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!