“She’s SUCH a Teenager!!”
I’m betting every parent knows where that came from, even if their oldest child is only three. There’s even a term for it – threenager. Every exasperated mother who’s ever manhandled an obstinate toddler into a pushchair, or been struck speechless by her seven-year-old’s ability to hit a raw nerve understands the fear of what might come next.
If she’s like this now, how bad is it going to be when she’s a teenager..?
What exactly is a teenager?
The thing is, teenaged isn’t really an age – it’s a process. Parenting society has come to use the word as a much more generally descriptive adjective than its dictionary definition intends. Colloquially, ‘teen’ is no longer applied to those people aged between 13 and 20, but to imply a much wider series of personality or behavioural traits:
- A three-year-old having a supermarket meltdown is behaving like a teenager
- When your primary school child is so angry with your decision they start slamming doors and stomping up stairs, he is teenaged
- When she cries hysterically for no reason you can fathom, we dismiss it with an eyeroll and mutter about teenage hormones
- And kids who try to take control over their own lives, dismissing parental advice as uncool? Teenagers.
Except, they’re not. So why do we do it?
My daughter is 12. Not technically a teenager, and yet we’ve been saying that she is for a good while now. Not because of any particular behaviour, but because of what she is dealing with. Becoming an adult is a long and stressful process, and stages of it happen at different points in your life, depending on any number of things, from hormones and peer group issues to pure chance. As a parent, it’s a really difficult transition to make. You seem to go suddenly from main confidant and advisor to frustrated bystander almost overnight. And yet it is as wonderful as it is alarming to watch them step out down the path to independence.
I’ve struggled recently to know how to advise my eldest. Of course, I want to tell her what to do, and watch her do it. That used to work pretty well. But now, she wants to do everything her own way, and is hit by upset when things don’t work out. And I just have to watch, painfully. She doesn’t even want to tell me about it most of the time. I’m usually impressed by how she approaches things, but it’s never going to be a smooth journey, is it? And that’s where the real hard work begins.
Failing your child, or allowing her to learn?
I let my daughter down last weekend. She had a situation on her plate that she chose to manage in her own way. I tried to prompt her, I judged her when she made some mistakes, and I urged her to be considerate of others. I coached her all weekend, until on Sunday evening she finally asked me to back off. “I hear you Mum.” she told me. “But I just needed someone to tell me I was doing the right thing for me. In the end, I googled it, and found a thread full of reassurance from people who had been in the same situation. It made me feel better.” She googled it… And just like that, I’ve lost her a little bit more. I should be happy that she’s standing on her own two feet, being resourceful in finding what she needs. But I feel like I failed, where independence won.
Why growing up is harder than it used to be
Teenagers, in my opinion, get a bad rap. Yes, there are those who let the side down, present a crappy image, and give the rest a bad name. But largely, from what I see in my own community, teenagers are just a bunch of kids trying to wade through an ever-increasing treacle of pressure.
There’s social pressure – who you should be friends with, who you shouldn’t, who will cause you problems if you aren’t, or if you are; kids are just trying to figure out where they fit, and it’s a minefield. As an adult I worry if one of my friends says something I perceive as judgemental; imagine how much of that is going on in a teenager’s head!
Social pressure is augmented infinitely by the advent of social media. I’m going to show my age here, but when I fell out with a friend or did something mortifying at school, I came home and stewed with a bit of Soft Cell. The worst it ever got outside school was a phone call, with my mum eavesdropping in the kitchen. These kids put it all on their phones, instantly. If they don’t someone else does, and out it all comes. The need for feedback, to hash it all out over and over and over is so compelling it’s difficult to resist. It’s awful, it’s incessant, and it’s exhausting. If you’re a parent who doesn’t monitor what your kids do online, you really should – it will give you some understanding of what they’re dealing with.
Then there’s work pressure – the curriculum sees kids put under so much expectation to excel, and not just in academic ways. Now, it’s not enough to get good grades and hand your homework in on time – you have take extra-curricular music, drama AND sports. And they want to. Schools are filled with wonderful opportunities – who wouldn’t want to take part in that? And yet where is the down time?
Then let’s add in relationship issues. I’m going to get eyerolls from the kids now, but I had my first boyfriend when I was 17. Before that I had awkwardly dated one other boy, once. My dad insisted on driving us to the cinema, and he chatted to the boy in question. IKR*… Over before it began. These days it seems to be essential to have formed some kind of relationship as soon as you hit secondary school. These kids are 11, and they’re trying to handle tricky emotions, stay respectful, and keep their friends onside, with no experience, and no desire to hear how their parents did it.
And we haven’t even got to sex and alcohol yet.
So maybe, just maybe, we should cut the kids some slack, and start using the word teenager as it was originally intended? After all, when did you last see a teenager face-down on the floor screaming over a packet of crisps?
*IKR: I know right. Discovered in the internet slang dictionary I am having to resort to, in order to understand even half of what my daughter says online…
Do you have any tips on preserving parents’ relationships with teenagers?