Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Adventures In Parenting: Communicating (Or Not) With a Teenager

From inside Masked Mom Headquarters, 7:23 a.m., one morning last week:

Son-Two: I didn’t sleep very much last night and I’ve been up since 5:30.

Masked Mom: And what were you ruminating upon all night?*
(Pause during which I’m partially dreading his answer and partially trying not to fall back asleep.)

Son-Two: You don’t really expect me to answer that do you?

Well, um, no, I didn’t actually expect a straight answer, but to not ask seemed rude and even a little neglectful. For Son-Two, this conversation is over, but for Mom the conversation is just the beginning…the beginning of ruminating all afternoon about rules and boundaries and being involved enough to show you care without being so involved that you permanently stunt their emotional growth, thereby guaranteeing your children a lonely, hopeless existence.

With teenagers, communication, if it exists at all, is a tricky and terrifying thing. Respecting their privacy, protecting their safety and encouraging their independence all seem essential and often at odds with one another. Finding the right balance is made all the more challenging by the certainty that the right balance is probably different in each new circumstance, with each individual child.

During my own adolescence, when my mom and I were wrangling, long and loud, over her place in my life, I scribbled something in my journal that has come back to haunt me a thousand times since. I wrote that she was so busy trying to be the kind of mother she’d needed or wished she’d had that she had no idea what kind of mother I needed or wished I had.

I know, I know: I sounded just like the spoiled, adolescent brat I was, but I still think I was on to something—not necessarily about my mother in particular, but about parenting in general. Unless we were blessed with perfect parents or perfect perspective on our parents’ imperfections, we carry disappointments about our own parents’ failings with us into parenthood. We’re determined not to make the same mistakes our parents did.

And, we’re right, we don’t make the same mistakes because we’re too busy making our own gloriously messy mistakes for which our kids will no doubt require significant amounts of expensive therapy later on. Mistakes, maybe, like not running after Son-Two that morning—not chasing him down and quizzing him on what might be bothering him. The teenager I was would’ve responded to that kind of interrogation by closing down—answering in shrugs and grunts if at all—and instinct tells me that would’ve been Son-Two’s reaction as well. But instinct is all tangled up with wondering if I’m just being the kind of mother I wished I’d had at sixteen and not the kind of Mom he needs in this moment.

There is so much uncharted territory—streams and bogs and open fields and wooded hills—between us and our kids and as they grow they make more and more of it all their own. Sometimes we must trespass for their own safety—the rest of the time the rules aren’t so clear. Some days, I think the best we can hope for is not to do any lasting damage and to steer them into careers with excellent mental health coverage, just in case.

*Yes, we really do talk to our kids like that around here--occasionally in a mock British accent or snooty professor voice (think John Houseman in The Paper Chase, if anyone out there besides geeky me remembers John Houseman or The Paper Chase). It's had the unintended but totally cool effect of painlessly building their vocabularies--not that the size of their vocabularies is often obvious since they still rely heavily on slang and four-letter words and four-letter slang words especially when talking with friends.


  1. I am/was an uber-t.v. geek. I remember The Paper Chase. HA!

    Wow. You are in such a different territory with your teen son than I am and I even struggle now with getting my son to communicate with me about his feelings. If you have some revelation in all of this, definitely share it with me. I have a feeling I need to start preparing for this now.

  2. Ahh teenage years, I so remember those years and what I remember most is NEVER talking to my Dad, and it is still common conversation now a days on how mute I was towards him. I know it is normal and all but damn I was harsh! He would say one thing to me and I would blow up and storm off...mind you the temper I have comes from him.

    Hoping and praying and knowing that I have no chance in hell, but hoping that when Syd dawns the teenage years they will have a drug to prevent the torture I am going to endure!

  3. quit scaring me, wouldya?

  4. I pretty much tell my teenage sons "just let me know if you want me to know. But remember I do have eyes in the back of my head & super sonic hearing. So I already know." Makes 'em go hummmm

  5. wow, did you nail it with this post. I struggle with this daily, and I also speak snootly to my son. He yells, 'mom's using big words again'.