More thoughts on parenting a teenager
Zeb woke up a little after noon yesterday, his 13th birthday. I could tell from the look in his eyes that something was unsettled within him.
For the next 90 minutes we walked softly, gauging his needs.
He was quiet, teetering on the edge of irritable. Not what we expected, but not uncommon either.
It was several weeks ago that we started talking about his birthday. He had made a list of everything he wanted (which was 95% Halo related) but his anticipation ended there. Or at least his excited anticipation.
When we asked what we wanted to do, I got a clue as to his feelings.
It is his 13th birthday so we had planned to do something big. After all, it’s not every year that your child becomes a teenager. I wanted to celebrate just as much as I thought he did.
So we asked him what he wanted: something big, something small, something with others or by himself, eating out or making something, going somewhere fun and adventurous, somewhere laid-back and low-key or nowhere at all.
His response was to hit the verge of tears.
I’ve seen him spiral down before.
When something gets triggered and he wavers between irritable and depressed.
Justin and I were surprised this time though. As he quickly left the room, we stood looking at each other in confusion.
If there is one thing I’ve learned in parenting it’s this: I have no idea what my child wants or needs.
I have no idea what exactly is getting triggered or when exactly we’re likely to trigger it.
But I do know how to respond.
So I quieted my own triggers (“this is MY birthing day too!” “he should be happy, not upset.” “I don’t have the energy for big emotions.”) and I went to his room.
Zeb’s room in the 5th wheel is a bunk house, which means to really connect I get to climb up on his bunk with him.
Which I did.
I laid beside him on the narrow bed as he stared off to the corner of the room.
I wrapped my arms around him.
And I told him the story of his birth.
How big I was on that day 13 years ago, when his “due date” was anticipated and how he had other plans, what his baby shower was like, how excited each person was to meet him, how his little spirit had told me his name from the very beginning.
I told him what it was like when his body entered the room, how each person was moved to tears at the sound of his cry, the sense of euphoria and joy that swept over me and his grandma and his aunt.
He slowly rolled toward me as he listened.
I told him what it was like when he was a baby. The first time the favorite people in his life held him. What he loved and what he would do that made him so wonderfully him. Then I recounted each birthday I could remember. And I reminded him what an honor it was to be his mother.
I could feel his mood shifting, but sensed he needed time. So I left him with a kiss.
(He came out later with uplifted spirits, which told me I was on the right track. I may have no idea what was going on within him but I still had a moment of Mama Success in my attempts at meeting his needs.)
So yesterday, I wasn’t completely off-guard when he wasn’t excited to see anyone or do anything.
Instead I just leaned into trust.
I walked to our friends in the next RV and let them know we were going to have a quiet day together (Zeb even decided to postpone cake until today). And I went back to spend my son’s 13th birthday without any fanfare, however felt right to him.
His request: Just hang out.
So we did. We played Mario Kart, and Monopoly, and laughed together like it was an easy Sunday afternoon, not the start of a new era.
We went out to pizza together, and laughed some more at the jokes he told us.
His spirits lifted, we came home and met with our friends for a short time and he happily received their homemade cards and gifts. (We still have plans for cake as soon as I post this blog post.) Then we played Rummikub before heading off to bed.
It was a good day…and I’m proud of myself.
Can I admit something?
I’ve been worried about parenting a teenager. All his life I’ve held my breath for this right here. The strictness I leaned into when he was small was out of fear that if I didn’t crack down then, this era of our relationship I’m in right now would go terribly wrong. The changes I made as we shifted toward relationship-based, organic parenting was in hopes I could course correct and maintain an actual relationship as he grew.
I’ve worried so deeply I would lose him at this age.
And it’s through my triggers that I still can.
We all have so many ideas of what teenagers are like, what they can do or should do. What is right and wrong with each one we meet.
And the more I work to release those the better I get at parenting him and maintaining our relationship.
I mentioned to someone not long ago that as soon as we think we have their needs figured out, they change. I’m never really aware of what’s going on within him; sometimes he’s not fully aware of it.
But the one constant, the one thing that hasn’t changed in parenting him for 13 years…is that it all hinges on how well I tune out my barriers and tune into him in each moment.
Tune into his unique and ever-changing needs.
Tune into where he is and what he wants to share or do (or not).
Tune into trusting him and my ability to love him in the way he tells me (or hints to me).
It’s the one skill that never changes, despite their age, despite their unique selves:
Our ability to meet them where they are and help them figure it out.
It’s fucking hard.
Yesterday was a win for me. I dropped my ideas of how I wanted to do things, how I wanted to celebrate, what he “should” be grateful for and why, and as a result we had one of the best days we ever have. We connected, played, laughed, and left him feeling as though it was a wonderful day with the people he loved.
But sometimes I totally fail. I lean into my own fear, my own stubbornness, my own insistence that I know better than he does. I refuse to see his point of view, to connect with him on a deeper level, to trust him. And it’s always terrible.
13 years ago I thought the hardest thing would be “getting through” the teen years without losing him…
Now I know that the hardest thing is getting through my own ideas of who (or where) he should be.
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