Monday, March 30, 2015

Trying to Figure out my Teenagers

I've got two teenagers. One 13, one 15. And my daughter just turned 12 so she's well on her way.

For a while there, I felt like I was doing a pretty darn good job. Newborns were hard for me. Having 5 preschoolers felt insane at times. But then I had five elementary school-age children and I felt like I really hit my stride as a mom. We'd have great conversations and go on adventures together. They all thought I was the cat's meow and I felt the same about them. Their issues were generally things I could help with - book reports that needed to be finished at the last minute, a friend who wasn't being very nice, a teacher they were struggling with. It wasn't always easy, but I usually had a good sense of what to do and usually I'd come away feeling quite confident that I'd handled things well. That was a very nice phase of motherhood.

But as my oldest approached teenagerhood, things changed. I was often totally at a loss as my smart, fun, adventurous oldest child who'd always been so full of ideas and enthusiasm for life became this kid who drove me just about crazy with his moodiness, his negativity, his cutting comments to his younger siblings, his definance, his frequent lack of respect for me and his dad.

In desperation, I wound up doing a lot of things that didn't work very well (yelling, throwing out over-the-top consequneces, using scare tactics like "I think I'm going to have to send you to one of those wilderness camps for problem kids," or "if you keep going on the path you're on with schoolwork, you're never going to be able to get or hold a decent job so you'll never have a car and you'll never have your own home...").

And when I was being rational and deliberate, I tried some things that really worked great one day then didn't work the next (like giving every bit of positive reinforcement I could, meeting moodiness with cheerfulness, giving more individual attention...).

I tried to find time between everything else going on to read up on teenagers and ask questions to friends and family with teenagers. I learned some important things through pro-active searching - while learning other things through often-very-frustrating trial and error.

I recorded some things I learned and that seemed to be quite consistently true here:
Five Tips for Navigating the Uncharted Waters of Pre-Teens

But actually applying what I'd learned was often easier said than done.

Teenagers can sure humble you!

Now that I'm on teenager #2, I think I've got a few things figured out a bit better. Of course, he's different than his older brother so some of the things that work with one don't work with the other. But I'm less easily frustrated now and thanks to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with my oldest, the stuff my second son does feels less stressful - I've seen that this stage is hard and that it passes.

One of the main things I've learned about pre-teens and teenagers is that their brains are more like toddler brains than they are like the brain of an 8-10 year old or an adult.

A teacher mentioned this to me when talking to me about Ashton's poor performance in 6th grade. I went home and researched this idea that was new to me. And sure enough, teen brains in the process of re-wiring themselves as they go through puberty (read all about it here) and the irrationality and emotion typically seen in toddlers is a pretty normal part of the process. I realized that while I'd given my toddlers a "pass" when they had tantrums, I wasn't expecting to need to do the same for kids who'd come so far past that stage, who'd started to be such rational and fun people. I didn't realize they'd revert. But they do. They can't help it. They can and should do something about their reactions to the way this "rewiring" makes them feel. They need to take responsibility for their actions and work hard to keep their emotions and irrationality under control. But it's important to understand that this is often as hard for them as it is for us.

I remember being incredulous last year when Ashton told me that he was absolutely sure that studying for tests wouldn't be helpful to him. I pointed out that studying helps everyone else in the world and that surely he could see that when you look over something repeatedly, you'll be able to understand and remember it better. He ademantly insisted that he was the one person in the world for whom studying wouldn't make any difference. I was angry that he was insisting something that seemed utterly illogical - when just a few months before he'd seemed to be quite logical and rational.

Now I see that his brain was just doing its rewiring thing and that he was acting much like a toddler does when you try to explain that we need to clean up the toys before we can go play outside or we need to brush our teeth before we go to bed and they throw a full-on tantrum. He couldn't see cause and effect properly.

And just like a toddler, the more I'd insist, the more he'd dig in his heels. My explanations couldn't help when his brain could only see his need to be right and to get his own way.

I loved it when Ashton brought home a test with a great grade on it earlier this year with a big smile on his face. I congratulated him heartily and asked what he thought had helped him do so well. He said, "I studied." I had to smile and ask him whether he happened to remember saying last year that studying didn't help him one bit. And his response was, "That was the old Ashton who was going through his stupid phase."

We now refer frequently to "Old Ashton" when talking about behaviors that aren't doing him any favors and it's so nice that he's now able to see things that he wasn't able to see last year.

So as my 13-year-old, Isaac, digs in his heels about things and sometimes drives me crazy with his irrational ideas and behavior, I'm letting it roll off my back a bit more. I've learned to not take everything he says or does so seriously - or so personally - and not allow myself to be so frustrated. I'm learning to be careful about where I dig in my heels and set up a battle where there doesn't need to be one.

I've still got a lot to learn. A whole lot.

And there are moments when I feel really scared. The stakes just get higher and higher. I want to be firm about the right things and lenient about the right things. I want to hold them close without holding them so close they'll push away. I want to guide them towards success while respecting the successes THEY feel are important (or simply helping them understand that SOME kind of progress and success is an important part of life...). I want to love them in the way they want and need to be loved - but often they don't know what sort of loving they need and neither do I. There's a heck of a lot of trial and error.

This morning, as with every Sunday morning for the past many many weeks, Ashton and Isaac weren't ready for church on time. I set out their clothes the night before, I reminded them about what time we needed to leave and told them to set their alarms set as I tucked them in. I pleaded with them to please be ready on time because, as usual, I needed to lead the prayer meeting for the Primary teachers before church.

I went to their room to rouse them when I hadn't heard anything (as per the norm, they'd slept through alarms). I reminded them of everything that needed to happen, assured them that there would be just enough time if they kept moving, then headed downstairs to help the younger kids do their hair.

Ashton was quick in the shower (for once!) and I was excited that he'd be ready on time. His clothes were waiting in his room for him and the shower was done. What could go wrong? Isaac was slower and it was hard to hurry him along while doing other kids' hair but I gave him a few reminders. I gave everyone the 10 minute warning, then the 5 minute warning. I yelled up for Ashton for a status report. No answer. Strangely, I can hear just fine when I'm upstairs and someone yells from downstairs - but Ashton never seems to hear... Isaac came rushing downstairs asking for a belt - the one thing I hadn't set out for him. I had no idea where he'd put it. And he said he'd been looking for his shoes so that's why he was late - but his shoes were sitting right by the front door - he could have just asked me rather than wasting time looking for them. As I rushed Isaac out the back door with his shoes in hand so he could put them on in the car, I called for Ashton again and he finally came downstairs, hair all askew, We were now 10 minutes late and the three younger kids had been in the car for a while. On the way to church, I asked Ashton what in the world he'd been doing during the 25 minutes between when I heard him get out of the shower and when he finally came downstairs. He said he was getting dressed. I was pretty frustrated by this time and told him that only a disabled person or a toddler could possibly take such a long time putting on clothing that was sitting there, ready to put on. And I tried to spray down his hair but he wouldn't let me and was totally rude and unapologetic. I expressed, in none-too-polite terms, that I was SO SICK of Sunday mornings full of unnecessary craziness and was SO FRUSTRATED that they kept making everyone late and keeping me from doing what I needed to do for Primary. I took a bad situation and made it worse by letting my anger out.

It's just so hard to know what to do in certain impossible situations like Sunday mornings - I try to set everyone up for success but nothing I do seems to work sometimes. I'd just leave the boys and have them walk to church (it's not that far) but they're Deacons and are really need to be there first thing to pass the Sacrament. Jared's in meetings so he can't help or take them a bit after I need to leave. Arghhhhhh!

I thought it was hard when I had to wrangle a bunch of tiny kids to get them ready for church. And it was. But at least then I could physically pick them up and put their clothes on them and carry them to the car! Now my control is more limited.

Maybe my anger and the talk Jared had with them will make a difference this time. It hasn't previously. But who knows? I'll talk to them more this afternoon now that I'm calm and rational. But wow, there just aren't good answers sometimes. And this is just a little not-too-private incident that is OK to share. There's plenty of way more complicated and frustrating things that have happened and that aren't fully resolved...

So I've still got a ton to learn. But maybe some of this will be helpful to someone!

And to end on a happy note, these big boys of mine are SO much fun sometimes. I love having real discussions with them and really learning what they think about things. I love talking with them about the interesting facts that strike their fancy, seeing the funny YouTube videos they introduce me to, and having them introduce me to cool new music. I love seeing them interact with their friends and getting to know their friends. I love seeing them grow so tall and strong and having these big boys around to lift and move heavy stuff for me. I'm excited about Ashton's new Learner's Permit and the fun (and crazy) driving experiences we're having together (he's learning fast and doing great but wow, there have been a few white-knuckle moments with me trying to slam on some imaginary breaks on the floor of the passenger side). I love how they're always totally up for helping out when someone needs help moving or when there are little kids who need to be tended at our house while their parents are needed elsewhere (they're SO good with little kids - melts my heart to see them interacting with such love and care and fun with their little friends). They're generally really wonderful people and I'm so grateful for them. But wow, sometimes they drive me crazy!


green said...

Oh man this is all so true and helpful. Thanks for sharing, it is rough!

Steoger's said...

I am so thankful for you honesty!

Kimberly S said...

And isn't it the worst when all of this happens right before church, when you "should" be peaceful, and loving, and doing things to invite the spirit? I have a 5 year old and 10 month old, so I'm in the "I can dress them and pick them up" stage but we still manage to be a few minutes late to our 1:00 meeting. Drives me nuts!

Like the other two commenters said, thank you for being real and allowing us to see that other people go through the same struggles!

Kim said...

Yay, for honesty!

kms said...

You are either an early riser who is always early for appointments or you are not. Is one better than the other? Not really. Dropping everything and getting out the door fast is necessary for firemen and a few other professions.

I'd suggest going to a different church service time but you are assigned your time. When the kids are little wearing the wrong shoes or not wearing a belt is fine. Isn't it more important to get there than get there with a belt? If you are late won't the others pray ahead? In my church we can go whenever we want to services. Most people with kids don't pick the 8am time. It's the 10, 12 or one of the 5's. Not cause kids can't get up. But when you need a group of people up its more difficult.

Saren Loosli said...

Maybe I should have explained that Isaac wearing a belt had nothing to do with fashion or looking sharp for church - it had to do with his pants literally falling down! He's at that tricky in-between size where children's sizes are definitely too short but men's sizes are really big around the waist and the only nice pants I've been able to find for him are quite large around the waist.

Somehow we make it on time to school most every day. So really, it seems like Sundays should't be so hard when we don't have to be ready nearly as early as on school days. But for some reason, Sundays are just way harder...

kms said...

Yes the belt sounds necessary.

I definitely admire getting a group somewhere early in the morning on a Sunday. The only families that make it to the early time have infants or have only children.

Sunday should be easier cause unlike school or work it doesn't last near as long. There is still plenty of day left.

bjahlstrom said...

After every paragraph, I thought emphatically, "Yeah, I'm with you sister!" At my house, I feel like I am you, moving everyone along, but the "kid" I'm moving along is my husband, who always seems to putter around, not really getting ready!

Tena said...

Oh, Saren! Hang in there! I have been reading your blog since you were a mom of all those preschoolers, and reading your mom and dad's books since you were a teenager yourself. The teenage years can leave us wondering why we ever had children in the first place but I know you are on the right path and in what will seem like the blink of an eye in retrospect, you will be the mother of amazingly responsible adults. I can't wait to read about the amazing people your children become. Thanks for sharing your journey!

S said...

I hear you - one smart mom I know when driving her often tardy teens to something of their own choosing went and sat down in her room for 10 minutes while her bewildered kids waited from her to be ready to get them there on time. When she came down the stairs late, amidst their "we will be the only ones late" calmly pointed out how frustrating it felt. I am sure those kids were late again for things, but I bet not so I often!!!

I too find parenting teens difficult at times, especially now as my daughter's skin is flaring up. I wish she believed me when I tell her if she smiles, no one will notice a pimple. How did your mom parent so many teens so gracefully?

A Saunders said...

Thank you. Struggling with my sons too at this time and pondering how much and how to give them needed guidance and correction. Appreciate your honest take on hard times.

Mei Mei Yip said...

Thanks for sharing. I have a 12,11, 8 and 7.
These preteens and teen years are challenging especially when we still have younger ones that still demand our physical attention so much. The contrast is more obvious and difficult to accept and adjust to. On one side I still have two little ones who generally do what is asked and with a smile on their then the older 2 question, challenge and roll their eyes at everything I say all at the same time!
It's so good to read your blog. It's reassuring, encouraging and just plain nice to see that I haven't suddenly turned into witch (yep read your mother's book). I just keep reminding myself that they don't mean it. Also you are right, finding the balance to decide what is vital to correct and nip in the bud and figuring out what is okay to just leave, is hard. I had a hard time with the second child a few months back and I realised I was parenting on fear. My reactions were based on fear and so I felt I needed to correct every single thing which just caused us to clash even more. After some prayer (okay lots) I realised I was not trusting God. Once I handed over my fear to Him I realised that not every moment has to be a teaching moment. And we get on much better.

c_gale2001 said...

Give them their agency and let go. Let them know what is expected and let them choose. If they are late or miss church it is their problem. They will learn more about themselves as their own boss. As long as you "own it" it is your problem. They are big enough to get their clothes ready and dress themselves. I know as the wife and family of the Bishop we want to set a good example - but that example also includes "Teaching them correct principles and letting them govern themselves." This is when they learn and can feel good about that they got themselves to church on time.

Betancourt said...

I am so sorry this is frustrating for you! You seem SO nice. I have to say though--you set out their clothes?? And try to spray down their hair (then get angry when they are rude about it?) and are irritated when they dont know where their own shoes are but dont ask you? From the outside looking in, it sounds like you are creating quite a culture of dependency. (and what teenager wants their mom messing with their hair?) I agree with the agency comment. Set consequences for failure to be in the car at X time, and the rest is up to them to figure it out--getting up, dressed,and out the door.

Kami said...

I love this post so much! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and being so open here! You are a great writer, and I needed these words so much today. Thank you!

Chris said...

Saren - Reading your blog post is so helpful and interesting because I have kids of similar ages and also have similar types of issues. The thing I find the most interesting is that as I read your post I find myself able to identify some things that you are doing to enable the behavior that is driving you crazy, yet when I think about those same situations with my kids I behave in the exact same way as you do. Why are we able to "see" a better way when we are on the outside looking in, but when we are in the situation ourselves it is extremely hard to put into action the behaviors that would actually help change what is happening. I hope that makes sense and please know that I am not trying to point out what you are doing wrong so much as simply make an observation that might help both of us! As I read about you laying out clothes, giving reminders, etc. I can see myself doing the same types of things and I am recognizing a need to improve and give my kids more responsibility/ownership of getting to church on time and other things as well. How many Sundays of not getting there in enough time to complete their Deacon and Teacher responsibilities would it take to change the way our kids get ready? Are we afraid that they wouldn't care if they weren't getting there on time and for the rest of their lives they won't be responsible and complete their assignments? I wonder if we are selling our kids short and we need to give them the chance to take ownership and show us (and more importantly themselves) that they have what it takes. I have thought a lot about the fact that when I "nag" my kids all morning long that they have no need to worry about anything themselves, because they know for a fact that mom is not going to let them fail. Mom is going to make sure that we all get to church, have our clothes, etc. What are your thoughts on this? And again, please know that I am doing some of the EXACT things you are and I'm not trying to criticize you in any way!!

Amanda said...

Thank you for your honesty and this post is SO HELPFUL!!!!!! I really appreciate it. I had no idea about the brain re-wiring . I am sending this post to my husband and my sister and friend:)

Evaly said...

I appreciated your thoughts. My preteens are changing before my eyes and I needed this post! I can definitely relate to your Sunday mornings! I think my 7 month old baby is actually the easiest child right now :)

brittanimae said...

You can put me on the list of people who were helped by this post--thank you! I've decided that I have a decidedly un-sweet spot for kids aged 10-13 (I'm still trying to be optimistic about the teen years). The comments about not enabling kids are half helpful and half not--sometimes when I have tried this tack I have found that yup, as suspected, my kids actually do not and will not care about things that are empirically important. For example, I have found sixth grade to be a peculiarly tricky age for the wearing of clean clothes--both Asher and Addy decided at this age that they would rather wear the exact same clothes day after day, even after being told (not only by me!) that they smelled bad, looked bad, etc. Yes they eventually grew out of it, but there's no way I could feel okay about them "figuring it out on their own" for an entire year. Knowing that their brains are a mess is helpful, but doesn't solve very many immediate problems. Maybe we're growing some patience or something? It's good to know that it's not ALL just me being a terrible parent--I appreciate knowing others are facing the same challenges!

Lindsey said...

Thank you for so much for sharing. Mine are little but I've worked with youth and this was a big ah ha for me. It honestly makes me feel better knowing that other mothers who appear to have it all together do the sundsy circus too.

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Diane said...

THANK YOU so much for sharing!! The blog world is quiet as far as parenting teenagers go so it means a lot to read about what we will encounter and how to navigate it the best we can. Thanks for the tips and the honesty!! You're AMAZING!!!

Camile said...

Loved the honesty in this post. I can SO relate. My oldest is only 10.5, a girl, and I have really struggled with her lately (maybe girls start this brain thing earlier?). It is so hard to know when to step in and discipline and when to just let things go. I LOVED Elder Wilford Andersen's talk during this past conference "The Music of the Gospel". I loved how he said that when the "music" (Spirit) isn't sounding so great in our homes, to just keep practicing. His talk left me feeling more hopeful. I've also loved reading the comments here and the suggestions and mostly the support from other moms who "get it".

Anonymous said...

Yeah, any kid over 5 who you have to choose clothes for and lay them are enabling!

shawni said...

Oh Sar, I love you. And I love those boys of yours. And I love that we're all in this together, figuring it out and learning so much in the process. Boy teenagers can be rough! And it's so much responsibility letting them grow into who they are in a positive way, letting go on some things and being extra stern on others. So glad to be "in the trenches" together because you are one wise mamma. Miss you!

Anny said...

Thank you Saren for this post. I just wanted to say what an amazing person I think you are. You are brave and courageous to put your heart and honestly out there regardless of what others may think. Because you know the greater good is to help another mother who may be going through the same thing. We are all imperfect mothers trying our best and I believe our heavenly Father sees our heart and effort. Thank you for sharing, thank you for your honesty, thank you for Power of Moms because you are truly helping and making a difference in so many mothers'lives!

Tara said...

Thanks for being honest! It is so nice to hear! We all need a little more is hard stuff! Thanks for also sharing what you have found that works.


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