Sunday, April 18, 2010

Delicate Bulls: An Open Letter to All Parents of Teenagers

Against my teenagers using drugs I have the tides against my hands and feet. The tidal swell of teenage rebellions, both beautiful and grotesque, can be manipulated and can be guided, but the gods must be on your side, the circumstances ripe, the spirit strong and the parents who live down the block cannot be offering your 15 year old son a free Smoke Shack because Hell, you are going to do it anyway, so do it here. I won't see. I won't say. I'm cool. Cool like that.

What can guide a teenager down a jagged tribune can be the smallest of things- a butterfly flaps it's wings in Paris, and my son is dust faced and meth addicted. The parenting I have done from the childrens births to their lives now is the all mighty foundation, the neat and firm riverbed they are supposed to come back to in their 20's, when they are done moving away, and begin moving inward, towards who they are, who they want to be. To consider the foundation enough to avoid serious pain, years of relentless failings and misery is to forget entirely what it was to be a teenager. If you have lined up for your child a mentally and emotionally and financially stable household that functions well and provides dual parental involvement and support in an economic environment that supports education and offers activities and your child has no mental illness or serious health problems? then your child is as set as one could possibly be for growth that may falter, may move gracelessly but still surely toward a basically happy adulthood- one filled of course with heartbreak and disappointment, because we are alive, but still fundamentally all right.

However...if you are like me, and provided your child the best you possibly could, which did not include a stable and present father, or economic security, or the best resources that one could hope for with mental and learning issues, then your child's heart may be strong like bull and full of love, and their minds may be stable- for now- but they are more precarious, more vulnerable...to say, those gentle wing twitches in Paris.

One book on the teenage years allows that they are the years when you are as close to having the brain of a mentally ill person as you can be without actually being mentally ill. It is a period of great instability and growth within the brain, the emotional and analytical. Thought processes are jumbled and ridiculous, at times paranoid or depressive, swinging back and forth between happiness and confidence and acute restless bordering for horrible hours on despair. The joy of making out with music blaring and the sun on your body is met later that night with the certain horror that your breath stank and you will be ridiculed and alone for the rest of the year, and nothing that good will probably ever happen to you again.

So these delicate bulls, our teenagers who we love so deeply and passionately and who frustrate and scare us beyond belief, must have foundations. They must, or they will be wild and restless beyond control, and cause themselves and others great pain. You have no idea when you are young what it means to make choices whose consequences never go away.

And when my son heads to his friends house to hang out, meet up with girls, box with gloves in the backyard, I want to know that the parents in the house aren't turning up the music and turning their heads when one of the kids lights up a joint and says Hey, want some. It's cool, my parents don't care.

Fuck. That's what your teenager will think, because the one social constraint that enables him or her to say no and keep dignity and coolness intact has renounced their job. The parents are too cool. The butterfly flaps quietly. The joint is smoked.

As long as you keep your grades up, and aren't in trouble, it's fine once in a while.

As long as you don't drink and drive, it's fine.

As long as you promise to go to college and never use hard drugs, fine.

It's my goddamn son, and it's not fine. Did you know that alcoholism and addiction of all sorts runs like red blood cells through his veins? Did you know that mental illness runs in his family? Did you know that while some kids, some few, can hang and smoke and drink and that's it, many kids, like mine, will probably want more and more and harder because that's how good it feels, how easy it is, and how hard life is? Did you know that you have a moral obligation- forget the legalities- to ensure that the kids on your property are not doing anything that is proven to be detrimental to their futures, their bodies? Did you know that when you told your son OK and walked away, you told my son Your parents have just lost their last societal safe-guard against these kinds of traps? You are on your own.

They are teenagers. They aren't on their own yet. We have one chance fast slipping away to parent our children. If you choose to remove yourself from that obligation, please remove yourself from my teenager's life as well.

Or else I'll flap my wings of change in your direction, and it won't be from Paris.
Kym said...

Thank you! Well said! Coming from one who raised a teenage boy alone...he is now 21 and doing well because of my fight to raise him without a father!

rachel... said...

You're so right. It's not fine at all. My children are unlucky to have those vulnerabilities lurking in their genes, too, and I hope hope hope every day that the foundation I'm trying to build will be enough to keep those butterflies at bay.

Wonderful post, Maggie. As usual.

The Kitten and the Bear said...

I stand up and applaud you Maggie!
You are so right.

I work in a psych ward for teenagers, and a huge percentage develop life long mental illness because, among other things, they have been using drugs. Primarily marijuana.

People think marijuana isn't a big deal but it really is. Those kids are allergic to it, and because they have indulged in it while being genetically loaded for schizophrenia most of them will go on to develop some kind of psychotic disorder that will likely mean they will be marginalized in society.

I feel like printing this off and posting it to every parent in the world.

mosey said...

I haven't met the teenage years as a parent yet. But even now, in kindergarten, as she moves tentatively away from me to the influences of her friends (and their godawful Hannah Montana music) I can see the future through blurred glasses.

Thank you for the poignant reminder that *I* am the parent, from now until they are through their teens (and beyond).

Ellen said...

When my one daughter, my wild child was in middle school and high school I felt like I was the only parent actually parenting. I was the one that checked if parents were home and to talk to them...and I was the one who would say no. I was not popular with my daughter...it was a rough time and I was not a happy camper...lots of stress, frowning, yelling, crying,...but I was consistent. My Love and I had a lot of trouble as he was the pushover. Our daughter had him so hoodwinked. She did much that disappointed us, much that hurt all of us.

We did survive. She is a wonderful young woman, on her own at age 24, working as a photographer and quite good at this. She is still our wild child but responsible now. We get along wonderfully and tells us that she was hard on us then but is glad we were.

I don't understand parents who are too wimpy to parent. Who are afraid of their teen not liking them. I don't understand when their teen gets in to trouble and they can't figure it out. What did they do, and why?

It isn't easy to parent a teen. Yet staying loving and strong, supportive and forgiving, open and honest will endure for the future years. I know this to be true.

Claire Beynon said...

Maggie, the ferocity of your love shines like a beacon, and will do so for your children, even when there are crashing waves and dark clouds. You are right about all this; you are right. Wishing you strength. Warmly, Claire

于雅慧毓 said...

It takes all kinds to make a world.......................................................

Barrie said...

Parenting teens is not for sissies. I'm in the middle of it, and many days are not fun. Great post!

D S Gurung said...

Hay, that was a wonderful artical and have a lot of sense. Thank you very much for sharing with me,with us. Keep it up.
God Bless you

Beth said...

It’s tough but stay firm – the kids do appreciate it when they’re older. They’re going to try something, somewhere but need to have those boundaries ingrained.
Smacking those parents with your wings might also help.

jess said...

Beautifully written - I loved reading this, and as a mother of a teenager myself, I can absolutely relate.

Alesa Warcan said...

Doing the right thing is hard, being hard is unpopular, and yet sometimes being hard is the only right thing to do. It sounds like you're striving to be an excellent parent. Congratulations for belonging to an elite.

Brigindo said...

Well said. I love the phrase "delicate bulls." I'm much less thrilled with books that describe teenagers as close to mentally ill. Personally I think there is enough hatred and fear directed towards adolescents that we don't need to stigmatize them any further.

I think some people stop parenting their teens because it is such a delicate balance of nurturing independence and providing structure. I personally think parenting adolescents is the most difficult of the parenting stages. Hopefully you've learned from the earlier stages, but I think many haven't.

I also think that how society stigmatizes adolescents affects how parents react when they're kids reach that stage. We buy into the idea that they're going to be horrible or rebellious or deviant and lo and behold they are. I'm not denying that moving away, stretching your wings, experimenting, and engaging in risky behaviors is NOT a normal part of adolescence but rather that how we stigmatize adolescents as bad or scary affects how we interact with them when they do what is normal.

The Empress said...

You are dead on right. Every one needs to see this, no matter the age of their children. And every guidance office, too.

You cannot be a wimp in this business.

Excellent job.

Thank you.

Rachael said...

you have such a way with words, they resonate passion and power and movement. i totally agree with you, by the way. my motto lately is, if i am not watching my daughter and guiding her, someone else will step up and fill those shoes. and i don't want to blindly trust that it will be a good person who happens to choose those shoes. because chances are great that it won't. and so i watch her, and i guide her. and i tell her that when she is seeking advice, if she cannot turn to me, to turn to someone else. a grandparent, an aunt or even a trusted family friend. because, as i tell her, your friends have the same life experience as you...the adults around you have dealt with these very issues over and over again in their lives and are much better equipped to give an honest assessment. turn to them when you have a question... it is so, so hard to let them fly, isn't it?

redsneakz said...

It is doubly hard in an "unstable" place, a place where mom and dad are divorced, or are simply not talking to each other.

I cannot imagine what I'm going to be going through over the next few years with my tweens becoming teens, finding their own voices, and making their own crappy choices.

Thanks for the reminder. You're (as always) a bucket of cold, but rose-scented water.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Very wise words, Maggie.

Amy said...

Well said. I worked at a very priveledged private school in West LA and time and time again we saw kids getting into trouble (even death) because of parents who abdicated their parenthood to babysitters and housekeepers and the school and the culture and the other kids. It was pretty disgusting and made it so difficult for the other parents who were doing all they could to parent their children--cause teenagers are still children. They may look like adults and talk like adults but their brains are still developing and the decision making part of the brain is the last to be fully formed.

K Soucy said...

My two highschoolers tell me that kids routinely light up a joint before boarding the school bus for the ride home. The bus reeks and money is exchanged. I too fight the good fight, checking if parents are present despite the hatred in my eldest sons eyes as I do so. Hang in there Maggie I believe we are doing the right thing. Kids need and desire boundries even though they cannot articulate that to us.

Lauren Knight said...

Oh, I totally agree. I think my biggest fear is any of my kids getting mixed up in drugs and becoming addicted... and my kids are 2 years and 8 months old! But it is such a vulnerable thing to be a parent. Good job, stick to your guns. You can still be a "cool" parent and have rules.

Elizabeth said...

Awesome. I'm sending my boys over to you when the time comes, to flap their wings in your own backyard. I love you, Maggie May. And I wish for safe travels for those boys of yours.

Maggie May said...

Brigindo I agree that there is that stigma, and I had talked about that very think often with my aunt, who has raised two boys ahead of me. I was all prepared to meet Dakota's teenage years with hard work but not expecting at all for it to necessarily be volatile or 'scary'- but at times, it has been, because he is not 'a teenager' but Dakota himself, a person with his own problems and life circumstances that lead him to struggle harder in certain ways.

I think the idea of comparing a teens brain to a mentally ill person is dangerous after reading what you said, I can see how that puts them further away and makes them more 'strange' to the average adult. For me, reading that was actually comforting though, because understanding the actual brain development at his age helped to me relax and be much less fearful of certain behaviors or emotions he was having...I felt empowered because I knew his brain was developmentally doing XorY and so had a better idea how to guide.

Thank you for your comment!

Claire Marie said...

Great post. My parents raised me through my teen years saying that drinking and doing drugs wasn't at all OK, and I am so happy with the person I have become because of that. Kudos to you for being a strong parent!

deb said...

Amen to this , Maggie.
We are not or never or ever will be one of those houses.
It makes me crazy because there are so many of them.

I don't get it at all.

My two oldest are through to the other side, one almost. Two to go. Foundation, tough love, boundaries, and trust mixed in with a little spontaneous lurking.

Catherine said...

What stupid people - you have already said it all, and you're completely right.

I can see where the other parents are coming from: "Well, they're going to do it anyway, they ought to do it here." No. Wrong. They're teenagers, they don't know what they're doing, they don't know how much is too much, and you've just made it a-ok. It must be ok then. And it's not - not drink, and certainly not psychoactive drugs which are likely to interact with your sons growing, turbulent mind to no good effect. Arrrrgh - I hope you gave them hell Maggie.

Ms. Moon said...

I read this this morning and could not think of what I wanted to say but I think it is something like this- there are SO many factors which influence our children and this one is surely one that can lead to all sorts of trouble.
Maggie- stand strong. Parents should be parents and it's hard as hell to do the job without other parents out there who aren't.
This is a real good one, honey.

Evangeline said...

Great post Maggie. It takes cohones to be a good parent.

My sons are now 10, so how may years does that make before I have to deal with all this? *shakes in boots*

Still Life With Coffee said...

oh man... I am so worried about my kids' teenage years. We have the same sort of dangerous genetic cocktail going on in my biological tree.
A wonderful wonderful post... as always...as always.

swonderful said...

Yes, oh yes. I knew parents like this when I was a teenager.
It's so interesting, reading your journey as mother to a teen. I already worry and pray for us to all get through those years without major issues. So much bad and crazy stuff in my genes, and I am terrified of it surfacing in one of my babies.

Maggie May said...

Evangaline- the opportunities started at the end of 7th grade, for my son.

Caroline of Salsa Pie said...

I loved this post, Maggie. Some of the best words, from the heart, about prevention I have ever read. Your love and determination are so evident and you are NOT turning a blind eye (which some parents do) and that I really and truly believe will make all the difference in the world.

Brigindo said...

Maggie, I totally agree that understanding how the adolescent brain works is important and helpful. I was reacting to the negative images and language that I find used by both professionals and parents a like. I may be particularly sensitive to it because I worked in adolescent drug prevention for 17 years. I met a lot of people who worked with adolescents but didn't seem to like them. In fact they had a fair amount of disdain towards them and it bothered me.

Dakota has always sounded a lot like Angel to me. When Angel was little he was highly sensitive, emotional, and reactive. I expected a lot of moodiness and emotional changes when he became a teenager but instead I got the opposite. I don't think I've seen him cry since he turned 13 (and it was almost a daily occurrence before then). I asked him about it the summer before he went away to college and he told me all those emotions are still there but he's learned to keep them bottled up inside. This scared me far more than anything he did in adolescence (and he did the normal teenage stuff). I see him struggling with the ramifications of this suppression now that he's in his twenties and trying to make intimate connections with others.

The pain and fear of parenting never goes away.

pureklass said...

I just found your blog, but I love this. Thank you for writing this (and writing it well.)

Lacey said...

EXACTLY! Soooooo well said!

EmcogNEATO! said...

Redsneakz sent me over here.

Very well said.

Mwa said...

You are so right. My brother was indulged too much in his teenage years, and ten years on he's still struggling. Mental illness, addiction, depression. It's not "just" weed.

Julia Christie said...

VERY VERY POWERFUL! having teenagers can be the most painful thing a parent will ever go through. This post is incredible in its' directness, insightfulness, and brutal honesty regarding our societal OBLIGATION to nurture and protect, not just our own children, but any precious children, of any age, that we may be in contact with.

Well Said!

Smiles

~L said...

I agree with you Maggie May. Thank you for sharing and caring. I would be honored to have my 18 yr old son visit your secure household and responsible family. God bless you.
~L

Angie Muresan said...

I admire you, Maggie. You are steadfast and strong. I wish all mothers were more like you.

Bethany said...

Wow, you should submit this to a bunch of magazines. It's so well written and true and stuff that needs to be heard and said, but in such a fascinating, thought provoking, artistic way.
Wow again.

Damn those parents.

krista said...

hell to the yeah.
between what bryan and i both got into when we were young, finn's not going to get away with anything.
there is a vigilance we allow for our children when we just plain know better. some rules are non-negotiable.

Allana said...

I will definately be filing this away for future reading! You are an amazing mother and it is so refreshing in these days of apathy to read how much you care. No one else will ever care about our children the way we do (or should!) so it IS up to us.
Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou!

redsneakz said...

Doubly powerful, having read and cried over Henry. And not shrill at all.

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