What I know about teenagers – now that I have two of them!Apr 30, 2023
I remember taking my son to a playspace when he was just 18 months old and being absolutely aghast at the seven-year-old boy who kept leaping brazenly over him into the ball pit. I remember thinking "My son will never leap over a child like that." I was right. As my son grew into himself, it became clear he'd be much more likely to leap ONTO the baby in the ball pit rather than over him. Kidding; not kidding. 😂 😱
My children have brought me humility, tears, and endless joy. They have been my teachers from Day 1 until Day 5,863. Yes, that’s where I am now on this journey, almost 6000 days in, and now that I have teenagers (two of them), there’s some hard-won wisdom I’d love to share with you about this particular phase of our children's life. Whether you are years away or already knee-deep in it, here are EIGHT things you might like to know sooner rather than later:
You're busy trying to figure them out. They are busy doing the same dang thing.
As you see from my ball pit story, we don't actually know who our children are yet for quite some time. And while most kids will have come into some sense of who they are by the end of middle school, you can think of the teenage years as a dressing room where they try on endless styles (or "fits" in Gen Z speak) until they find the combo that most accurately expresses their inner selves. For today. Tomorrow is a whole other story.
Our kids aren't just changing their minds at warp speed. They are changing their bodies too.
Most kids are delighted and horrified by what’s happening to their bodies but really don’t wanna talk about it too much with us. After all, a caterpillar doesn't need to be told how to turn into a butterfly. That said, caterpillars don't need to wear deodorant, use a menstrual cup, or become fluent in the language of consent. So I’m not suggesting that you disappear. I’m simply suggesting you tread carefully, knock before you enter, and get "consent" to discuss consent. Carefully seeding some well-placed information at valuable times can be an invaluable gift to your teen.
Teenagerhood is pretty much toddlerhood 2.0.
Remember when your child was three years old (or maybe you still have one who is)? Imagine that three-year-old crossing a river, and needing to step on some rocks to get to the other side. They scream at you when you are too far and yet the moment you come near them, they swat your hand away, preferring to do it on their own, until they wind up in the river, angry that you didn’t help. Yep, that. You've gotten through this once, and you will again.
Their brains are in a phase of reconstruction. That's why you can't find anything in there, LOL.
Think of their brains like a department store that definitely used to have shoes on the third floor, but now when you get out of the elevator, there’s nothing but yellow caution tape! While you are busy searching everywhere for the missing shoes, you happen to notice the jeans aisle is completely new – and better than you ever thought. Unfortunately, that leaves you walking out with some flashy new pants, and barefoot! That’s kind of what the teenage brain is like: over-developed in some helpful and not-so-helpful areas, and underdeveloped in areas you swear you had built long ago. All of this is normal, and their brains won’t be finished building until age 25-ish, so settle in for the ride!
Peers have influence. This is not ALL bad.
Our tweens & teens want to fit in and stand out at the very same time. Yes, sometimes it can be confusing and worrisome – but try not to let this confuse or worry you too, too much. The truth is not all peer pressure is bad; sometimes it even helps shift our kids out of their own stuck habits and invites new possibilities that you'd never be able to suggest as the parent. As our children start making their own decisions about their social sphere, they may indeed make some errors in judgment, but unless those mistakes are very serious, letting them navigate their own relationships is usually the best course of action. Simply know that their friends matter to them and if you want to stay close to them, their friends should matter to you too. Even if they are far from perfect.
Mistakes are GOLD.
Teenagers learn by making mistakes. Way more than you will be comfortable with in all likelihood. Personally, I find this to be one of the most daunting aspects of teenagerhood and I am working hard to accept this reality with grace. One thing I do every time I get the itch to intervene is to ask myself how my sons will ever learn which of their decisions do not serve them well if I am always catching them mid-air. That question alone helps me stay quiet in those moments where I 100% love my children, but do not 100% love some of their choices. In fact, some of them feel downright dangerous to me but hey, that’s the point.
Teenagers crave risk.
They are literally hardwired to take chances. This is what builds their confidence. In fact, during these years, they are more wired to learn from LIFE than they are to learn from us. So the more we let them go, and allow them to interface with "life" directly, then the quicker they will learn what is a good idea and what isn't. We parents have to be like guard rails on the highway, not issuing tickets or governing the speed limit, but definitely there in case things get super out of hand. Also... all new privileges should require "driving lessons" – so that freedoms are always paired with responsibilities.
Nature is one of the best ways to allow our children to make mistakes.
Getting our teenagers in nature is just as important as getting our toddlers in nature, and while their schedules can sometimes be punishingly busy, I highly recommend keeping this at the top of your family values list. This can look like mountain biking, rock climbing, hiking, swimming, traveling, environmentalism, science, animal care, and so much more.
There is so much more to say about what optimizes teenagers and us during these years, that someday I will create an entire course about all this. But for now, I would like to invite you to listen to this beautiful conversation that I recently had with Adam Aronovitz, the Executive Director of Global Routes – an organization dedicated to helping teens get their needs met, in a way that also helps the communities they serve. Adam is the most skilled person I know at nurturing the hearts and minds of teenagers, and he will be sharing exactly what you can do to optimize your relationship with them, and set them up to also have a great relationship with themselves too!
Sending my own son on an adventure with Adam is one of the single best choices we ever made as a family, and it is my pleasure to share this very personal recommendation with you all.