I´m 54 and I have three teens: 16, 14 and 13. Let me tell you that the past couple of years, and most especially since my eldest turned 16, have been a wild ride. I know we´re barely getting started, but after weathering the first storms of adolescence, I feel stronger and better prepared to deal with whatever other parenting challenges are headed our way. I say this, and yet I also know that if something new and completely unexpected happens, I will most likely feel lost all over again and will have to find new ways to cope.
Having had kids later in life, being really sensitive and very much in touch with my own teen angst, which I´ve even written about in books, I was confident I´d prepared my kids to confide in me, to know I was there for them, and that somehow we´d manage this phase pretty well.
Woe me, from one day to the next it was like some alien creature had abducted my eldest and turned her into “one of those teenagers.” I felt my soul leave my body and watch from above when my once sweet, responsible, mom-worshipping daughter told me in no uncertain terms that I “stressed her out,” in fact we ALL stressed her out. She clenched her fists and punched the wall in her room as she yelled that she couldn´t stand being at home anymore. This moment was the culmination of a series of scary events for a parent. I felt my heart rip apart. My worst nightmare had come true. My child didn´t want to have anything to do with me. She wanted to find a way to emancipate, to work full-time, to move out … at 16.
I recall sitting on her bed, as she lost control, her words feeling like daggers aimed right at my gut. What had I done wrong? It felt worse, hurt more and cut deeper than any heartbreak caused by a man, and I´ve had a few bad ones. When I calmly told her that if she left the household I would call the police, she yelled: “Why won´t you just let me GO!!” I answered calmly “Because I won´t give up on you!”
I was dying inside, I also wanted to yell and cry and ask her why she didn´t love me anymore (she never said she didn´t, but that´s how a mother feels). I realize now in retrospect that it takes strength and perhaps even wisdom to not react in kind when a teen lashes out. I´m really really grateful my husband, her stepdad, is even-tempered. He´s also very sensitive and he dislikes confrontation, and he managed the situation really well, without raising his voice. Personally, I don´t know what I would have done prior to my daily yoga practice.
A few months have passed since that particular incident. It was not the only one. Through the course of some rough months I watched my daughter drop out of basketball, a sport she excels at and lived for only the previous school year. I watched her heart be broken over and over. I watched her lose friends over that. I watched her try to find answers. I watched her get into a fight at school. It was really tough to learn, through reading books and chatting with therapists, that the best thing I could do for her was simply STOP trying to fix life for her, and do my best to just BE there. Armed with that knowledge, instead of bending over backwards trying to please her out of sheer fear of losing her, I resolved to do what I had set out to do when I decided to be a mom. It was exactly that: be a MOM. Not a friend, not a teacher, not problem-solver. A mother. Even if that meant she wouldn’t like me ever again. And that, for a person who grew up without her own estranged mother, is HARD.
My daughter had asked to go to therapy months earlier and I was happy to oblige. I never told her how shitty I was feeling, how defeated, how sad and heartbroken I was. I realized after much soul searching, that it wasn´t her responsibility to make me happy. It was MY responsibility to take care of myself. I felt I also needed help, so I sought it out. I continued my daily yoga practice, I became a part of two Facebook groups for moms of teens. I read other moms´ stories and realized I was not alone. I wrote to my dad, who lives in Spain, and asked him how he survived having four kids who gave him plenty of headaches. I´m pretty sure I pulled the “I didn´t ask to be born” stunt at some point. I have since told him over and over how sorry I am for everything I put him through as a teen.
I consulted with a therapist. I read books and articles about parenting teens. The one that helped me the most was The Grown Up´s Guide To Teenage Humans, by Josh Shipp. It includes a letter that a teen would write to their parent if he or she could. Reading that book helped me make sense of the entire mess that had been parenting for the last year. I realized my daughter was a normal healthy teen, going through a rough patch. It was her time to thrash and even lash out at me … the person she knew would not give up on her. And it was my job to take care of ME so I could be a rock for her. I would have to learn and own that nothing she said or did was about me. I had to stop letting it hurt me.
I also had to learn to stop the hands-on parenting kids need when they´re little and start adopting the new role of teen coach. I had to learn to love her and me, for the both of us. And I had to learn that being a parent means setting reasonable limits and boundaries even when the teen is rebelling against them. To my surprise, my limits and boundaries, far from freaking her out, calmed her down, like when I would set down my foot when she had a tantrum as a toddler.
I stood strong even when my heart was bleeding. I grew stronger and she slowly figured things out. She got a part-time job, realized things at home weren´t half bad and eventually fessed up to shenanigans I knew she´d been hiding from me and, most shocking and heartwarming of all, apologized for everything she´d said and done. I know it´s only one batttle and I also have two other kids with two very different personalities that are already giving us different challenges to deal with.
But the point is, as I told my daughter, that she and her siblings are all forgiven even before they make mistakes. I believe they need to know that, because when everything else is wrong in their world, someone has to be that rock they can cling on to, especially when they aren´t making any sense, being hurtful, and especially when it would be really easy to just let them GO. One day they will realize there is no love like the deep, unconditional, crazy love of a parent for their child, but just not yet. At this moment they still have one foot in childhood and the other in adolescence, while they yearn to embrace adulthood. It´s not an easy place to be.
Right now I feel like I got my kid back. An improved, more mature version of my girl. She´s still the smart, noble, caring, loving person I always knew her to be. It´s almost like everything we went through in the past year was a bad dream. We once again laugh together, she tells me stories, cuddles in bed with me and hugs me and says “I love you” often, like she used to. I don´t know whether that part of her is here to stay or whether she´ll wig out again. Either way, I´m grateful for the effort we´ve both made to sort ourselves out. We´re both more self-aware and also more empathetic of each other than a few months ago. We picked up the broken pieces of our relationship and put them back together – not the way they were – but the way they´re meant to be now.
To any other mom that´s scared and heartbroken, wondering whether she´s the only one that doesn´t know what she´s doing, asking herself where she went wrong, you aren´t alone. I´ve since talked to so many other moms of teens and we´re all battling some battle. Even if our stories are different, our feelings are similar. And yes, you will come out on the other side. You will be stronger. And no matter what happens, you will survive, just like your parents survived your teens, albeit with battle scars, as my dad says.