Are your kids pondscum?
Teens are really just giant toddlers, says Tracey Hawthorne

Yes, this is what I secretly called my darling, precious children for the three or four years they crawled, via a series of unattractive, uncommunicative, insolent metamorphoses, through adolescence.

In many ways, kids in their teens – starting anywhere from 11 these days, and going on to about 17 – seem to regress to the monsters they were at age 2, when the only way to do things was their way (and now!) and their only method of communication was shrieking.

It’s a shock when that soft little bundle of joy you’ve so carefully nurtured for the first 24 months of its life suddenly turns into a spitting, twisting, mobile horror-show, screaming in supermarkets, yelling, ‘Don’t want to!’ to the mildest of instructions, seeming intent on destroying all your worldly goods, and biting its playmates. Can this really be the infant who stared so adoringly into my eyes? you wonder. It can and it is. There’s a reason they call it the Terrible Twos.

This phase can last years – Zola Budd-Pieterse, mother of three, immortalised this horrendous stage when she told an interviewer when her kids were much younger, ‘Everyone knows about the Terrible Twos; nobody tells you about the Fucking Fours.’

Then, just as you’re about to sell your tot into slavery (or even pay someone to take him away), he morphs into something new: a little human being suddenly entranced and delighted by all around him – including you. This stage begins more or less when your kids start school and lasts, fabulously, a good five or six years. These, the ‘wonder years’, are what makes parenting such a pleasure: not only has your child developed useful independent skills and can dress, bath and feed himself, it finally dawns on him that he has the best mommy in the whole world, and he wants everyone to know it. It’s immensely gratifying.

Then, one day, when you lean in for your customary goodbye smooch as you drop him off at school, he squirms away and says, ‘Don’t, Ma.’ That afternoon, he locks himself in his bedroom and no amount of coaxing will get him to emerge. When you ask him what’s wrong, he stares irritably at you and says, ‘Grmph.’ And, just like that, you’ve hit the Terrible Teens.

And, just like that, you’re back to the Terrible Twos – but, this time round, your child is also changing physically in new and alarming ways. Boys’ legs, arms and, particularly, feet, far outstrip the growth of any other part of their body, making them gangly and clumsy; girls develop breasts, hips and attitude. And, this time round, using ‘time out’ to try to ameliorate their mood swings doesn’t work: most teenagers spend this entire period in ‘time out’, voluntarily.

Also, just when they are temperamentally least suited for it, they begin interacting with the world: they form unsuitable friendships; they shoplift; they listen to death-metal music so loud you’re surprised their cranium doesn’t pop; they dress in berserkly inappropriate ways; they talk back to their teachers; and, most distressingly, they harbour a seething resentment for everything about you: the way you talk, cook and dress, the friends you keep, the music you listen to, the house you live in, the car you drive. It’s too, too dire.

By the time they’re in matric and you’re helping them prepare for life beyond school, you’re doing it with an enthusiasm that may seem indecent: you just can’t wait to get this acne-ridden, mood-swinging, delinquency-leaning, fridge-emptying… pondscum out of your house.

Then, with mere months to go before you’re finally free – they change again. Seemingly overnight, they become genuinely interested in your opinions. They begin borrowing your clothes. They develop a liking for ‘retro’ music and start singing along to ABBA. They have articulate, intelligent conversations with you and your friends. They make their beds in the morning and offer to do the laundry. They learn to drive, get holiday jobs, open bank accounts, find nice boyfriends… In short, they become a pleasure to live with.

And then they leave home.

At what age do teens start to settle into their adult identities?

Read more by Tracey Hawthorne

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