As if the prospect of changing diapers around the clock and running after toddlers who learn about the world through their mouths isn’t frightening enough to a non-parent, watching teenagers and their parents struggling in this complex modern world has unequivocally convinced me that I have made the right choice not to have kids. I’ve been thinking about teenagers lately, probably because so many of my friends and relatives have them now, and because I therefore chat with them often and frequently have the occasion to hear parents lamenting the difficulties of raising them.
Each time I see teenagers of a relative or friend these days, I wonder what they have done with the child who looked an awful lot like them. Even after a small lapse of time between visits, I ask their parents:
“When did she grow breasts?” or “When did he become a baratone and start growing a mustache?”
Inevitably they answer something like:
“Oh, I don’t know. Recently I guess.” Do they change in their sleep, I wonder and what happened to the giggly kids who couldn’t wait to sit in my lap and show me their latest toy or accomplishment? Why do I suddenly rarely merit a hello from them unless prompted by their parents? How can their parents be so nonchalant about all the dramatic changes in their teenagers?
It’s Not Easy to be a Teen Today
My friend’s high-school aged daughter confessed to me recently that she estimates 70 percent of her classmates are dependent on some prescription drug. That figure was startling enough to me (she goes to a large public school with a very diverse population, in the suburbs of a major American city), but when she also added that the parents are often the ones demanding drugs for their children so that their teens can perform as well as their peers, that stunned me. Even when kids don’t have any identifiable reason for prescription drugs, parents are coercing doctors to prescribe attention enhancing drugs to their teens. Of course, kids are also choosing those drugs without their parents’ permission so that they can focus more on their studies and exams. Unfortunately, many don’t see the dangerous implications of doing so.
With drugs and binge drinking on the rise, never mind the staggering pressure teenagers have to excel at absolutely everything, how do they cope? I watch students hoping to go to college, struggle to get exceptional grades, to be highly proficient at least one language, one instrument and one sport. Additionally, they are expected to participate in an endless assortment of life-changing volunteer work both here and abroad before their 17th birthdays. Add to their pressure, the rise of mass school shootings, and an increase in teen bullying and suicide, predators on the internet, the pressure to have an inordinate amount of cyber “friends,” to communicate with them ceaselessly, to experiment sexually, and the ability to learn anything they want with a few finger strokes, how, exactly do they navigate? No wonder they are turning to synthetic drugs to force them to focus.
My friend told me about a river cruise they took abroad this summer with their two teenage daughters. Their high hopes for a relaxing vacation were dashed when an interesting young man that their daughters had befriended, with whom they spent ten days socializing, inexplicably decided, after a fun evening, to hang himself in his boat bathroom. His brothers discovered him. How do you explain that to your teenagers?
It’s Not Easy to be a Teen Parent Today
Recently, while dining with some teen moms, a debate arose about whether moms should monitor teen texting.
“Oh, you can’t look at his texts – he’ll never trust you if he finds out.” was followed by:
“But I need to know what’s going on with him. He doesn’t talk to me any more.”
I remain oddly silent. Who knows the right answer here. How could the I, the teen-less non-mom, possibly advise? Teenagers’ behavior is wildly unpredictable, unlike younger children who respond with somewhat more consistency. The helpful, cheeky advice I offer to new mothers (much to their surprise from a non-mom), is not relevant here. Though I spend a great deal of time with kids and teenagers, I’m at a loss here.
An acquaintance of mine recently confessed to me that he started experimenting with drugs as a teenager precisely because his parents were convinced that he was doing them (though he wasn’t). He was that angry about their distrust in him. Therein he embarked on a lifelong career with drugs. Are his parents to blame?
Raising teenagers is like a high stakes game of chess where, with one wrong move, your teenager may not speak to you for years, or worse.
My friend is visiting from the city. Before dinner the first night, her teenage daughter waits expectantly at the bottom of my stairs. Her mother appears. They lock eyes. The teen daughter looks her mother up and down and shakes her head dismissingly. My friend retreats to the bedroom to change her clothes.
“Really, no one cares what you wear here,” I offer, in defense of my friend, but she is still fixed on the stairs. Her mother appears again while the daughter shrugs her shoulders, and shakes her head in half submission. This was enough of an approval for my friend to descend the stairs.
“I’m hopelessly un-cool,” she laments to me over her first martini. ”I just want her to be happy, and she’s so easily embarrassed by me.” My friend knows I’m suspect of the approval ritual with her daughter though I’ve said nothing of it.
“If you are un-cool, then I must be on the outcast island of un-cool,” I offer hoping to boost her spirits.
“Oh, no, she thinks you are cool. You’re not a mother…you’re not her mother.” This surprises me for a number of reasons, but most of all, because being a non-mom somehow gets me cool credits. Interesting.
Teenagers in Las Vegas
On a trip to Las Vegas this fall I witnessed a never-ending stream of intoxicated teenagers, wandering the streets, clubs, and bars in next to nothing for clothes, high heels the young women could barely walk in, most sporting two foot beakers of alcoholic beverages (day and night). When did micro-minis come into fashion, I asked my friends, since I hadn’t witnessed them in my small rural town. Apparently, for a while now. Also I wondered: did their parents know where their teenagers were, what they were wearing, doing, and drinking?
On a plane ride to Las Vegas this fall I had the interesting destiny of sitting next to a reality “star.” My companions on the plane found it highly amusing that perhaps the only person on the plane who doesn’t watch television, let alone reality shows, had the good fortune of sitting next to an icon of the reality industry. This young man, hopelessly intoxicated on some substance, though just recently bragging on a national talk show of his recent success at rehab, struggled to speak, eat or make his way to the restroom. As I politely fed him my shrimp and held his soda while he continuously nodded of onto my shoulder, the flight attendant smiled at me sympathetically.
The flight attendant was using the drink cart to fend off crowds of teenagers hoping to get his autograph or to catch a glimpse of him. I kept thinking, how did this man become a celebrity? How can teens negotiate this increasingly complex world with role models like him? How did going on drinking sprees on national television make a person worthy of star treatment by so many teenagers? In the end, when he could communicate (and boy did he), I must admit, he was quite appreciative of my help, and the story he told of how he became famous was compelling, but, really what ever happened to Greg Brady?
Bravo, Teen Parents!
For those of you out their who have teens, you have my utmost sympathy and admiration if you have turned out well adjusted interesting teens in this crazy world. To those of you who don’t have children, get involved. Parents need your help, and teens need more positive role models, be they celebrities or childfree aunts, uncles, or adult friends. It’s a staggering world we live in, exponentially more complicated than the one we faced as teenagers. Teens tend to relate to, and reveal more candid information to non-parents, and when they are not juggling studies, sports, music, language lessons, and volunteer work, when they are sober and not texting frantically and actually sit down with you, they can be quite compelling.