescents, they understand right from wrong.  They know the rules and how to follow them.  And they see the world as a quickly opening, and yet often intimidating, place. Home becomes a haven to let out their frustrations and worries and insecurities.

So, each day I try to breathe deep, count to 10 (just like Mom taught me when I was little–everything old is new again!), and let the nasty comments and snide looks roll off me.  These, in the grand scheme, are minor infractions and pin-pointing each one with a disciplinary remark or consequence would prove counterproductive.  If I did that, my  attention would solely be focused on what they are doing wrong, thereby ignoring everything they are doing right.

My kids work hard, they care about our family and do their chores regularly without complaint, and they often (of course not always, but often) choose right from wrong. I am confident that, eventually, they will seek out my husband and I for closeness and companionship again, but until then I know that all of this angst and button-pushing from them is a sign that they are growing and developing.

And as any parent will tell you, seeing your child grow in a healthy and normal way is always a balm to the heart (even if that ‘normal’ involves calling you a sadist for asking them to take the stinky trash out).




Have yourself an angsty little Christmas. . .

As a mother of three teenagers, I have the pleasure and the challenge of seeing many concepts in my field of developmental psychology emerge right before my eyes through the actions and language of my children.  Case in point: in our household, we are now deep into the period of what Piaget (one of the original authorities on the minds of children) called Idealism and Criticism (or some such phrasing-Piaget wrote in French, so it is likely that this description is even more poetic than in the translated English). 

The main idea of this period of development is that, as we head into our teen years, we become capable of abstract thinking and, as a result, can not only understand hypothetical concepts, but also develop opinions about them.  I should mention that Allison Gopnik at Berkeley has exciting new work suggesting that children can execute hypothesis-generation in their toddler years, rather than having to wait until puberty hits.  Nonetheless, under my own roof each day is another opportunity to see how Piaget was correct, in the opinion department at least. 

For example, over our holiday celebrations for Christmas we attended church, opened gifts, recalled the Nativity Story, and then verged into a heated debate as a family about the reception vs. giving of gifts.  One of our children adamantly insisted that a person shouldn’t care at all about receiving gifts, and that Christmas could not be truly experienced the way it was intended unless a person only gave gifts, rather than receiving some too. I should mention that she offered this perspective with adamant focus while clutching the Once Upon A Time calendar she’d received that very morning with a forceful grip, lest it be pried away by one of her siblings as demonstration of her argument. 

Did I mention that, at this point, we had more than a full week ahead of us with the children tumbling about the house, arguing over fine points of language and policy like they were talking heads on a cable news program.

A few examples over the ensuing days include: 

1) Our two daughters fighting over the definition of “now.” One argued that the phrase “I’m doing it now” implied a completion of a task (such as moving one’s books off the other’s desk) , whereas the other argued that ‘now’ offered a broader timeframe, somewhere between the hour of it being uttered and eventually. 

2) Our son stating that rinsing 5 pounds of rice rather than the 1 and 1/2 cups called for in the recipe he was cooking was really a blessing, as it created opportunities for future culinary endeavors (i.e., much rice pudding). 

3)A heated debate amongst all of us at the dinner table over whether they could ever serve in the military, which evolved into further arguments about whether soldiers were harmed by the act of killing enemies in combat, which then further descended into a chaotic discussion of whether killing anyone was every justified, to which our middle daughter stated matter-of-factly that it wasn’t, and our youngest and oldest offered that it could be, and neither were willing to provide support for their side except that they were right. Keep in mind, my husband and I were caught in the midst of this, trying to guide graduated perspectives on these complex topics through hypothetical examples, to which our children were entirely dismissive (Idealism and Criticism, indeed).

And the main message I receive as I see my children’s minds blossoming into dense forests of neural circuitry that both advance and limit their thinking (their brains won’t be ‘adult-like’ until 25 years or so!) is how wonderful and supportive my parents were of my own developing perspective on the world when I was younger, and how annoying I must have been in my insistence that I understood the way the world worked, and they didn’t. In other words, seeing my children take these gigantic leaps into the adult world of thought reminds me how empowering and yet scary it can be as a teen. How disruptive these new ways of examining the world can be to a child’s sense of comfort and stability. 

So, with this New Year roaring in soon, my resolution is to try and hold onto that empathy and try to remain compassionate when dealing with the unwavering opinions of my children, rather than exasperated. Because, as all of us who have grown into adults can attest, the time for seeing the world in infinite shades of gray will come sooner than we think, and the feeling of assurance that we can change the world through our ideas will never be stronger than when we first realized there was a world out there in need of change.