There comes a moment in every parent’s life when they realise that they do not in fact have the slightest clue what they’re doing and are not fit to raise silkworms, never mind actual people. This is a nasty shock, especially if you think you’ve been doing quite well up to now.
Parenting is rather like running on top of logs in raging white water rapids. If you keep the momentum going, don’t think too hard and never look down, you might be fine. The alternative involves crushed body parts and certain death, so we don’t like to go there.
I enjoyed the early years. I felt in control, most of the time –when I didn’t, the children were too young to realise I was faking. And they loved me anyway, even when I got it wrong. Common sense and hugs were enough – along with a robust talent for Not Taking It Personally. Very important parenting skill; provides immunity to tantrums and a clear head when lesser mortals would turn and run. I had perspective, that’s what it was.
The difference between a child having an off-ish day and a child hatching a nasty personality disorder was perfectly clear to the naked eye. There was usually a straight line from behaviour back to feelings, and you could easily see how to deal with both.
However. That was before. We’re right in the middle of the teenage years now, and I can’t believe how much it’s thrown me. The logs are spinning faster and faster and I’m about to fall off. I’m screwing up, I can feel it. And it’s not even as if we have any serious issues. It’s not like my fifteen year old son is essentially any different to a year ago. He’s entirely normal to the dispassionate viewer – i.e. not me. He’s a little more argumentative. He’s sometimes surly and impatient, but that’s about right for 15, isn’t it?
Because he’s always been so easygoing, the slightest hint of ordinary teenage stroppiness seems epic to me. I forget that he is still in-progress, no matter how mature he might seem. I forget that he is still learning.
I don’t have any reason to think that he’s about to go off the rails, and yet I’m finding myself being harder and harder on him. I see portents of imminent self-destruction in every roll of the eyes, in each debate on Why It’s Not My Turn. I growl, snap or moan unnecessarily. I see the hurt and confusion in his face, not understanding why I’m being so grumpy. So he retreats, each time a little further back. I panic, try to reach him again, and I don’t have the right words anymore.
I used to be able to read him so well. These days, the best I can manage is spotting that something is up, but it remains a mystery until he invites me in. Even then, he’s only humouring me and waiting for me to leave so he can breathe again.
At 10 years old, it doesn’t matter if they say they hate you. You know it’s not true. But at 15, all bets are off. What if he does? What if one of the two people that I love most in the world actually doesn’t like me very much, even if it’s only for a few years? How do I not let that break my heart?
I’ve lost my nerve, that’s what’s happened. I’ve depleted my stock of Not Taking It Personally. My perspective has run out. Just when we need it most.
He is, after all, just doing what everybody does. Growing up. Growing away.
I feel him going, and it hurts. It hurts like shit. He was once all mine – and he’s not anymore. It’s right and it’s good but I miss him. Simple as that. I guess he’s the one I should be saying this to, right?What can parents of teens do to stay close? And should they even try?
Read more by Tracy Engelbrecht