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January 17, 2014

“The Problem with Teenagers is Their Parents”

by Anne Paddock

In my mailbox this week was the current issue of New York Magazine (Jan 20, 2014) which displays the upfront and in-your-face shot of a raging mother and a calm teenage son with the words “The Problem with Teenagers is Their Parents emblazoned across the cover. My first reaction was to read the cover story (The Collateral Damage of a Teenager, an excerpt from All Joy and No Fun:  The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior, to be published later this month), and then either tear the cover off or hide the issue from my teenage daughter thinking this would be another article about over zealous helicopter parents pushing their kids to the brink of insanity. But, after reading the article, my opinion completely changed. I e-mailed the link to both my daughter and husband with the by-line:  “you have to read this.”

The cover of the magazine doesn’t tell the true story because this is not an article about screaming parents and teenagers pushed into submission. Jennifer Senior, a contributing writer for New York Magazine who has previously written about childhood, adolescence and parenting  (“Why You Truly Never Leave High School,” “Little Grown-ups and Their Progeny,” andAll Joy and No Fun), writes about both adolescents and parents in The Collateral Damage of a Teenager, but with the focus primarily on the parents, not the adolescent.

It’s not about parents micro-managing their high-performing children or crazed parents dealing with kids flunking out, running away from home, or getting expelled. Instead, Senior writes of the litany of things that happen in a household with teenagers who are generally “good” (in the sense they go to competitive high schools or college, have interests and talents, and outwardly appear well-adjusted) and how these situations primarily affect the parents; in other words, how teenagers drive their parents crazy.  As the parent of a 17-year old, I know the feeling.

Between childhood and adolescence, children go through mind-boggling social, emotional, and biological changes preparing them to be independent. Adolescents certainly struggle but “it’s the parents who are left to absorb these changes and to adjust as their children pull away from them.” Add menopause, a divorce, having a child of the same sex (i.e.mother-daughter conflict), or a parent who doesn’t have an outside interest, and the child “by leaving center stage, redirects the spotlight onto the parent’s own life, exposing what’s fulfilling about it and what is not.” As Kate Milliken wrote in her prize-winning book If I’d Known You Were Coming, “You are who you are. Children show you just who you are.” Somehow, when your kids are 6 or 8, you don’t have to face that sobering thought. Back then, I was “the best mommy in the world.” I don’t think my teenage daughter would ever say those words to me now.

Most parents keep their children safe and somewhat sheltered but when the teen is evolving into an adult and craving autonomy and independence, conflict erupts when parents disagree among themselves and with the teen. Both generations want to be heard and respected; not an easy goal in an environment with an established hierarchy in place. As Senior points out “it takes a lot of ego strength for a parent to withstand this separation. it means ceding some power to your children, for one thing – decisions that were once under your purview move to theirs – and it means receding somewhat, accepting that they’ve recast their lives without you, or your goals, at the center.”

In October, 2011, National Geographic magazine published an article entitled “Teenage Brains” which explains how the brain undergoes a massive re-wiring between our 12th and 25th years causing the brain’s cortex where we do much of our conscious and complicating thinking to become faster and more efficient. Essentially, we get better at integrating memory and experience into our decision-making as we mature into adulthood. Until then, it’s more difficult to balance impulse, self-interest and gratification making the teenager a lethal danger to him or herself.

Senior points out that modern culture tells us that parents have the primary responsibility of “putting on the brakes” which doesn’t sit well with most teenagers, thus creating more stress for both parents and teens. Years ago, Gloria Estefan commented in an interview that her 2-year old daughter and 15-year old son had a lot more in common than they realized:  they both wanted more freedom than they could handle. And, in Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” for Atlantic Monthly magazine, the realization that her 15-year old son needed her at home in Princeton, NJ instead of working in Washington, DC brought forth a sobering truth: teenagers need their parents as much as toddlers do. That parenting an adolescent is more difficult is just part of the process most moms and dads have to go through. Knowing that others are encountering the same day-to-day conflicts somehow makes the experience less isolating…but no less bumpy.

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