Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Family With Teenagers

Parenting teenagers has completely altered my perception of us as a family. Before Dakota hit 14, we were the parents of three children who were joyful, easy to discipline, whose idea of a great time was Friday Night Family Night jumping on the master bed and playing cards while eating pizza, children who came to us with their problems easily and trusted our answers, children who were polite, respectful, well behaved in public!, openly loving, children whose natural creativity and innocence seemed remarkably intact in a stressful world of high competition, children who adored their family unit and our togetherness in a way that felt uncommon in our suburban neighborhoods. Mr. Curry and I were extremely proud. Perhaps a bit smug- but who could blame us? We damn earned it- both coming from dysfunctional households and abusive situations, both of us damaged and dinged, both of us working our asses of to parent these children beyond our scope and to push ourselves to meet their needs even when we did not know if we had the internal resources- somehow, we always found them, and solutions, and joy- and that was- is- something to be proud of. Pictures from those years show the kids hugging, running, laughing, playing with our dogs, wrestling with Ed, arms wrapped around each other with grins the size of Texas.
Then there was last Christmas. When we attempted our family photo. This time, Dakota was 15, Ian 13, and Lola 7. The very title of the post signals a serious fork in the road: There Are Some Things You Only Laugh About Later. ( it's still not later enough if you know what I mean...)
Our family had it's bubble popped. All the outside forces that we had kept from our internal, intimate world had invaded the boys, and they were changing. Middle school had absolutely wrecked Dakota. I don't think he would disagree. He was in private school until fifth grade. His sixth grade year was god awful. I wept often for my sweet boy, who was rapidly becoming jaded, angry at adults, full of false bravado ( to keep his chin up against the bullies who we spent that entire year dealing with in the Principal's office, after Dakota was jumped by three boys and then SUSPENDED for punching the leader back- don't get me started, I'm turning red as I type..) and insecure. School and grades became a completely insignificant part of his life as he was completely focused on getting through each day without getting in a fight, being humiliated or feeling like a social failure. And it's important to note that Dakota had never, ever had social problems before this- he was a very gregarious, popular kid who always had plenty of friends, who knew how to approach kids he didn't even know and strike up a conversation and end up hanging out.
Ian was struggling too, still pulling in straight A's, but finding the later years of elementary school almost as hard as Dakota found middle school. Ian is brilliant, wears glasses, and isn't a kid who cares about having a style or making sure his hair is cool. There was bullying, and then Ian turned to being a bully, and his jokes began to have a hard, mean edge to them. The defense and protective posturing was so high and so poignant in both Ian and Dakota that I felt almost feverish- how to protect these boys? What was happening? What could Mr. Curry and I do? Why was the school system such a colossal failure in preventing or helping us deal with these issues?
I will never forget when Dakota accused me of ruining his life. Why, I asked, terrified to hear the answer. What did I do? You set me up to think of the world as a good place, Mom, he answered. You put me in private school for all those years where kids act completely different, and the teachers all listen to you and care about you, and you guys ( Mr. Curry and I ) were always so calm and never spanked and freaked out on us. The real world isn't like that Mom. The teachers don't give a shit about the kids. The kids don't talk things out, they fight. You told me how to handle problems in a way that no one else uses. You made me a wuss, Mom.
My heart broke then in a way that still aches on the fault-line.
I look at blogs where all the children are 13 or younger, and I remember so vividly, so gratefully, when our worst problems were the occasional sibling beat down between the boys, teasing that went too far with Lola or refusal to recite those spelling words one more time. When middle school and high school with the intense scholastic pressure, drug and alcohol availability and pressures, physical fighting and interaction with burnt out adults did not begin to make life hard in a way that I'm glad I had not forseen. It was all the fault lines of our family and our past that were pressurized, that opened, that cracked underneath our boy's feet, and ours.
We had circumstances that set the boys up for worsening problems at this age: the boys, although they've known each other as best friends since Ian's birth, are not biological brothers, and both come from 'broken homes'. Both were born to extremely young parents ( I was 20 and alone when I had Dakota ) who had childhoods that in no way, shape or form set them up to be successful parents. Both were born to parents with emotional problems, although Mr. Curry and I had tackled them head on, with all resources we could scrounge. Both were born into poor families. These things were circumvented throughout their childhood's by the sheer force of our love and our willingness to get and use therapy for healing, and our dedication to providing a stable and loving home life focused on a close family unit, but in the teenage years the weight of their angry stomping at the shock of teen culture and stress broke the lines. It was no longer enough that Mr. Curry and I were loving, supportive, solution based, and spent all our free time with the kids.
Teenage years are incredibly hard, with the enormous brain changes, the intense and before unrivaled pressures to succeed higher faster better at school, the 'training' to be scholastically focused and successful from a young age, the culture of pill popping and pot smoking ( especially here in California ) the sexual activity that keeps setting back the starting line younger and younger, and the constant reminders to be 'well rounded' and ' goal oriented ' and have plenty of outside hobbies and interests, as well as the final blow of overcrowded and under-functioning public schools where emotional intelligence and guidelines are practically non-existent. It's Lord of the Flies on the middle school lunch grounds.
So what to do? We began with emotional, panicky fumbling and are the more stabalized thick of it now, with some resources and tools we have begun to master, and many more, I'm sure, that we will utilize in the coming years. Books, therapists, programs, banging down doors at the school- these are all common experiences for parents of teens now a days, for a wide variety of problems and conflicts. The glut of books out there on how to help your struggling teenager is a hard reminder of how intensely our society is struggling to figure this out.
Humbling yourself is the first step. It was very hard to admit, at first, that what we were doing was not working. At. all. After all, we had it all figured out before, survey says. We were batting high and the kids were thriving. To go from a noisy household with happy children to sulking teens punching holes in the wall was completely shocking.
And now? We are adding a newborn. But I think we are up to the challenge.
Batter up!
Hannah Stephenson said...

I respect your honesty so much--it's very interesting to read this. I know and hope things will settle as they should.

Ms. Moon said...

Maggie- the stories I could tell of teenaged years.
You're doing all you can. Everything is going to work out. I promise you. I've said it before and I'll keep saying it- it's all going to work out.

Maggie May said...

I believe you Ms. Moon. (most days :)

Thanks Hannah, settling is a bit of what we feel round here this last month.

Allison the Meep said...

This post encapsulates my greatest fear for Julian. Well, not really fear. I don't exactly know the word I'd use, because I'm not often fearful. But what I'd most like to protect him from. I wish I could make him fall asleep for his teenage years, and wake up as a fully grown man who is smart and well rounded and socially adapted. But we all have to go through those shitty teen years, and it seems like boys have so much to contend with. Boys have violence and the macho bullshit to deal with, and it breaks my heart to think of what they must go through.

But from what I read about your boys, they seem like really great people, even with their struggles. They will eventually grow to be the kind of people that other people look up to and tell their sons, "Now son, see how together this guy is?"

* said...

You can do it, listening, being an open hearted and minded parent and giving your all.

I'm taking notes, observing my friends with children older than myself, they are my sounding boards, my shamans, my dear hearts.

I take my childrens' hands in mine today and wonder at them, how they will still hold my hand some distant day as adults. Will they want to? I would give anything that they would.

Jason, as himself said...

You are absolutely right. It is one of the hardest things that a parent has to do--those teen years.

With my oldest daughter I thought I was going to lose my mind, seriously. It was hell on Earth. It was very, very bad.

All you can do it do your best and hang in there. Ugh.

Elizabeth said...

I already see some changes in my oldest boy and feel nervous when I read your words about what is or might be coming. I hope things smooth out for you and yours and believe that they will, they must -- but I know, too, how little control we have in the universe --

SJ said... funny to think sometimes that I am so far from this stage. Still, I wonder if I will have the babies. Much less the teenagers....I just hope I have what it takes when and if my time comes.

Annie said...

Hi Maggie,
I'm sure it helps to get it all on the page, and to put things in perspective. You can be proud of those early successes, the love and stability you gave your children, and the stability you are working to give them now. Times are rough for them during these years, but I believe it will serve them well in the future to know it is possible to negotiate and settle differences without fighting, and to have fun in the simplest of ways. Right now Dakota is naturally egocentric, like most teens, and he blames you for not preparing him for the real world, but as he gets older, he will begin to understand that in part, the real world is what you make of it, and that we do have the ability to make positive choices. Middle school was a shock to me, too, moving from Catholic school to public school. In so many ways, it's rough for all of us; but we do get past it, and eventually, so will they. And, you know what? -The world is a good place, so long as there are people in it like you.

mosey (kim) said...

I flinch when I think of the teenage years. You write about it unflinchingly and for that I say thank you. I do hope the cliche holds true - "this too shall pass". sigh....

Ellen said...

Maggie...your venting/sharing does help you. It was so well put your talking about the younger years when all is happy, picture perfect as I call it...then for some teens their whole world becomes off-kilt. Large school, lax parents of many teens and you have a bubbling pot of trouble. Stand your ground and never expect less..with love, consistancy and your husband side by side you will get through.
My Ryan (14) is head down doing school...certainly is getting and eye and ear full but trying to just blend in or I believe be invisible as much as possible. He spoke of all the cheating going on which bugged me. I try to let him know that High school is NOT the real is it's OWN world of non-reality. Keep the goal outside of High School, try to ignore the movie and TV version of life as well....

Shana said...

My kids are now ages 23, 22, 17.5 and (almost) 12 years old. So I know of what you speak. I'm just here to tell you that you can come out on the other side of this. Eventually. xox

kelly louise said...

I am a brand spanking new parent, but I was a teen not all that long ago. From that perspective, I can tell you that you have already done all of the hard work. You have raised an amazing young man. It is his choice now. The one on the way is who really needs you most.

You are so inspiring I really enjoy your writing.

Anonymous said...

My experience with teens is that they seem to change, they get angry, they try on different perspectives of the world and different views of their parents. But most of them, when they get through to their adult lives, they right themselves, like a boat that's been listing and sail on. You see their true selves again. Don't buy what is said about misleading him- there is a lot of the world out there that is good and he will have to find it- it's not necessarily going to come to him! xo

Julia said...

You weren't wrong to raise him the way you did: how else would he know what can be, ought to be, wants to be?

It's hard when the world forces you to choose between good, healthy ways of coping and brute survival strategies. There are several things I hope for Dakota:

1. That he knows that it's not *the whole world* that's like his school. It's this school, in this place, at this time. There are a LOT of people who talk out problems -- they just aren't where he is right now.

2. That he knows that you and Mr. Curry could teach a graduate-level course in what it mean to be survivors. You went through your own hells and *what caused you to survive* was the realization that violence and addiction and hard hearts and selfishness was NOT what you wanted for your life.

3. That he grasps that the people who betrayed his trust are the adults at school who should have kept him safe.

4. That he holds on tightly to how much he hates the behavior he sees at school, because hating it can help him be someone better than those people want him to be.

5. That he understands that so much of this is about control. He can't control the school, or the adults there, or the bullies. But he can control how he chooses to cope, and what kind of person he wants to be. And the degree of control he has over his world will grow as he grows older.

I'm sending you many, many hugs. You've given Dakota a great gift in giving him the knowledge of how life *should* be. I think the teen years are like getting those seeds of love to grow through the cement of the surrounding world.

Petit fleur said...

Batter UP indeed!

Yes. I think the especially smart teens see the big picture contradictions in our culture. That when we say something is wrong, what we really mean is if you are poor or if you get caught it's wrong... otherwise it's sort of revered. Just look at the damn stock market, behavior of world leaders, the middle East, housing market, health care, insurance... It's easy to see there is more than one set of rules, and that sucks.

Your children have a great foundation and had many years of "life working" the way it was meant to, so they have frame of reference for what it feels like. This is the best any of us can do.

Hang in there maggie

Bee said...

I've been reading The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire's memoirs, and there is something that I found there of EXTREME comfort. There were six girls in DD's family, and in later years DD's mother told her that each of her daughters had gone through a 2-3 year period of misery, discomfort and dissatisfaction which had "poisoned the atmosphere of the family." In this anecdote, DD is appalled that her mother suffered through 15 years of teenaged angst and grief . . . but the universality of it was a comfort to ME. Adolescence has always been hard, and parents (and their teachings) have ALWAYS been rejected. Good parenting will pay off in the end. You must cling to that comfort. xx

Marion said...

Maggie, you are such a wise mother, I know you will all survive this stage, too.

I have a 14 year old grandson and I've seen what you so aptly describe in his life. His best friend since birth 'dropped' him last year because he's not a jock and the friend is. Then he grew 8 inches in one summer (like me, he's tall) and became shy, gawky and withdrawn. Thankfully, he's doing better, but my heart just bleeds for him. Oh, how those early teen years hurt. I still remember the alien-ness of it all. Hang in there, lady. You're doing a great job. Blessings!

Phoenix said...

I don't think you could pay me enough money to go back to being a teenager. I barely made it out.

I would like to point out that my family (in particular, my father) raised me to believe in a world that was uncaring, cruel, unfair, and merciless. It took me a lot longer to realize that the opposite was true then I think it will take Dakota to realize that what you and Mr. Curry presented to him actually is reality and high school is a tiny little bubble that explodes when college comes and the world is set back to normal.

High school is hell. Dakota should know that's not what the rest of life is like. (Tell him to check out the "It Gets Better" project. It's primarily for gay teens who are being bullied, but it addresses everyone who knows what hell high school is - and how life gets TONS better after high school.)

Sarcastic Bastard said...

You will make it, Maggie. You have gumption and grit and I love you.


Chaos and love said...

My stomach is futtering with butterflies. What struck me Maggie was how *relieved* Dakota must feel (even if he was not aware at that moment) to be able to come to you, as his mother and be honest with you. That to me is an example of bravo.

AmandaJo said...

Maggie, no matter what I'm doing or what kind of a mood I'm in, I know that when I come to your blog I'm going to be made to sit down and look something right in the face.

I was the teenager Dakota is now. If it's any consolation, I really came around to see my mom clearly after a few years. We became good friends. I just had to find my footing, start feeling secure in myself...

You can give your kids the world, build everything safely and paint it all the most beautiful colors, colors you have on your pallet because you've lived and learned and found them to be bright and true, but someday the kids have to step out of that place and into their own.

He'll find his feet. You and Mr. Curry are good parents - it's obvious that you are. And that's the strongest weapon a kid can have in his corner.

Anonymous said...

Sulky teens bring a certain quality to life that, well, it's good in a very bad way.

Babies..ack...I couldn't (didn't) do the baby thing, but you seem more than ready, again. ~Mary

anymommy said...

You are absolutely up to the challenge. Please tell me you'll still be around in eight years when we hit the teen years? I'll need you.

37paddington said...

You know, Maggie, those early happy years bode really well for where this journey will take your teens. You're all in the thick of hormones and poor impulse control now, but that grounding is there underneath it all, a gift. all your boys need are a few more birthdays so that frontal lobe wiring can secure itself. and then you'll see that all those happy years laughing together on the master bed were the truth of it.

but seriously, i do think our schools are failing our children, especially our boys. as you said, lord of the flies. no tenderness allowed.

you write with such clarity and piercing insight.

Bethany said...

Wow, that whole thing Dakota explained to you is so heartbreaking. Just that he could articulate it is amazing and a testimony to his brilliance, but so so sad that he had to enter the world in that way with such shock. All those other things he learned/felt in what I'm sure felt like his cocoon, will help him, are helping him, even though he can't see it. What an eye opener though, to see this through your one family, how amazinly difficultit is for boys to become men. I see all the books come through the library, but to read it here, in your honest clear voice really hit home.
Gosh you work so hard to parent. I'm in awe.
I read your other post too, about the Christmas picture and the dog brushing, oh man....
You are one of the bravest, coolest people I know.

24 Corners said...

I also left private school after fifth grade and things changed for me too. It was quite an eye opener. My school was very small and I had been there since kindergarten...I still have very fond memories.'s good to know there is good in the world otherwise, if bad is all you think there is, there won't be anything to strive for and you'll be just like them, who by the way, need good people around like you to help them get out of their personal hell so they don't have to live like that any more. To bad they're just so darn mean...makes it difficult to want to help them, or even know how but hang in are loved and you are good!

xo J~

Caroline said...

I read this yesterday and didn't have time to comment. I just kept thinking after I read this what a wonderful mom you are. You LOVE your children so much.

Zip n Tizzy said...

We're in the sweet tender phase, but already dealing with schoolyard bullies... (so hard to raise sensitive, but "different" boys.)

I think you two have been AMAZING, and I think your kids will grow up to think so too, once they get through this painful and difficult stage in their lives.

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