My life — both inside and out — is awash in adolescence. Seven years of being a teenager, then 28 years of raising them? I clearly signed THAT contract while under the spell of a milky-mouthed, heaven-scented newborn.
Imagine the bedroom of a stereotypical teenager and you’ll have a perfect picture of my inner world as of late, only if you were to risk entrance, instead of books and garbage and underwear and electronic devices, you’d trip over messy love, imperfect solutions, deep heartache, shallow arguments, glowing pride and dust bunnies of fear that — no matter how many times I sweep them out — reproduce in the corners of my consciousness whenever I’m not watching.
Thing is, about the time the prefrontal cortex of my firstborn resumes growth (re-capacitating her with the self preservation skills that came to a screeching halt around age 13), daughter #4 will take her place in line beside my other two gray matter-deficient offspring.
In other words, I’ll be treading these muddy waters for a very long time.
Raising teens, in my experience, has proven equally intense as raising littles, just a different kind of intense. While the physical load has lightened a bit, an emotional load quickly replaced the squirming toddlers, nursing newborns and pounds of pregnancy. And very much like raising littles, I can’t afford to think too much about it because while I’m sitting here trying to get everything just right, one’s likely to slip out the front door and take off down the road to God Knows Where.
I do have an advantage over some parents in that I tried just about everything you can imagine as a teenager, myself. Not exactly naive, I’m able to draw from personal, first-hand experience when the question, “what the HELL are they thinking!!??” hits me time and again.
Unfortunately, teenage rebellion as a part of my own story does not make watching them struggle any easier, and it certainly doesn’t ensure that they’ll be spared hard knocks of their own. In fact, secondhand heartache is as much a part of the adolescent rearing experience as diapering in the early years: it may vary a little from child to child, but it always stinks and there’s no opting out.
Lately, while digging for empathy and understanding, I’ve been reflecting more than usual on my own rather wild adolescence. What was I thinking? What would have helped? What factors contributed to my angst and discontentment? Who and what made a real difference for me and why?
What I’m realizing is that, of all the risks I took and decisions I made (that rightfully scared my fantastic, loving, involved and still-married parents half to death), I’d really only change one thing if I had it to do over.
Which means that of all the choices my daughters have made and will continue to make, and all the battles I can either engage in or attempt to diffuse, there’s really only one matter that truly concerns me, and one overarching battle I know for sure to be worthy of my engagement.
But first, here are a few others that, while concerning to many parents, I don’t actually see as problematic in and of themselves:
6 “Rebellious” Behaviors That I Don’t Regret, Nor Discourage in My Daughters
- Questioning the status quo – Though my tact and tone have changed a bit since the days when etching “F*ck the Establishment!” in bathroom stalls seemed like the least I could do toward the betterment of humanity, at 36, I still question social norms and believe this to be an essential component of living an authentic, centered and ever-evolving life. And though I’m often warning them to be careful about making assumptions and judgements, whenever one of my girls spots an injustice and makes some defiant, blanket-statement proclamation, I still grin with pride, at least on the inside.
- Questioning the religion I was raised in – Never one to swallow “truth” that didn’t actually FEEL true to me, yet always seeking and connected to a sacred something, I’m glad I didn’t let the fear built into my childhood faith drown out the curiosity and intuition driving my quest for spiritual authenticity. Now on a path that finally feels right for me (following years of confusion and cynicism) I see the importance of having rebelled from the family faith. It wasn’t defiance for the sake of defiance, it was defiance for the sake of discovering MY TRUTH.
- Self-expression – Thinking back to the skater pants that two of me would have fit into, the blackened eyes and greasy hair (shampoo was SO superficial), the harsh music and dark poetry, and the brief period of (harmless) pyromania, I don’t believe I was simply attention-seeking. I think I was identifying myself as distinctly different than the mainstream and expressing that in ways that helped me FEEL. Still unconventional by many measures (if less extreme in my choice of apparel), I see self expression as brave and beautiful, no matter the age or manifestation.
- Taking risks — Though terrifying to parents at times, there’s simply no way for a young person to explore her world, inside or out, without a certain amount of risk taking. Given the number of thirty, forty and fifty-somethings I know who are only just now discovering or rediscovering the power and potential born of bravery, I think it’s essential that we encourage calculated risk taking among our teens. They need the practice while still in the nest (if no longer under our wings).
- Raging against injustice — It still makes me laugh when I think about the subjects I took a stance on (music censoring, modesty and mari…oh, never mind), but the fact is that when I saw injustice, I felt RAGE. By failing to honor our teens’ brand new, gut-level acknowledgment of the world’s many inequities or belittling their arguments as too extreme or narrowly-focused, we are essentially saying, “What you see and feel is not legitimate or important” which decreases their sense of connection, causes them to doubt their intuition and often leads to either increased angst or (worse yet!)…conformity.
- Challenging boundaries — Teens who seem to need to test every boundary they come up against are not always rebelling to ruffle feathers or punish parents. I think just as often, they are seeking authenticity through exploration, and that by testing the boundaries around them, they learn to navigate their inner landscape that much more quickly.
Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying that any one of these factors can’t lead to a whole host of problems. They absolutely can, and for me, they often did. What I AM saying is that they aren’t necessarily problems in and of themselves. In fact, many are actually indicators that you’ve got a particularly smart kid on your hands, or a leader in the making or a creative type for whom self expression feels as essential as air and water.
So, what WOULD I change if I had my adolescence to live over? Daughter #2 did some guessing:
“Your anger toward your parents?”
“Going to a ‘crappy’ college?”
“Having a kid so young?”
“Making all that…macrame?”
Nope (but sorry again Mom, Dad). The one and only thing I would change is this:
My level of self love.
Think about it: throw self love into any one of the aforementioned rebellious behaviors and suddenly, you’ve got a built-in ruler for calculating risks, a safety on all the triggers life hands you and a way to explore the world without getting completely lost. Better yet, it’s a not a measure that requires experts or parental supervision or a fear of hell to give it legitimacy.
Had self love been my one and only anchor, I might have:
- questioned the status quo without viewing everything through a lens of anger
- questioned my religious roots without insults, disrespect and cynicism
- expressed myself without dwelling on pain and darkness
- taken risks without putting myself so squarely in harm’s way
- raged against injustice but tapped more quickly into my capacity to contribute to change
- challenged boundaries but not so much that they compromised people’s respect for me or more importantly, my respect for myself
“Great!” You’re thinking. “But how in the world do you encourage an already-angsty adolescent to love themselves more?”
This, like most interpersonal dilemmas, is as gray a matter as the tissue missing in our teens. I honestly can’t tell you what my parents might have done differently, and it doesn’t matter, because I know they did their best, and that’s enough. Truth is, I rebelled against order and stability and organic gardening and therapist-grade understanding. I wanted WILD and UNCERTAIN and THRILLING and FORBIDDEN. I craved darkness and pain for contrast. I had to figure things out myself. I still do.
This is not the fault of anyone. It’s simply who I am.
But from this end of things — now that I’m the one holding the lantern lest my babies get lost — I see something kind of essential that’s hardly even mentioned in The Manual (that none of us ever received to begin with), and it has nothing to do with how well we’re parenting.
As a whole, we’re doing beautifully in this regard:
We love them to death, even when they’re intolerable and we’re totally spent.
We see their strengths and point them out often.
We support their interests, encourage their passions and celebrate even the smallest successes.
We mind their sleep, their food, their screen time, their friends and their mood swings.
We find ways to connect, relate, understand, empathize and forgive, over and over.
We love our children deeply and they know it. At this, parents, WE ARE DOING AN INCREDIBLE JOB.
But many of us are a little less skilled when it comes to the rest of the rarely-mentioned reality:
Instilling SELF love in our children requires leading by example:
- When we, as parents, identify our OWN unmet needs and learn healthy ways to honor them, we demonstrate personal responsibility on the deepest level.
- When we learn to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ according to our best interests as opposed to the desires of others, our teens are taught the validity and worth of their own inner knowing.
- When we let go of perfectionism, we teach them to see beauty and joy as inherent to and available in every moment, instead of goals they may never reach.
- When we define success for ourselves and celebrate micro-achievements, we show them that despite the deception all around them, they are, have and do ENOUGH.
- When we forgive ourselves and openly learn from our downfalls, we demonstrate a whole new level of kindness and compassion.
- When we dare to live the lives we know we’re here for, we give our children permission to do the same.
These acts of self love are not encouraged in our culture. In fact, given that many of us were taught that loving ourselves is selfish, it’s no wonder that we spend so little time considering our own needs and deepest desires.
Ultimately, it’s not our job as parents to shape our teens into who they are meant to be. Our job is to love them, care for them and model healthy adult reactions to the world, both around and within us. Despite our society’s outward focus — on appearance and achievements and tangible measures of “success” — our children are receiving but a partial picture of love when we focus on the external, including THEM, at the expense of our own inner wellbeing.
In keeping with my rebellious tendencies, I’d like to suggest that our generation of guilt-stricken and perfection-pursuing parents amend the all-popular biblical teaching when it crosses our paths and minds:
Yes, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is good advice.
But first, love yourself as you do your children.
Learning alongside you,
Ready to take self love up a notch or twenty? Check out Inner Bonding. Margaret Paul’s free 7-day e-course is a beautiful place to start (and no, I have no affiliation with her, only respect and gratitude for her work).