This piece originally appeared in the February 2018 edition of Fernie Fix Magazine.
Once upon a time you had a small child in your home. This child loved to be with you, missed you when you were gone, came running into your arms when you returned, and could play with you all day. Though lacking a wagging tail, your small child was basically a dog.
Then without your permission or awareness this dog suddenly gets replaced by a cat. Your bigger teenaged child won’t come when you call, frequently stays out of sight, rarely likes to be touched, and only seems to value you for offerings of food. How did this happen? You really liked your dog!
Dog-to-cat transformation catches most parents off guard. We know our children intimately and have cared for them year after year. We recognize their laughter in a crowded gymnasium and their footsteps in the hall. Yet forces beyond our control are changing a once-familiar family member into a whole other species.
While this story of human development may already be dramatic, it gets more intense. A perfect storm could be in the works within the very walls of your home. Not only do you need to let go of the idea of parenting your dog-child and figure out how to manage a cat-teen – a big project on its own – you will also have to work around the inevitable burn-out that strikes parents around this time.
If you have a teenager, you have been a mom or dad for over a decade. That’s a long time to perform a high-stakes 24/7 job. Is it possible to do this kind of work for this length of time without hitting burn-out? I don’t think so.
It’s common to blame teenagers for the ways we feel confused and aggravated with them. It seems clear that THEY are different now. The cat-like behaviours of your teenager are easy to see when viewing them from the outside and comparing your daughter or son to who they used to be. The changes that have happened to you, however, are not so apparent.
Exhaustion is sneaky. We might not feel like sleeping for a week but we may instead experience new levels of anger or impatience with our teens. Rather than feeling overwhelmed and under motivated it’s possible we might launch into detailed conversations with our friends about the irrational things our kids do. Irritation, judgement, and lack of patience are signs of burn out.
Teens can appear deceivingly independent. They may exclaim, “I don’t need you anymore!” Teenagers pull back from their families, spend more time outside the home, and are probably making their own money. All of this separation and autonomy conveniently happens when we desperately need a break from supervising their lives, so it’s tempting to take our foot off the parenting pedal and just cruise. Your role is changing, but it’s not quitting time yet.
Last month I advised parents of teenagers to plan ahead for rewarding relationships with their kids. This month I want you to prioritize taking care of yourself and keeping your eyes open with your teens. This dual focus will streamline and simplify your parenting. It’s true that kids this age don’t need us like they used to, but they still need us. It may take some reflecting and investigating to sort out exactly what this means and how we can adapt.
Teenagers simply need us to be interested in them. They need our curiosity more than a cross examination. It helps teens when they can genuinely feel our caring. Of course they will be prickly – just like grumpy cats – but that doesn’t mean we should withhold our efforts in their direction. We need to be persistent and creative.
It’s useful for teens to see their parents taking care of themselves while staying in tune with their children. They may seem like they aren’t paying attention to us or that everything we do is dumb and embarrassing, but parents are still their number one influence. Feelings of burn out might compel us to hide under the couch for a few years, but this is a prime time for guiding our children to adulthood.
Next month I’ll discuss how to create and keep closeness while honouring independence.