I recently read a friend’s post about a parenting struggle she was navigating with her 1st grade daughter. Comments of empathy, support, and humor filled her feed. As posts and comments go, it was run of the mill, but something bugged me. Tucked in between the “hugs”, “same”, and “hang-in-there” comments were numerous comments that ended with some form of “I am in trouble when the teenage years hit.” A vision of my 17-year-old daughter popped into my head and, seriously, can we knock off saying we dread the teenage years?
I mean, I understand how we get there. My daughter screamed for the first 6 months of her life. Impossible to soothe, determined on her discomfort, she made sure we all partook with her. It was hard to imagine this girl 17 years on, too big for me to plop her into her crib for a short break.
But, it misses the point of parenting. My child didn’t go from zero to seventeen in a vacuum. Parenting is a cumulative task. Every stage builds on the one before it. It’s all valuable, precious, and fucking hard. Dreading any of it is a wasted opportunity.
I made a point to never utter, or even think, the words, “I can’t wait for this to be over.” Yes, of course, I was interested in the constant crying to be done with. But, I would never trade the cuddling and the nursing (the only time she was quiet) and the 4-month infant smile for a first 6 months without colic.
No, I used that time to try to figure out little by little who she was and what she needed from me. And, what she didn’t need. It turns out mostly she needed about 3 hours of rocking in a dark room between 5pm and 8pm. What she didn’t need from me was any other stimulus, especially singing. 17 years later, she’s more polite when she tells me she doesn’t need singing. When we figured this out together, life became manageable.
And this process -this practice- helped me figure out why she was hiding under tables in preschool, and why she couldn’t sit still in first grade, and couldn’t stop talking to her friends in 7th grade, and why she had a panic attack in 9th. It just continued to add up.
I wish all parents of young children knew it is likely to be the same with their own teenager, or at least some version of the same. The physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges of the transition from adolescence into adulthood are no less dramatic than a child’s first years of life. They are going to be hard, but they are also going to be good. So Good. I wish I had been told, at least once, how fantastic it is to have a teenager (or two) in the house.
The fact is, our kids are already pretty apprehensive about these years. Even if they are only in 1st or 2nd grade, they have already absorbed society’s impatience with teenagers and their supposed drama. By the time they are 12 they will already face huge social pressures, made worse by the intricate social media landscape they inhabit. They don’t need parents showing fear as well.
My daughter needs to know what we, her parents, already know. What we know because we have spent all these years parenting her, helping her learn to harness her own emotions, and guiding her through elementary friend issues so she has some reliable skills to practice in her current world of almost adult problems. She needs to know, really internalize, that she’s strong enough for this. That she’s going to make mistakes but they won’t be the end of the world. That who she is will always be enough for us.
I try to remember this building block nature of parenting while recognizing what I say to my daughter is never as meaningful as what I show her. And instead of spending my time contemplating the teenage years with fear, I tried to focus on the things I could show. The things that might empower her to face her world and her challenges with confidence and anticipation. I have a year and change before my girl heads off to test the wings I have tried to help her strengthen. While I’ve tried to show her these things throughout our life together, these are the check boxes I’m trying desperately to tick off before she flies:
Has she seen me make a mistake, do my best to fix it, and live with the consequences?
Has she seen me work hard to get something that I don’t achieve, yet still feel pride in the work I did?
Has she seen me take credit for my own hard work?
Has she seen me choose between priorities?
Has she seen me when good enough is good enough?
Has she seen me forgive someone?
Has she seen me set personal boundaries?
Has she seen me stand up for myself?
Has she seen me stand up for others?
I have no control over what she embraces or dreads in her own life, but I have total control over what she sees me embrace or dread in mine. We don’t need to dread the teenage years, we need to embrace them with the same eagerness we did for every first-year milestone we scrawled in the baby book. Because, while the baby book achievements are fun to look back on, the teenage years are going to frame their future and options. We owe it to them to parent through it, from the beginning, not to dread it.