Op/Ed

Faith Gong: Things we don’t talk about: Parenting teens

I had a dream the other night.

In my dream, I was hiking a trail high up in the Green Mountains. I was with a group of other parents who have children at my children’s middle school — other parents of teenagers. We weren’t walking the way one normally does with a group on a trail, with everyone spaced out comfortably; instead, we shuffled along in one huddled mass. There was no conversation, only murmurs of concern. I recognized this path: I’d walked it before, and I knew it wound its way in hairpin turns along a steep ridge, so that one misstep could send you right off the mountain. But this time I was walking along the trail from the opposite direction, and in the dark. All I could do was put out one tentative foot at a time and feel my way along. “It would be really helpful if we had a flashlight,” I thought to myself.

Upon awakening, I realized that I’d dreamed about what it’s like to be the parent of teenagers. 

When I refer to “teenagers,” I’m including children as young as 11 years old. In my experience, this is when adolescence begins: the moodiness, the closed bedroom door, the disdainful looks (I’ll never get used to the disdainful looks!), the abrupt rages followed by nighttime tears. The early onset of pubescent symptoms took my husband and me by surprise the first time around. We thought we had more time. We expected a gradual on-ramp. We had the luxury of neither, and the pattern has now repeated itself three times in our family. 

I have parented for 16 years, and I can honestly say that I don’t have a favorite age. Infant, toddler, early and late elementary; each stage has its own particular delights and challenges. The same is true of parenting teenagers — only more so. The delights become more delightful: Here are burgeoning adults who are capable of being more independent and helpful than ever before, who have their own passionate opinions and care deeply about the state of the world, who can be hilariously funny, introduce us to the latest cultural trends (some of which are quite good), and help us navigate new technology. (Who knew you could text with both hands?!?) 

But if the delights of parenting teens are more delightful, the challenges are more challenging. 

My husband and I were caught off-guard by the sudden, relentless onslaught of decisions and reactions we had to make — and quickly. Granted, this may be because we homeschooled our children for five years, and then emerged from COVID isolation to place two of our children in middle school. It was like going from an idyllic meadow to a foxhole, with new situations exploding all around us. Here is a sampling of what current parents of teenagers are being shelled with:

-Technology: “Everyone else has a smartphone/Snapchat/Tik Tok.” What level of exposure do you allow? How do you keep the good and filter out the harmful? How do you respond when your teen inevitably hacks through your parental controls? 

-Social events: So many social events! What do you say yes to? How do you feel about co-ed sleepovers? Do you trust these friends? What do you do when you can’t get in touch with your child and they’re not where they say they’ll be at pickup time? 

-Media: Culture makes all things readily available to teens. What level of maturity/explicit content are you comfortable with in movies/shows/music/books/video games? 

-Gender and sexuality: There will be crushes. There may be relationships. Especially among the current generation of teens, there may also be shifting pronouns. Do you have beliefs about these issues? How will you react? Did you talk to your kids about this before age 11? 

-Appearance: There may be requests for various haircuts, hair colors, piercings. And what will you say when your daughter walks downstairs in what looks like a sports bra over a shredded denim loincloth (knowing full well that you’ll sound just like your mother?)

-Mental health: Depression, anxiety, and eating disorders are rampant among this generation. Does your teen need additional support?

All of this comes on top of choices your teen must make that affect future academic and career prospects. It’s a lot. 

And it’s all completely normal and appropriate. Adolescence is, and always has been, the threshold between childhood and maturity. To become fully formed adults, teenagers must navigate the demands of gradually increasing independence, assert their autonomy from their parents, and test and push back against the beliefs they’ve been raised with in order to adopt a set of guiding principles that have become truly their own. We all went through it ourselves, which is why in my dream I recognized the path: I had walked it before.

But traversing adolescence again as a parent really does feel like walking a trail in reverse and in the dark. Being able to recognize familiar landmarks and pitfalls doesn’t necessarily make us more confident; it can make us more anxious. We know firsthand the pain of our own mistakes, although we might acknowledge the learning that came from them. We realize that underdeveloped pre-frontal cortexes make our teens capable of getting into sticky situations that have lasting — even potentially fatal — consequences. (Many of us have friends who didn’t survive the teen years.) Dangers aside, teenagers are making a series of decisions about what they believe, who they are, and how they’ll live — and these, too, can have lasting impacts.  It’s almost impossible, as the parents of teenagers, not to feel that the stakes have suddenly become higher.

I heard someone say recently that the two worst things we can do for our children are to over-parent with harsh boundaries, or to under-parent with too few boundaries. This leaves a very narrow path, a constant inner negotiation of when to speak and when to bite our tongues.

But we can be blinded by our love. We want the best for our children. We want to keep them as safe as possible. We want them to thrive; to become whole, joyful, productive, and independent adults who still agree with everything we believe and come home for dinner every week. We think that we know what’s best for them — and sometimes, we do. The thing we don’t talk about is that, just as our teens must differentiate their childhood selves from their adult selves, we as parents must differentiate normal, healthy boundaries and guidance from our own shortsighted, stifling, and ultimately selfish visions of who our children should be.

We also don’t talk about how, even though we love our children unconditionally for who they are, if we’re brutally honest we have also developed a sneaky little vision, a secret hope around the kind of person they’ll become, the types of choices they’ll make. And we don’t talk about how culture — the lucrative Parenting Industry in particular — lies to parents by giving us a false sense of control. “Follow these steps and your kids will turn out right,” they tell us. “Read this book. Check these boxes and your outcome will reflect your input.” 

Vending machine parenting might work for things like sleep training and chores; it collapses like a house of cards when it comes to the challenges of adolescence. And the really sick thing? As the roof falls in around us, we parents can only conclude that it’s all our fault. Our children making mistakes, disagreeing with our values, and slamming their doors isn’t a normal life stage, it’s a failure of our parenting input. So at the very moment when we most need other parents to say, “Me, too!” we lock ourselves away in our shame. Remember: Nobody was talking to each other in my dream.

I’m done judging other parents based on their children. Parenting is important and has an impact: Good parenting can equip children with healthy coping mechanisms and supports to navigate life, and bad parenting can saddle them with deficits. But I will stake my name on this truth: Even the most flawless parenting can never guarantee the child you’d envisioned. You can check every box and still not get the child you think you deserve. People are not products. 

My husband says parenting teens requires a process of mourning and lament. So every day — sometimes every hour — I have to bury my expectations in the ground in order to love the amazing children I actually have. Otherwise, I will become a bitter, angry, grief-filled person clinging to what I believe is owed me. As Richard Rohr writes, “Every expectation is a resentment waiting to happen.”

Where do we go from here? 

At the end of my dream, I spoke my wish aloud: “It would be really helpful if we had a flashlight!” Suddenly, I was holding a flashlight. It illuminated not just the path in front of me, but the whole sky. I saw that there was a trailhead branching off from the trail I was on — a smaller, steeper trail, almost overgrown with weeds. The sign at the trailhead said, “The Jeremiah Trail.” Although it didn’t make logical sense, I knew this was the way I was supposed to go. I left the group and struck out on my own, and then I woke up. 

I immediately looked up the meaning of the name “Jeremiah,” sensing that it had some significance. It means, “the Lord exalts.” 

As it happens, it is our religious faith that has enabled my husband and me to navigate the tricky trail of teen parenting without walking right off the mountain. It’s easier to let go of my expectations when I believe that there’s a God who loves my children more perfectly than I ever can, who gave us these particular children so that we could all help each other grow up better, and who — when it feels like the roof is falling in — may be doing something bigger than my limited perspective can see. 

Regardless of whether you share my faith, if you are parenting teens right now, I still believe this applies to your family. And if you aren’t parenting, I still believe this is true of life. 

Let’s break out of our frightened huddles, talk to each other, and ask for flashlights.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and TWO dogs. (Welcome, Tallulah!) In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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