Family Magazine

Your Teen IS NOT YOU. And That's A Good Thing

By Joanigeltman @joanigeltman

When your kids were young, they wanted to be just like you.  They followed you around the house mirroring your activities, adopting your mannerisms, maybe you even had your "twin outfits." The boys had matching sweatshirts and caps, and the girls matching T's and sparkly shoes. You would make suggestions of how to do things, and activities you thought they might try, and these 8 and 9 year olds would jump at the chance to please you.  No coincidence that they might also be activities that you enjoy, as you imagine ten years hence playing doubles together on the tennis courts, or skiing down the black diamond trail together, or getting season tickets to the ballet or spending crisp fall afternoons eating chicken wings in front of the tube as you catch your favorite football game.
It all seems so idyllic back them. The future of this relationship between parent and child. And then BANG, they have to get all teenagery on you. Rather than wanting to be just like you, like they used to, now they want to be anything but you. I have met with a number of parents recently who just DON'T get who their teen is these days. One parent I met with described his teen years as studious, and hard-working. He wasn't that social, didn't party much, and now has a daughter who is social, not so much into her school work, as she is into facebook. He just doesn't get her, and feels constantly disappointed by her. Another parent I met, who has many interests and passions just doesn't "get" that her teen seems not to be interested in anything but her friends. Her grades are good, but from the mom's point of view her daughter's life seems empty and shallow. Another parent who is the coach of his son's soccer team, laments his son wanting to quit the team. The kid has lost interest in the game, embarrasses him during practice and matches by putting little effort into his play.
What does it all mean? Why are they so different now? Why does life have to change? Because first of all, they aren't you! As young children, kids are developmentally driven to please. Their parents are their #1's and school-aged children's primary goal is to love and be loved by their parents. We actually call this the "good girl/ good boy phase. If playing soccer or the violin seems to make you happy, then soccer and violin it is..... until it isn't. It may be that your kid has real talent in an area, and you see a future down the line, college scholarships, concerts and competitions, trophy's and newspaper articles. And just when its all looking so promising, BOOM, your teen wants to quit! And by golly by god no one in this family is a quitter. Well maybe, your teen really doesn't like playing the violin or playing soccer, and now that their teen brain allows them a different perspective they express their distaste.
I once worked with a 16 year teen who had been swimming competitively since she was 7. She was really good, winning many meets for her team. The coach was ecstatic, her parents euphoric. Here is how she saw it.  Early early morning practices, after school practices, weekend meets, she was sick of the whole business and after 9 years was ready to pack it in. The coach was furious, her parents were beyond disappointed, this was the team's star swimmer. How could she bail now? It seems it was never really her dream. She was a pleaser, and swimming seemed to make all the important people in her life happy, so she swam her little heart out. But the sad truth of it was she actually didn't like swimming all that much, and now as a teen, and thinking with this new brain of hers, she was sorting that all out for herself and speaking up. It wasn't pretty. It actually was a courageous decision she made, but unfortunately the adults in her life didn't see it that way. She was a disappointment to them, and made that quite clear to her. A divide as wide as the Grand Canyon occured between this teen and her parents. No happy ending here.
Here is a story with a happy ending. Two wonderful, supportive, loving parents came to see me because they were worried that their relationship with their 15 year old son was deteriorating. They were serious, academic types, and always had been. School was always their priority during their teen years. As teenagers, they each had a few close friends, and a quiet social life. They had two children. Their older daughter was just like them. She was a studious, quiet girl in her teen years. Studying hard, and stayed in most weekend nights with a friend or two watching movies. Aah, life was good for these parents and their daughter. Their son on the other hand was gregarious, and outgoing, had a ton of friends, was on the football team of all things, and couldn't have been more different from his parents. These parents were desperate to find connection with their son. One night I got a phone call from the dad asking for my opinion. It seems his son had come to him asking for a BB gun. "Oh yeah, right, I don't think so," said the dad. The dad asked if he done the right thing. I actually saw an opportunity here for connection. BB guns couldn't have been further outside this dad's comfort zone or interest area. But I encouraged him to go online and find out the laws about how old you had to be to purchase a gun. Dad did the research, and found out that you had to be 18. His son wouldn't have been able to buy it anyway. I told the dad to say to the son: "I get that BB guns are fun,  but the law says you are too young to buy one.  How about if I buy one and the deal is we have to do BB gunning together. The son, only hearing a BB gun was in the mail, agreed. And so began a partnership. The boy and his dad set up a garage shooting gallery, and went out to the woods for target practice. Other boys often joined them, and it became an amazing chance for them to connect. Some weeks later the dad called me to report this event. It had been 10 PM one night, the dad just going off to bed, and his son came and asked if he wanted to play a game of chess. The dad was stunned. This was an activity they had shared when his son was younger, but not for years, as chess became "uncool" and his "dad's thing". Though the dad was ready for bed, he instinctively knew his son was reaching out and he took his hand. 
I love this story. I think this teen "got" that his dad was willing to join his world, even if it wasn't comfortable. He felt respected and accepted. And in turn, wanted to give back to his dad with a game of chess. I don't think this kid thought all this consciously, but I am a therapist and it is my job to  interpret, and so I will.  This teen felt a connection to his dad that felt familiar, and probably hadn't felt for a while. In a moment of whatever, asked his dad to play chess. Thanks Freud!
Accept and embrace your teen's differences. They can be just as rewarding and fun as your sameness!

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