I have logged many hours with close friends in recent years listening to everything from feverish rants, to exasperated tears and even downright rage. The common thread? Teenagers in the house. I listened with empathy, while internally thinking life had granted me a free pass, despite the reality of two teen boys at home.
You see, our threesome had weathered some tornados. Big, devastating ones. I felt so bonded to my boys that I naively thought our past challenges had rendered our household immune to the common teen themes of rebellion, entitlement and digital overdose. Not so much. While our storms were severe enough to include addiction, mental illness and ultimately divorce, they weren’t a firewall to surging teen testosterone levels.
Enter sophomore year for my 16-year old son and age “40-something” for me. In this chapter, as if overnight, I began experiencing in a live, terrifying format just what my friends had shared through frustrated tears. All of the sudden, our home had become a hormonal war zone.
Angry debates ensued over earth shattering topics such as garbage duty, laundry piles and Xbox overdose. The facial expressions hurled in my direction upon completion of a simple ask, skewered my heart. It felt as if I had lost my oldest son, overnight. Was this the man my son was becoming?
I cried, ran mini marathons despite Seattle’s wintry monsoons, and yes… even yelled a little bit. I took up CrossFit in hopes of taking out my frustrations on barbells and burpees instead of coming unglued at home. It helped. Our reality took on an exhausting rhythm; parental request, teen denial or heated debate, hurled ultimatums, a fleecing of gadgets or privileges followed by angry retreats to our respective corners – all while my younger son swirled in our chaos. Dinner after dinner my younger son suffered whiplash while anxiously glancing back and forth between his older brother and me, as if seated in the front row at a tennis match.
The storms continued for months. My son pushed buttons, flexed muscles and new flavors of entitlement and stubbornness pervaded. I clung tighter in fear and cracked down hard in ways that would have made my stern father smile with pride. Only I wasn’t smiling. My Dad’s boot camp tactics were having a similar effect on my son as they had on me back in the day – righteousness, anger and rebellion. We began living in a state of permanent standoff.
One evening my son’s teachers showed up at my gym. She had just emailed me the previous day about a “respect incident” with my son in her classroom. Her intuitive, empathetic greeting made me crack, right then and there, kettlebell in-hand. Her words were few but resonated deeply. “Hold on. He’s one of the good ones, really. You will be in awe of him and his maturity, in mere months.” Those words became my lifeline in the hormonal storm. I decided to believe her.
My son and I had always enjoyed open and honest connection. That hadn’t changed, the sharing had simply intensified. We were both gutted and ready to reboot. One calm night, I asked if he was open to making a hit list of his biggest gripes with me personally, and in general. He was game. I was too. Clearly, we both had a few. I then suggested we brainstorm possible solutions. Surprisingly, he agreed to that part too, albeit begrudgingly.
Here’s a peek at our notes. Here’s hoping they’ll help others restore calm at home.
(Teen) “I have trouble getting to sleep and then feel horrible in the morning. I feel great around 10:00 pm and to be honest, you are pretty prickly at that time of day.”
(Me) “I need more sleep. I think I’m averaging about 5-6 hours a night. I have trouble falling asleep thinking about you and your brother and a multitude of work-related deadlines. I am more reactive, less patient and don’t do well when you push my buttons at 10:30 in the evening.”
According to SleepFoundation.org biological sleep patterns shift toward later time during adolescence, meaning it is natural to not be able to fall asleep before 11:00 pm. The CDC states that teens need an average of 8-10 hours, while adults need 7 or more. Clearly, neither of us were getting enough sleep.
Clearly, neither of us were getting enough sleep.
(Teen) “When you’re really mad about something I’ve done you immediately take away my phone, ban video games or you don’t let me go out with friends. I don’t even get a chance to explain. You’ve got to back up and give me some room.”
(Me) “When you act out or make poor choices, I panic. Cracking down is my way of feeling as if I am more in control, or that I can somehow save you from making mistakes. I know I can’t. I need to let go and give you some space to feel the consequences of your actions – both good and bad.”
I had always prided myself in not being a hovering, helicopter Mom. Out of pure single parent default, I could only do so much for my boys. I needed and appreciated their help at home and viewed this as a great thing. However, like a swift kick to the gut, I realized that I had been parenting my teen in a death grip of fear. I needed to learn to recede, let my son experience the consequences of his choices and learn to problem solve on his own.
Jessica Lahey’s book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, helped me reboot back to the parenting style I had deployed prior to this challenging teen chapter. It helped me step back and try to embrace my son’s missteps as opposed to trying to thwart them myself in panic.
(Teen) “You are such a hypocrite, Mom. You tell me to get off the phone or Xbox constantly, while you literally have your phone in your hand and are sitting at your laptop!”
(Me) “You are never, ever, off a device. Whether its your phone, video games or you are listening to music, the headphones are on the entire time you are home, aside from dinner when I pry them off.”
He had a point. I was equally tethered. The only time we were digitally disconnected was at breakfast and dinner. My excuse was work, a necessity, yet we desperately needed to carve out more old school face time with some digital blackout periods. We weren’t the only ones.
A recent study by Common Sense Media revealed a number of startling statistics. American teens between the age of 13 and 18 were averaging 8.56 hours of media, per day. Parents of tweens and teens spend more than 9 hours a day with screen media, yet still considered themselves good technology role models.
Reconnecting – Live
Neither of us had any expectation that this gripe-fest would become a magic carpet ride to a peaceful existence, yet the takeaway proved astonishing. We had been at wits end with one another for the better part of a year, yet our challenges areas were 100% in parallel. Something between us was actually in sync. That realization was the start we needed to get to a better place.
We deployed daily digital blackouts in the early evening that extended through dinner and unplugged for good by 9:00 pm. These commitments dramatically improved our sleep. We noticed our meals extending longer with more engaging exchanges.
I am still learning to back off, let my son make mistakes and trust. My son claims to appreciate the longer leash and is making better choices – most of the time. His teacher was right. I am now in awe of his maturity. I also own my very big piece to the previously challenged dynamic at home.