Every stage of life has its share of stresses and concerns. Infancy is a time of crying, colic and broken nights that parents must deal with. Early childhood ushers in tantrums and disobedience. During the school years, many parents are confronted with their children’s learning difficulties and the task of managing schedules that are full of extracurricular activities.
But above all, if there is one life stage that has the reputation of being particularly trying for many parents, it’s the teenage years!
Why? Because teenagers are full of contradictions… They demand autonomy and freedom but are still very dependent on their parents. That dependence is not only financial: in order to stay on the right track, teenagers quite simply need their parents. However, they go to great lengths to pretend that is not the case. Teenagers need a framework to guide them but are always testing the limits of that framework. They find being told off intolerable, but are all too ready to put the blame on others. They hate being punished, but don’t follow the rules. They want to be left alone, but actively seek conflict. They see themselves as equal to adults, yet constantly feel the need to compete with them. They are particularly cruel to those who matter most to them, especially their parents. Teenagers are in search of themselves; they are building their identity. They need strong arms around them, but at the same time want nothing to do with those who hold out their hand: indeed, they prefer to test them and wear them down, while still hoping that they don’t crack! Teenagers demand a lot of attention, affection, empathy, availability and willingness to listen, but they can be both ungrateful and reluctant to reciprocate, especially to their loved ones.
Parents are not always aware that these contradictions are natural and necessary for the development of teenagers. It is through these conflicts that they gradually become adults who know who they are, who can commit themselves to a professional path and intimate relationships or to causes (whether local, ecological, humanitarian or whatever) that make sense to them. Teenagers need to experience the hot and the cold, the hard and the soft, the dark and the light, in order to find THEIR own purpose. They need to hesitate, to go down paths they have been advised not to explore, to go backwards, to contradict themselves, to make mistakes and to suffer the consequences of them. They cannot be guided solely by the happy or unhappy experiences that others, in particular their parents, have had before them.
Teenagers are lively, daring and enthusiastic, and feel invincible. This sometimes puts them in danger, but it also allows them to dream and take action to make the world a better place.
Parenting teenagers can be difficult and unsatisfying. Parent often feel ashamed of their teenager’s behaviour or of the way their relationship with them is going. When that happens, they tend to isolate themselves and hide what is going on in their household. But surrounding yourself with people you trust and who are close to your child is one of the keys to holding on and taking care of your family.
And then, one day, the conflict ends. You find your child has become an accomplished young adult and congratulate yourself for having persisted as a parent against all odds, for having survived the conflict and held on to your relationship with your teenager. That bond of unconditional love is like a rope whose two ends you and your child have held onto; and your child has also gained security by wrapping him- or herself in its coils.
This is the letter I wish I could write.
This fight we are in right now. I need it. I need this fight. I can’t tell you this because I don’t have the language for it and it wouldn’t make sense anyway. But I need this fight. Badly. I need to hate you right now and I need you to survive it. I need you to survive my hating you and you hating me. I need this fight even though I hate it too. It doesn’t matter what this fight is even about: curfew, homework, laundry, my messy room, going out, staying in, leaving, not leaving, boyfriend, girlfriend, no friends, bad friends. It doesn’t matter. I need to fight you on it and I need you to fight me back.
I desperately need you to hold the other end of the rope. To hang on tightly while I thrash on the other end—while I find the handholds and footholds in this new world I feel like I am in. I used to know who I was, who you were, who we were. But right now I don’t. Right now I am looking for my edges and I can sometimes only find them when I am pulling on you. When I push everything I used to know to its edge. Then I feel like I exist and for a minute I can breathe. I know you long for the sweeter kid that I was. I know this because I long for that kid too, and some of that longing is what is so painful for me right now.
I need this fight and I need to see that no matter how bad or big my feelings are—they won’t destroy you or me. I need you to love me even at my worst, even when it looks like I don’t love you. I need you to love yourself and me for the both of us right now. I know it sucks to be disliked and labeled the bad guy. I feel the same way on the inside, but I need you to tolerate it and get other grownups to help you. Because I can’t right now. If you want to get all of your grown up friends together and have a ‘surviving-your-teenager-support-group-rage-fest’ that’s fine with me. Or talk about me behind my back–I don’t care. Just don’t give up on me. Don’t give up on this fight. I need it.
This is the fight that will teach me that my shadow is not bigger than my light. This is the fight that will teach me that bad feelings don’t mean the end of a relationship. This is the fight that will teach me how to listen to myself, even when it might disappoint others.
And this particular fight will end. Like any storm, it will blow over. And I will forget and you will forget. And then it will come back. And I will need you to hang on to the rope again. I will need this over and over for years.
I know there is nothing inherently satisfying in this job for you. I know I will likely never thank you for it or even acknowledge your side of it. In fact I will probably criticize you for all this hard work. It will seem like nothing you do will be enough. And yet, I am relying entirely on your ability to stay in this fight. No matter how much I argue. No matter how much I sulk. No matter how silent I get.
Please hang on to the other end of the rope. And know that you are doing the most important job that anyone could possibly be doing for me right now.
Love, Your Teenager
The Letter Your Teenager Can’t Write You, by Gretchen Schmelzer
Isabelle Roskam, Ph.D. and Moïra Mikolajczak, Ph.D.
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