August 2009


It’s 5:22 a.m., and I gave up trying to get back to sleep about a half hour ago.  Maybe it’s menopause, but I don’t think so. 

I went to bed feeling really, really upset, and although my beloved husband’s tenderness soothed me to sleep, I didn’t find solace there for quite long enough.

My son turns 14 this Friday.  Another birthday that takes him further into the teen years, farther from the boy he was, closer to the man he will be.  I deeply and passionately loved the little boy he was, and I am hoping I’ll admire, respect and love the man he’s going to become. 

This teenager he currently is?  I’m not so sure about him. 

How can I feel this way?  Is this a normal feeling for mothers of teenagers?

Yesterday was the first time I had a full body revulsion for the belligerent, argumentative, irresponsible, lazy (damn, I SWORE I wasn’t going to use that adjective), yes lazy teen that I am struggling to parent. 

And today…today it just feels like struggle. 

As much as I want to fully celebrate this phase of his life as much as I celebrated his birth and every other birthday he’s had since, this particular birthday is filling me with more of a sense of dread than a sense of celebration. 

Oh, I know there are teens out there who are acting up MUCH worse than my son, but that doesn’t seem to make much of a difference to me right now. 

Right now I feel as though every teeny, tiny thing I ask him to do involves several repetitions with increasing amounts of energy and volume. 

Right now I feel as though boundaries and agreements mean nothing to him.

Right now I feel as though he has absolutely no respect at all for my feelings, or my belongings. 

Right now, I don’t trust him.

….and that feels horrible. 

I’ve found during my boating years, that the challenge I have with handling rough weather, is that although I may be able to handle what’s happening in the moment, I don’t trust that it’s not going to get worse before it’s going to get better.

Parenting is feeling a lot like that these days.  Storm clouds are on the horizon, the wind has picked up, the waves are knocking me about.

storm clouds

How do I navigate this stormy phase of parenting, and still enjoy the journey?

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It’s Sunday morning.  I had actually intended to indulge myself with a sleep-in this morning. 

But at the ungodly Sunday morning hour of 6:30 a.m. I heard my 14 year old crying in the bathroom.  When I got up to investigate what had triggered this early morning meltdown, I found him with the first aid kit torn apart, trying to bandage a skateboarding wound that he’d somehow banged against the wall in his sleep.  He wasn’t having a very good time of it, so being the kind, compassionate mother that I am, I thought I’d do my best to draw upon my St. John’s Ambulance First Aid training and dress the wound. 

His tears of frustration quickly escalated into a full body thrashing (funny how what was almost cute when he was 3 is a bit frightening at 14), cursing every wound dressing technique I attempted, and then screaming at me to COME BACK when I left the room.  My own frustration mounted to a cursing level pretty quickly.

Oy vay.  Is 6:30 a.m. too early for a martini? 

Ugh.  Is this normal I found myself wondering? 

After I finally got him adequately bandaged so that HE went back to sleep, I poured myself a coffee and opened my laptop.  A quick Google search brought up FOUR MILLION and two hundred and twenty THOUSAND hits for ‘teenage tantrums’. 

Well then.  Small comfort.  I’m not alone in facing this barrage of irrational emotion. 

There is a lot of useless information posted on this topic, but I actually found this post helpful to a certain degree: http://gomestic.com/family/dealing-with-teenage-tantrums/

The idea of both my teen and I ‘going to our corners’ to cool down when emotions are flaring seems like a helpful idea, but in practice, it rarely works with my boy.  When he’s in full on needy mode – NOTHING will stop him from coming into ‘my zone’, and he’ll pester me, and pester me until I fly into a rage and then….I’m hooped.  Whatever has been going on –MY frustration, MY rage, MY meltdown now become the focus of his anger and I’ve lost my position of the cool, rational adult who has all the answers.  Well, maybe not all the answers, but even the authority. 

Charlie Beckett, director of Polis (a joint initiative from LSE and the London College of Communication) has some interesting comments on perspective:

First a grammar lesson:
Let’s conjugate the noun ‘teenager’:
My teenager is very individualistic,
Your teenager is out of control
Their teenager is totally dysfunctional.

 http://www.charliebeckett.org/?p=16 

John Rosemond, a family psychologist in Indianapolis has a slightly more conservative view: http://www.azcentral.com/families/articles/0202tantrums02.html

He argues that the “emotionally supercharged” teen is a relatively recent phenomenon, going on to suggest that until recently, in nearly every culture the 13-year-old was no longer regarded as a child. Nor was he/she an “adolescent,” as we today refer to the teenager. There was childhood, which effectively ended at 13, and there was adulthood.

Rosemond claims that the downside of what otherwise were necessary and good laws:  child labour and compulsory education, have extended the dependency of teens by six years or so.  Combine that with the cultural and media influences and he suggests we have a generation of teens that are acting out with tantrums, unpredictable mood swings, exaggerated emotional reactions to disappointment or frustration, and the generally dramatic ‘take’ teens have concerning their own lives that once the sort of self-centered behaviour reserved for pampered children of the very rich

There’s an emerging conservative in me that is nodding uh huh, yep, that’s SO true!! 

I’m reflecting upon the slightly overindulgent (ok, VERY indulgent) day I had with my son recently that finished up with me buying him a four and a half foot corn snake which he PROMISED he’d fully take care of, but apparently that didn’t include cleaning the snake’s poo off his bed when he let it crawl around on his bed.  I don’t even want to tell you about the screaming meamy meltdown that occurred yesterday over that little situation.  MOM!!!I HAVE POO ON MY HAAAANNNND!!!!!

OMG.

But, I also believe there’s more to it than that. 

A recent study of 137 boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 14 by Nicholas Allen at the University of Melbourne, Australia provided some interesting info.  Allen and his colleagues studied the children interacting with their parents during challenging interactions, then scanned the children’s brains.  They found that the children who were more aggressive during problem-solving tasks had bigger amygdalas—which triggers impulsive reactions to emotional situations, and that the boys who stayed aggressive for longer had smaller anterior cingulated cortexes—the part of the prefrontal cortex involved in more thoughtful and reflective responses.  So what they found was that the ‘thinking’ portion of the brain in more aggressive boys (there were different results for girls with similar asymmetries) wasn’t able to override the amygdala to regulate their behaviour. 

The good news was that the researchers also said that this could be a ‘temporary delay’ as those important prefrontal circuits haven’t quite come online yet and as they transition to a more adult brain, they might yet gain the ability to modulate their behaviour. 

Ok, so maybe there’s a legitimate reason that my boy is currently incapable of calming himself down when his frustration levels rise.

But as a parent, what do I do while I’m waiting for his brain to catch up with his emotions?  

Comments welcomed.

 I’m taking a break from parenting this long August weekend. 

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There’s nothing like taking a break from anything to give you perspective on whatever it is you’re taking a break from.  I’ve been reflecting upon this transitional stage of parenting that I’m in as I find myself fully engaged in the ‘sandwich generation’ life. 

Those of us ‘sandwich generation’ parents are balancing, or struggling to balance, parenting our own children while increasingly taking on more responsibilities with our aging parents. 

A recent Harriss Poll in the states found that “of the 20 million U.S. “Sandwichers” 53% feel forced to choose between neglecting either their parents’ needs or their kids’ needs at least ONCE EACH WEEK, and that 20% of Sandwichers make this stressful decision EVERY DAY!” 

          I can relate to those findings.  This is my life. 

The week before this mini-holiday that my husband and I are on (alone, just the two of us, and our companionable Schipperke), I had to kick my son out of his bedroom (again) to accommodate my mom.  Usually he’s pretty gracious about tidying his room, and sleeping in his ‘pit’ when grandma spends the occasional night, but this time he expressed some feelings he’d been hanging onto that took me by surprise.  I hadn’t realized that he’d been noticing that more and more of my time had been spent caring for my mom – he’s usually so busy with his own teenage life that I hadn’t quite ‘got’ that.  But as I moved past my own frustration with what I initially identified purely as ‘selfishness’ as he resisted getting his room cleaned up for grandma, I realized that we three, my son, my mom and I are all in a rather profound transitional time. 

And, it’s complicated. 

I feel the difference in the occasional hugs my teen gives me.   These aren’t the hugs of a small child anymore – they’re becoming bear hugs, and there’s occasionally a fierceness in the embrace that has me catch my breath.   We both are having flashes of nostalgia for the child in him that is becoming a young man, and in those fierce hugs, we both reach back in our cellular memory for what was, realizing it’s passing, transitioning into something that neither of us quite recognize yet. 

I feel the difference when I take my mother’s hand.  The other day as I led her down the dock to our boat for an afternoon cruise, and helped her up the ladder to the upper deck, guiding her foot to each rung, I had a flash of guiding my son in this way when he was a small child.   

In attending to these rapidly shifting needs of my son and my mother, I too am going through my own transition (and let’s not even begin to talk about this peri-menopausal stuff that’s going on!).  In my relationship with both my mother and my son I struggle with how much to guide them, how much to insist on them being independent, how much to give, when to say “ENOUGH!”. 

It’s a challenging, transitional time, but also a time that’s providing unexpected tender moments and deeper realizations about myself, my son and my mother. 

But for today, I’m grateful to be attending to my own needs by taking a much needed break from parenting my teen, caring for my mom and am allowing myself to be cared for my this loving husband of mine. 

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                                                                                         Off for another day of cruising the Gulf Islands!  IMG_7536