How to actually raise teenagers

A lot of digital ink gets spilled over what it’s really like to raise older kids. I mean really, truly, no jokes, just the unvarnished truth.

We currently have four teenagers, and I’ve tried, myself, to put down some useful words on the topic, but the truth is, nothing scrambles your brain or flattens your ability to function like raising kids this age, these days. And yet it must be done. So here’s my contribution:

Writing about teenagers tends to fall into two categories.

The first comes across like a final report discovered decades later from deep inside a sealed bunker. You know the kind : “They have taken the bridge and the Second Hall. We have barred the gates but cannot hold them for long. We cannot get out. They are coming” kind of thing.

Poor miserable souls these parents are, for so many years they clung to the illusion that their own children would be different, and that they alone would maintain discipline and order and even an amicable relationship with their offspring.

But they suffer the same fate as everyone else. Their kids are absolute sociopaths, and the parents can’t wait to warn their peers about the fate that awaits them. They hang around at maternity wards just to gloat. They turn up at kindergarten graduations of strangers and throw tomatoes at the stage, because these kids may look adorable now, but they know what’s coming as soon as puberty sets in.

So that’s one kind of advice you’ll get from parents of teens. The other type valiantly pushes back against these tired tropes of the surly, smelly, antisocial adolescent. These parents insist that it’s neither necessary nor normal for teenagers to behave so poorly. Give them some higher expectations and a little guidance, and they’ll grow and bear fruit like the most elegant of topiaries.

They themselves have an entire phalanx of teenagers in their house right now, they will tell you, and the only way you’d guess it is because of the sounds of the viola wafting up through the floorboards as they willingly practice their arpeggios. One teen is tutoring his younger brother, two are about to come home from work at the Fine Young Man Store, and one is sitting at the desk he built himself, writing a letter to apologise to his elderly neighbour for how unevenly he chopped the shallots in last Sunday’s boeuf en croûte.

It is simply a matter of having the right expectations, and you must simply expect your children to be as inexhaustibly fabulous as you are yourself, and the job’s halfway done.

(The other half happens at boarding school, it turns out, which the grandparents pay for. Also the kids spend their weekends at the grandparents’ house. The grandparents themselves live in a metal trailer in the desert, desperately petitioning the courts to terminate their visitation rights.)

I joke, I joke. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Teenagers are by no means natural sociopaths, but neither are they [excuse me while I get up and make sure my door is locked] especially willing and eager to be formed into useful members of society. Not. Especially. Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image source PXhere (public domain)

10 gifts you ought to give your teenagers

As our kids get older, we find it harder and harder to choose gifts for them, now that we can no longer just scan the toy aisle and pick out something neat and colorful. We ask for wish lists, and on them are items that, not only do I not understand why someone would want them, I don’t even completely know what they are.

But I do know how to give older kids the intangible things they need on the 363 days of the year, when it’s not their birthday or Christmas (and not a single one of them needs a charging cable). These are things that may or may not delight them when they receive them, but may stay with them and help them for the rest of their lives.

  1. Being needed. Let them feel the feeling of being important to another human being. This can happen automatically in large families, but even there, some kids are good at escaping responsibility. But understanding that we are responsible for other people is a fundamental part of being human, and kids should learn it early. Some families overdo this, and turn kids, especially girls, into mini parents. This is unjust, and will lead to resentment and burnout. But if your child tends to feel that the world is here to serve him, that needs correcting. All kids should be in charge of something important, even if it’s small.2. The gift of being listened to, even if it’s something you don’t personally care about, because you care about your kid. Let them know more than you about something, and be really interested to hear all about it. Teenagers can come across as arrogant know-it-alls, but this, like so many unpleasant teen traits, often stems from insecurity. They desperately want to prove they’re smart and well-informed and interesting and worthy of attention. So sometimes step back and let them show their stuff, and compliment them on how well they know their topic. They may act like they don’t care, but they probably care very much, and will be very pleased to know they’ve impressed you. More importantly, if you are in the habit of listening to them chatter about inconsequential stuff, they are more likely to come to you with stuff that does matter.
  2. The gift of earning stuff they want. It can be tempting to give teenagers everything they think they need to make them happy, because you want them to be happy and you want them to be happy with you. But you’ll be giving them a much more long-lasting gift if you help them figure out how to do some work to earn some money to get the thing. This will also help them become more discerning about just how badly they want or need some item.
  3. The gift of getting away with things. Sometimes, let stuff ride. Just don’t notice it. It will be easier on all of you if you just pretend you don’t hear that tone of voice, didn’t notice that mess, aren’t aware of that screw-up, don’t care about that bad habit. It’s okay to have personal limits about what you’ll put up with, but make sure you’re not constantly correcting every last little thing. Prioritize, and save your correcting energy for things that really need it.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

Image by Luisella Planeta Leoni from Pixabay

A few things I’ve learned about teens, conflict, and discipline

I like teenagers. Good thing, too, as we currently have five teenaged kids living in our house (as well as two kids who have graduated to full-blown adulthood). They’re so much nicer to be around than when I was that age. They’re fun to talk to (well, sometimes); they’re funny (well, sometimes); they’re creative and interesting and helpful (well, sometimes). I like teenagers.

Well, sometimes. A lot of the time.

But still, there is conflict.  A teenager’s body grows in fits and starts, and not always in graceful proportions; and their psyches are doing the same thing. Even when they’re not suffering from hormonal tumult, they’re trying to make what is truly an excruciating transition from childhood to adulthood. It can get ugly. And no, I’m not always patient and understanding. But I’m also not always the raging volcano of injustice and retribution I was afraid I would be.

Conflict, and the need to impose discipline, are pretty much inevitable when you’re raising a teenager; but unless there are serious mental health problems and/or your teen is doing something massively dangerous or destructive like using hard drugs or running away from home, it should be possible to have a relationship that includes things besides conflict and discipline.

Here are a general principles I’ve learned…

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: by daveynin via Flickr –  Creative Commons

Let’s treat retail and service workers like human beings

This year, I have three kids working in retail. One is at a giant arts and crafts store chain, one is at a deli counter in a supermarket, and one is at a popular coffee shop.

One has had potato salad thrown at her. One has had her teeth insulted. And one just started his new job yesterday, so nothing bad happened yet, but his last job was at an old-fashioned candy shop, and you’d be amazed to see how spectacularly nasty people can be when they’re surrounded by jars of brightly colored sugar.

When my kids get home from work, they often dejected and bitter about the interactions they had with customers. These are decent, competent kids who really make an effort to do what is expected of them; but just because they’re behind a cash register or have an apron on, so many customers allow themselves to vent their spleen and call them names, insult their intelligence, blame them for things they can’t possibly control, or just treat them with disgust, rolling their eyes, sighing noisily, flapping their hands with disdain. I know it’s only going to get worse as it gets closer to Christmas. If Christmas shopping is a beast, they all work right in the heart of that beast. 

Customers are stressed out and overwhelmed by all the shopping and planning that needs to get done (or at least, that they’ve convinced themselves needs to get done). I’ve been there! When lots of people are depending on you to fulfill their expectations, it’s hard to keep perspective.

But really. Everyone. When is it ever more important to keep your perspective? If you’re not going to treat strangers well when you’re preparing for the birth of Christ, then when are you going to treat strangers well? The day after Christmas? The day after that? Maybe on your death bed?

Let’s all make a resolve to get this right, this year. Lots of people working retail and service jobs just got hired, and are just learning the ropes right when it’s busiest and everyone is at their most demanding.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 
Image by Pedro Serapio from Pixabay

You can always come back

One Sunday afternoon, I posted on Facebook:

“Reasons the Fishers left their pew this morning:
Had to go to the bathroom.
Also had to go to the bathroom.
Had to check ketones and bolus.
Had to go to the bathroom after all.
Had to take migraine meds.
Had to get to work.
Had to leave the building entirely because, while the four-year-old could behave herself, her puppy Crystal could not.
BUT WE ALL CAME BACK EVENTUALLY.”

I’m not sure how the other parishioners feel, but I have no problem with this level of traffic during Mass. We’d rather keep a lighter grip on the reins, and let the kids do what they need to do, as long as they always come back. And we do always come back.

When I was a teenager, I also didn’t sit in the pew. I did come to Mass with my parents, because they expected it, but I never made it as far as the pew. I would lurk sulkily in the back of the church, glowering at the little red votive candles as they flickered in their cups. Sometimes I would sit on the steps to the choir loft, my head between my knees, hating every moment of it. I never prayed, I never went to confession. I chose the path of misery for years, rather than sit in the pew.

And you know, I eventually came back. Look at me now! I’m so Catholic, the Jehovah’s Witnesses barely even try. I’m sure my parents were worried when I started to stray as a teenager, but they knew they were playing the long game. They kept a pretty loose grip on the reins, and I think that’s a good principle.

Almost as if to illustrate this principle: During that same Mass I described above, where my family spent most of the hour coming and going and to-ing and fro-ing, the pastor made an announcement: An elderly couple in the parish would have their marriage convalidated. They’d been in a civil marriage for many years but had recently come back to the Church . . .

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Public Domain

Is Christmas alive in your heart today?

If you think of the liturgical year as a lifetime, the Christmas season is a very brief babyhood, just a bright little sliver on the pie chart, and the dark wedge of Lent hits right around the teen or early adult years.

Doesn’t that explain a thing or two?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

A reading list for Catholic teens and young adults

A frequent question: What books are good for Catholic teenagers and young adults looking to deepen their faith? I have some suggestions!

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Confirmation candidates need Eucharistic Adoration

There is no one for whom Adoration is a bad fit. Shy? You don’t have to even make eye contact with anyone. Love ritual and tradition? Bring a rosary or say the Liturgy of the Hours. Prefer to free-form it? Go for it. Not sure what your relationship with God is or is supposed to be? Just be there. Not in a state of grace? Be with the Lord so you can hear Him calling you home. Have a hard time sitting still? Make it a short visit. Like doing things in community with others? There is perpetual adoration going on all over the world all the time. Like private, individual worship? It’s just you and Him.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Photo by Jeffrey Bruno via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Why isn’t there more advice about raising teenagers?

These feelings of helplessness are actually a good thing, assuming you all survive. It’s a good thing to realize that you’re no expert, you’re no genius, you’re no bottomless font of wisdom. It’s a good thing to realize that your child is not a robot to be programmed, or an empty sack to be filled with whatever habits and preferences and traits and skills you choose.

What your child is is a unique, irreplaceable immortal being with terrifyingly free will and a lot less self-knowledge than he had a few years ago; and what you are is someone who loves your kid and wants the best for him, but is so far from being in control, it’s laughable.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by Ryan McGuire via Pixabay

When a teenage girl reports being raped

Why wait to report rape? All you have to do is report it, and then the bad guy will be punished, the good girl will be protected, and justice will be served. Here’s one American expressing a typical point of view on the topic this morning:

And here’s a short essay from the loving parent of a teenage girl who was raped — not thirty-five years ago, but last December. They did report it as soon as they possibly could, and now they are living through the very typical aftermath of what very often happens next. 

Spoiler: Justice was not served. The author is my friend of twenty years.

***

I spent the weekend sitting in the emergency room with my teenage daughter. I do mean the whole weekend, 48 hours of it. She was inching towards suicidal plans again, Googling ways to overdose.

She’s been an inpatient before, twice, after a previous suicide attempt. Her father and I confronted her about her plans and asked her if she needed to go back into a psychiatric hospital to be safe and get help. She asked if she could think about it. Two hours later she told us, yes, she felt like she needed to go back. So we went to the emergency room to wait for a bed on a unit somewhere. After the emergency room, she spent the next five days in an inpatient mental health facility.

Here is what led up to this day:

In December she was at an event with friends and started to feel sick. A male acquaintance of hers offered to take her home. But before he brought her home, he turned off into a dark parking lot and raped her.

She told him no. She did her best to physically resist. There was no confusion about consent there.

Then he brought her home where she began the dark spiral of self-blame. She had flirted with him in the past, they had texted. There may have even been some talk of “getting together.” So she did her best to just push it away and move on.

Trauma doesn’t work like that, though. Her body responded violently. Over the next two months, she would vomit multiple times a day, often going days at a time without holding down any substantial food. We sought every medical solution we could find to help her, but with only limited success. Because we were just putting a band-aid on a broken leg.

In June, we started observing her even more closely and discovered some concerning information about how she’d been spending her time. Together, her dad and I talked to her about it. She told us that on top of all we found, she had been raped back in December. There was a whirlwind of trying to get her every kind of help we could at this point, but that is not what this is about. My own self-doubt and distress having to think of my child going through this or memories of my own traumatic experiences are not what this is about either, but those were extreme too.

It took two more months before she felt like she was ready to make a police report. In August, she made the report. It took two more weeks for the detective to finally make an appointment for her to come in and make a statement.

I knew that would be hard for her. She would have to talk through the whole story, which she had only done with her therapist to this point.  But it was much worse than I imagined. It shattered her all over again.

The detective was a friendly, young guy. He talked to me first and asked me all about what I knew. He asked why we had waited so long to report this. I told him that we found out well after it had happened, and since there wasn’t any physical proof, our first priority was to get her some help and try to get her a little bit stabilized.

Then he talked to her. It took a very long time. He called me back in when she was trying to pull herself back together in the bathroom. He asked me if I knew about her other experiences with boys. I did. He asked me if I knew what kind of pictures and texts she had, at one point, had on her phone. I did. When she came back into the room he told us that he would interview the boy she was accusing, but if he asked for a lawyer, they would drop the case. Because it was her word against his.

The detective talked to him the next day. He asked for a lawyer. The police dropped the case.

So while this boy carried on with his senior year, playing football, hanging out with friends, my daughter ended up sitting in a locked room feeling violated all over again when she was told that for her own safety, she couldn’t have her bra. Or her sweatshirt. Or her journal or any writing utensil but crayons. For her safety.

While this family goes on with life as usual, we are buried under medical bills. His father gets to go watch his son’s games. I pick my daughter up from school after another major panic attack.

While he stayed at school with his friends, she switched schools so that she wouldn’t have to face the trauma of seeing him every day. While he gets by without having to say a word, she is questioned extensively and in graphic detail about what really happened and about her mental health and sexual history.

But it is just her word against his.

***

Related: If she was sexually assaulted, why didn’t she say something sooner?

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash