Shortly before our son, Addison, turned 13, our normally peaceful, joyful home got upended. We wondered, “What happened to our sweet boy?” In place of kind and easy-going Addison we saw a shockingly disrespectful kid who angrily responded to simple commands with stubborn argumentativeness. After “discussions” where only the parental side was allowed to speak, Addison insisted on having the last word.
On vacation this past summer, it all came to a head. We scored the perfect Asheville Airbnb and prepped for a day of mountain biking adventures. Unexpectedly, a new fight broke out between us and Addison. As these things so often go, I cannot remember what precipitated it. We could not see eye to eye. Our son’s disrespect seemed off the charts, but he refused to bend. Meanwhile, our daughter Adrienne looked positively ill in the volatile atmosphere. The dynamics at play that awful morning reminded me, for the first time ever, of my own family of origin. I hated myself for it. This was the final straw.
We turned to Steve’s father, Larry. Not only does he have letters after his name (a PhD in psychology), he raised three kids (and one – Steve – proved to be an extra challenge). Larry continues to make an impact in the field of intervention for troubled youth. An intervention was exactly what we needed! (We are immensely grateful for both my in-laws, even more so now.) Larry listened thoroughly and gave us new insight and directives in our new roles as parents of a teenager.
He must become confident in making mistakes.
Larry explained that it’s demeaning to force a boy on the cusp of manhood to admit he is wrong. Addison hasn’t learned to be confident in making mistakes yet, so expecting immediate apologies is over. His emotional maturity is not in pace with his accelerated physical growth, which is just fine. Now Steve and I play the long game as coaches of character development. This looks like shorter conversations- not speeches- during times when all our emotions are cool. Building character and maturity is a process. How lucky are we to be a part of it!
Forcing compliance doesn’t foster independence.
The most mind-blowing piece Larry gave us is that “having the last word” is just a made-up parenting construct. If Addison ambles away still muttering, it doesn’t mean we failed or left our job unfinished. Besides that, he wasn’t even saying hateful things. What he generally communicated is that his way was better than ours.
Forcing compliance doesn’t foster independence. The “right away, all the way” standard of obedience fits toddlers, not young men. We banned ourselves from instantly overruling. Instead, we opened the floor to hear ideas. Addison wanted to start home school 2 hours later than I prefer, so he and I discussed his reasons together. And you know what? They weren’t bad. It’s working out well enough.
Steve and I ceased to expect that our son completes everything the way we would prefer. As the saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat; maybe I don’t always know best and I can learn from him. Now that we aren’t dictating everything, Addison doesn’t falsely appear contrary and disrespectful. Plus, I admit to learning some things from watching his methodology, though sometimes I still raise an eyebrow.
In our former fiery exchanges, I expected that my son would immediately demonstrate understanding of my point of view and agree completely. When I recognized my folly, I laughed out loud at myself. That is quite a rookie mistake, considering I’ve been a wife for 20 years.
Provide a safe place to experiment and fail.
Of course, sometimes our way actually is better than Addison’s, which brings me to the next crucial bit from Larry. Give Addison the space to fail. In his teenage years, in the company of people who support him, there’s no safer place for failure. I am so impressed with his character when he fails! He starts again and finds a better way; he finishes without any complaining or negative self-talk. We don’t have to say, “I told you so,” because he acknowledges it on his own. Just as we are now better listeners, so is our son.
To our credit, we did not allow our relationship to be off the rails for long. We reached our limit fast, and then we had the perfect resource in Steve’s father. We rapidly regrouped our strategy. Steve and I sat Addison down to ask forgiveness for our failures. As a result, we saw relationship changes almost immediately. We feel lighter and stronger as parents. Addison feels more valued and confident.
In our season of heavy conflict, constant corrections made Addison feel like he was running on empty. I know it made me feel that way. Now with space to breathe, we praise him much more often. I am not compelled to badger him. He demonstrates responsibility for chores and homework and looks for ways to help when someone seems stressed. Plus, Addison even created a cardio schedule and disciplines himself so that he can excel on the soccer team. His recent rank advancement in Scouts is largely due to his own initiative and perseverance.
Parenting is meant to be a joy-filled adventure.
If you’re raising a teenager and asking yourself, “Where did my sweet kid go,” realize they’re just growing up into an equally amazing, more capable person. I hope you’ll take some time to reflect and if need be, to find your own Larry Brendtro. Relationships change as kids grow but we can adapt our strategy to unlock the full joy of a connected family.