I’m beginning to understand why parents of teenagers have that look. Why their faces sag, why their smiles are tight, why their hair is gray. I’m beginning to understand the dark circles and baggy skin framing their glazed, reddish eyes.
Parenting a teenager is exhausting.
This is the same song, four hundredth verse. We’ve talked about this before. Parenting babies and toddlers and preschoolers demands time and mental energy. Somebody always needs something, and you are the only one on the planet who can possibly satisfy their whims. (Or at least they think you are.) The little buggers suck the life right out of you, sometimes quite literally. It’s a round-the-clock job with no sick days, no pay, no pension. It’s a good thing they’re so cute, otherwise we’d eat them.
And just as the waters calm, just as you catch your breath, after they can tie their own shoes and wipe their own backsides, after they make their own lunches and brush their own teeth—then the fun really begins.
Teenagers, I am discovering, still need us. They pretend like they don’t, and often they don’t realize it, but they do. Hugely. Parenting a teenager is a delicate dance, a push and pull, give and take. Their job is to separate themselves from us and grow into adults. Our job is to protect them, to guide them through that process of gradual independence. The sacred space between them and us, between separation and protection, is sticky. Scary. Wrought with tension and hurt feelings.
I have such a great kid. Really. She is responsible, compassionate, kind, independent, funny. She makes good decisions and good grades. I
never rarely worry about her. She’s always been that way.
There aren’t many contentious issues between us—except one. Her phone. Lord have mercy, her phone. Many times, I would like to chuck that blasted thing across the room until it disintegrates into a million tiny pieces…but that wouldn’t solve anything. Teenagers and phones are here to stay, so I need to adjust to life on this new planet and make it work.
For better or worse, a teenager’s phone tethers her to her world. She uses it to connect with her friends in the same way her mom used to pass notes in the hallway between classes. But, if you stretch your brain to remember those days, the worst scenario involving a note would be your teacher confiscating and reading it to the class, or the neatly folded notebook paper falling into the wrong hands and word-of-mouth rumors spread. Horror.
Today, a teenager’s text message—the note equivalent—can go viral in a matter of seconds, opening the door to all kinds of devastating mess. Or a teenager could be easily and incessantly harassed, bullied, threatened, pilloried. The stakes are much higher, the consequences steeper. Even a good kid (especially a good kid) can get entangled in something horrific before she realizes what is happening.
The icing on this scrumptious cake is social networking, which is texting on meth. The two conjoined make parenting a teenager that much more fun.
So we’re navigating these waters, learning how much freedom to give her, how much protection to insist upon. Apparently (according to her) we’re the only awful parents in the world who check their teenager’s phone, read her texts and tweets, and enforce a phone curfew. She hates that. She has a visceral, angry, defensive reaction every time I ask for her phone. The phone draws the battle lines like nothing else in our home. I hate that.
Reading her texts, I realize, would be the equivalent of my mom digging through my Liz Claiborne purse when I was a teenager and reading my notes. I would be mortified. I would likely yell and scream and slam many-a-door. I get that.
But this new world of technology is very different from the world we grew up in, and the boundary between privacy and protection is much more blurry. I’m normally a very hands-off, Love&Logic kind of parent—but the phone scares the sugar bits out of me, and Mama Bear comes out swinging. There’s more pull than push, more take than give. This is a nonnegotiable.
As an alternative to nightly phone checks, I tried installing a monitoring software. The attempted installation kept me up til 1:30 am and ended up An Epic Fail. Blasted iOS updates. They don’t like to be jailbroken, which is the only way to install undetectable programs. So I was back to phone checks. Which she still hated almost as much as monitoring software. Which led to more battle lines and challenges and tears.
One night, Meghan and I grabbed the rope and began our tug-of-war-of-words:
“You don’t have to check my phone!”
“It’s a scary world!”
“You don’t trust me!”
“No, I do trust you. I don’t trust everyone else.”
“It’s my phone!”
“Which we pay for!”
“I would tell you if something was going on!”
“How do I know that? You don’t talk to us!”
After we ranted and vented and cried, we both took a breath. “I can’t do this anymore.” I sighed. “I can’t keep having the same argument over and over and over. I need you to trust me, and I need to be able to trust you. What can we do to trust each other more?” I asked. “What do you need from me?”
She grew quiet. “I need you to ask me about my friends. Ask me about what happened at lunch. Ask me what I’m reading in my devotionals. Ask me when I have a test. I’ve always been the kid you don’t have to worry about—but I need you to be interested in my life.”
I stared at her, stunned. I had prided myself in being so hands-off that I couldn’t see she needs more hands-on. My Love & Logic parenting had quietly morphed into disengagement. And it was killing both of us.
Not coincidentally, I picked up a new book right before this conversation occurred.
Disengagement is a defense mechanism birthed from shame. Daring Greatly is about recognizing the voices of Shame (“I am not worthy”) and Scarcity (“I am not ______ enough) and developing resilience so we can have the courage to be vulnerable. Vulnerability and courage allow us to live wholeheartedly. Unearthing our weaknesses and exposing them to light disarms their power over us. Daring to take emotional risks by connecting ourselves to others frees us.
No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough…Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.
It is a game-changer. I’ve underlined and starred and arrowed and bracketed every other sentence. So many of her insights sound like a clanging bell or a bull horn or the shrill of a whistle: “THIS! THIS IS YOU! CAN YOU SEE IT? THIS DEFINES EVERY INTIMACY ISSUE YOU HAVE! THIS EXPLAINS WHY YOU ARE SUCH A HOT MESS! AND GUESS WHAT? YOU CAN FIX IT!”
With children, actions speak louder than words. When we stop requesting invitations into their lives by asking about their day, asking them to tell us about their favorite songs, wondering how their friends are doing, then children feel pain and fear (and not relief, despite how our teenagers may act). Because they can’t articulate how they feel about our disengagement when we stop making an effort with them, they show us by acting out, thinking ‘this will get their attention.’
I read that paragraph the day after The Conversation. BAM.
Disengagement—checking out, not caring, withdrawing from interpersonal connection—develops when we feel shame and scarcity. When we think we’re not good enough, when we’re not worthy. When we’re afraid of being hurt, of being disappointed. When we’re afraid that opening ourselves will only confirm our fears that we really, truly suck. (Those are my words, not hers.) It’s our armor, our defense, our protective wall. Living defensively is the opposite of living vulnerably and wholeheartedly.
That’s how I’ve lived my entire life. And that’s how I’ve related to my husband and my kids and my friends and my acquaintances. Don’t get too close because I cannot survive another person telling me I’m not good enough. I think that’s why Ferber and Babywise and Love & Logic resonated so loudly in my parenting. Separation works for me.
When I am most afraid, when I peek behind the wall and consider venturing out, this is what I hear:
Lower your voice, Jennifer. You’re too loud.
Save it for the stage, Jennifer. You’re so dramatic.
I think we need to date other people. You’re not enough for me.
Your friendship isn’t worth the effort anymore. You’re too difficult.
No wonder no one wants to date you. You’re so loud and obnoxious.
Stop being so selfish.
You let your kids get away with that? You’re such a bad mother.
Therefore, I mostly stay inside myself—striking a Heisman pose, holding my heart close and keeping everyone else at arm’s length.
My friends who have met me within the last fifteen years have a very hard time believing I used to be really loud and outgoing. I was. And I learned that such a personality only earned me scorn and loneliness—so now I’m not. Shame killed that part of me. I remember too many times I opened my mouth a little too widely and spoke a little too much, and I am—there’s no other word for it—ashamed. So I constructed a very large, very strong wall around me. Also, I stopped talking. Just for extra protection. I can’t be ashamed of what I say or how I act if I keep quiet.
No more. The walls are tumblin’ down, my friends. It may take a while to deconstruct, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be loud and obnoxious again (you’re welcome)—but I do know that I will be a better wife, a better mom, a better friend when I lean into that frightening space and say This is me. This is who I am. Come into my world and join me. If you’ll let me, I’ll also walk with you where you are, in your sacred space. Let’s tell each other The Truth, and let’s not be afraid anymore.
The voices of shame better watch their backs. They will be met with a resounding I AM ENOUGH, AND I AM WORTH IT. They will not withstand the loud retort, I AM CREATED AND LOVED BY GOD HIMSELF, AND NOTHING WILL CHANGE THAT. I am purchased, sealed, and purposed for greater things than fear and isolation. Much greater things. Things that require risk and courage, things that allow fullness and connection and fulfillment.
What does this have to do with teenagers and phones and exhaustion? Everything. They need to see our weaknesses and our insecurities so they don’t feel so alone. And they need to see us fighting the voices of shame so they can find the courage to do the same. They need to know that we are a safe place for them to be real, to be honest. They need to trust us with their secrets and maybe—just maybe—their trust will lead to less phone checks and more conversations.
I don’t want my kids to inherit my brokenness. I want them to resist the voices of shame with the voices of truth. I told Meghan, “You are going to get tired of hearing me say this, and I know you don’t believe me, but I’m going to keep saying it anyway. YOU ARE ENOUGH. Just as you are.” She rolled her eyes, but I think I glimpsed a smile, too.
I’m still checking her phone, by the way. We’re still navigating that space between independence and freedom, responsibility and trust. It’s still hard. But we’re also talking more. I’m asking more questions, and she’s willingly giving more answers, more insight into that precious heart of hers. Like every other teenage girl (and woman) on the planet, she struggles. She’s afraid. But she’s not alone, and together we will Dare Greatly to embrace our vulnerability, our courage, our completeness.