Very often, families end up working with us when entirely normal developmental tasks go wrong. Essentially, kids are designed to be a pain in the ass in a variety of different ways throughout their lives. If parents aren’t ready for this, they might handle it badly enough that they need some outside help. Infants are supposed to scream. Toddlers are supposed to have tantrums and occasionally pee on the floor. Teens are supposed to test boundaries. Not understanding this contributes to shaken babies, toddlers smacked around during potty training, and mothers insisting that someone take their teenage daughters and return them when they’re back to normal.
Since I started this work, I’ve been particularly fascinated by the relationships between moms and their teenage daughters. Those are a writer’s goldmine. (Ask Judy Blume. Or whoever did “Thirteen.”) It’s a fascinating mess, almost every time. And almost every time, it catches us by surprise.
Every mother I work with is astonished by what an ungrateful little bitch her teenager has turned into, seemingly over night. As always, we look for patterns in the family. “What was your relationship with your mom like when you were 15?” Inevitably, it was terrible. The mother’s mother was unsupportive,didn’t listen, treated her daughter like a slave…the mothers I’m working with think they’re doing a better job, and can’t understand why this didn’t prevent nightmare teenagerdom. I mean, my daughter doesn’t have to do everyone’s laundry like I did, and I don’t beat her with an extension cord! What more do kids these days want?
I’m always struck by this. Don’t they ever think back on the dramatic thoughts and journal entries they kept as teenagers and cringe? Do they remember how seriously they took everything that came to their friends and popularity, or the stupid nonsense that made them laugh until they snorted? Didn’t they ever read Judy Blume?!
Working with teenagers, I spend a lot of time relating to them. I reflect on myself as a teenager more than “normal” adults–you know, those people who spend a majority of their time with people their own age. Not to mention the whole writer thing. Writers are notoriously
weird and reclusive introspective and observant, so I wind up writing about teen characters a lot. The two kind of feed into each other. Not to mention the fact that I don’t have a teenager at this point. As much as my teenage cousins have put me through the ringer once or twice, it’s not quite the same.
So I remember, I think better than a lot of people, the turmoil and agony that accompanies mundane, normal stuff when you’re a teenager. Are my friends hanging out without me? Why did my “best friend” tell that guy that I liked him? Now I look like an idiot and I can never leave the house again! This is just the normal stuff. Throw in abuse, homelessness, mental illness, and shit gets real quite quickly.
I’m only telling you this because I feel this is a safe space. High school SJ had a journal entry that contained the line “we’re not allowed to be in love.” Ugh. Everything I did was so dramatic and flamboyant. It just makes me want to set myself on fire.
It sounds so silly now. But when you’re living it, it’s of the utmost importance, and the only thing that makes it worse is being told how ridiculous you’re being.
My mom and I had a rough relationship when I was a teenager. I was a nightmare, and she was personally insulted by what a nightmare I was being to her. Par for the course. Dr. Mom was aware of this, which helped, but that didn’t make it all that much easier when the kid who last year begged for you to play Clue with her all of a sudden is mortified by everything you do.
She picked me up from junior high one time, and rolled down the window and screamed from across the street, “SJ! Over here!” I must be the messiah, readers, because I died. Actually died. And rose again. What to her was a nice thing to do–not making me walk home when she had a day off, and letting me know she was there–caused me extreme mortification and probably led to a surly silent treatment.
My mother was also a bit distressed by my choice of idols. My undying love for Kurt Cobain said to her, “My child can’t get enough of a suicidal drug addict.” As an adult, I get it. As a kid…oh my. Why couldn’t she understand how much Nirvana spoke to me?
But the thing is, she tried. She really tried to get me. When I managed to obtain all nineteen episodes of My So-Called Life on VHS (you kids with your DVD collections, you have no idea how good you have it) she told me she wanted to watch it with me. And she actually did. When I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower on Christmas Day 1999, and proclaimed I had never related to something so much in my life (I said I was dramatic. I also really wanted to have grown up in the early ’90s) she asked to borrow it, and talked about it with me.
Despite the disapproval of the genuinely stupid things I did, I knew my mom liked me as a person and thought I was an interesting kid. She talked to me like a person, when I allowed it, and defended me to strangers who criticized my purple hair. That went a long way towards me being able to be one of those adults who is friends with my mother, and likes hanging out with my family.
So moms, social workers,
countrymen, it’s going to suck. It just is. It comes with the territory. You can’t be your daughter’s friend (not until she’s through college and in her 20s) but you can find things that you genuinely like about her. Even if you have to wrack your brain, the kid has good qualities. The more specific the better. “You’re a good kid” doesn’t mean a whole lot, but “you’re creative and a good baker” does. Taking an interest in the things they like is incredibly important. Not to the point of being a weirdo who doesn’t give your child space and knocks other children out of the way for the last One Direction t-shirt, but in a way that lets your kid know that what matters to them matters to you. One of my chronically crabby thirteen year olds was the happiest girl in the world when her mother took her to see that god forsaken Justin Bieber movie, and actually had a nice time.
It’s worth a try. It really can only get better. And then maybe, when your child is a reflective grown-up, she’ll write a nice blog post about you.