Monday, March 5, 2007

Each Teen is Unique

Thank you to Rob for a thoughtful post about raising a teen-aged boy. He says he doesn't recognize the teens described in the other blogs in this Zine, because he had a boy and the rest of us are describing our experiences largely with girls. However, one thing I have found in working with teens is that they are all unique, each with their own set of issues and challenges. Our girls never went through much of the normal teen-aged angst-- somehow we managed to avoid the teen rebellion and the peer pressure and the other teen-aged traumas. However, I remember my own teen-aged years well. When I was a sophomore in high school I had something happen to me that entirely changed my life. My parents and I moved from a small town in Indiana to North Dallas.

I was the only one still at home with my parents by that time, my older sisters having moved out on their own. I was quite a bit younger than them so I was always more like an only child than a younger sibling anyway. I had lived in this small town in Indiana since I was 10 months old. The kids that I went to high school with were the same kids I had sat beside in grade school. I attended the same schools my sisters attended, and the same high school from which my mother and sisters graduated. I had grown up knowing that I would also graduate from this high school. I had grown up knowing that I would attend and graduate from the same university as my parents and sisters.

Then my dad took a job in North Dallas and my world somersaulted. In the middle of my sophomore year I moved with my parents to Texas. I went from a small town to a metroplex. I went from trees to scrub pine. I went from knowing every single student in school to not knowing anybody anywhere. I went from a town where everyone knew me, my sisters and parents to a place where nobody knew any of us. To say that it was difficult was an understatement. A major understatement.

I had grown up wearing clothes my mother made for me, or clothes handed down by my sisters. There was nothing wrong with that in Indiana, all the girls' mothers sewed their clothes, and often traded patterns. When I outgrew my clothes, they would be handed down to someone in a grade beneath me. Now, suddenly, I lived in North Dallas where everyone wore designer clothes. Suddenly my homemade outfits, which were the height of fashion at my school in Indiana, were shabby and embarrassing.

My hair wasn't styled, I talked funny, I didn't have a car (in North Texas, having a car is a rite of passage for teens.) We studied different subjects, different textbooks, even a different school year-- in Indiana we had the old fashioned semester system whereas in Texas we were on the quarter system. I didn't make friends. Kids made fun of me. I went home from school every day and cried. I wanted nothing more than to go back to Indiana, back with my friends, back where I had always thought I would grow up.

On my first day of school I was assigned a student to show me around. I clung to her desperately- I didn't really like her but she was all I had. Then one day she gave me a letter in which she basically told me to stay away from her, that she was embarassed by my clothes, by the way I looked, by the way I talked. She gave me this letter the day before the band, of which I was a member, was scheduled to go to a local amusement park for a competition. I showed the letter to my mother, again crying, and she offered to let me stay home from school.

Oh how I wanted to take her up on that, but I didn't. I grabbed the thickest book I could find, went to the amusement park, and when we arrived, I set off for a quiet place where I could read undisturbed. While the other teens rode the rides, played the games and had fun, I sat at a picnic table and read, coming out only to play my trombone during the competition. (I couldn't even play the right instrument. Girls didn't play trombones in North Dallas. They didn't play them in Indiana either, but it was a small school and there, nobody cared that I played a brass instrument. They knew my dad had played trombone when he was in school and it made sense that I would do so. In Dallas nobody knew or cared what my dad had played. They just knew that girls didn't play trombone. They played flute or clarinet, but never a low brass instrument.)
In some ways the move to Dallas brought me and my mother closer. She was going through something similar to what I was going through so we became each other's support system. I knew when I came home from school that no matter how bad a day I'd had, my mom and I could take my dog for a walk and laugh about the silly way things were in Texas and talk about how much we wanted to go home. I avoided a lot of the teen aged angst with my own parents because we couldn't fight each other. We were, in many ways, all each of us had.

I've never been good at keeping a diary, but I did burn the memory of those feelings into the hard drive of my memory. With my own daughters, I sought to keep their life as stable as possible. Once they got into junior high school, my husband and I made a decision that we would not move anywhere till they were both out of the house. We did not want them to go through the same disruption I had gone through. When my older daughter had problems with friends at school, my husband and I sought to make our home as emotionally safe as possible for her.

Do I blame my parents for uprooting me in high school? Of course not. I had a terrible year before I found other geek kids who shared my interest in Star Trek and Science Fiction. I never did really feel as though I belonged in my new high school; I consider my high school to be the one in Indiana even though I only attended there one semester. Nevertheless, those were the kids I grew up with and that was the school I always thought I would graduate from. But if we hadn't moved to Texas, I would never have met my husband and would not have the life I have now.

I was fortunate enough when I was in high school that my mom was able to share what I was going through. She gave me understanding at a time when I desperately needed it. She didn't prod me to go out and make friends, she didn't tell me that if only I were more friendly I wouldn't have so many problems. She understood that I needed time to adjust, and she gave me that time.

My husband and I have both maintained an empathy for what our children are going through as they grow. We've tried to be understanding of their moods and stages-- I won't say we've always succeeded, but for the most part we've been able to see things from their point of view before we've said something we might regret later.

I have found that empathy can help deal with a lot of the trauma of raising a teen. It's a terrible time for kids-- their hormones are raging, their faces are breaking out, their bodies are doing strange things. They've got peer pressure screaming at them on one side, and the demands of their parents' expectations screaming at them from another. They are desperately trying to carve out their own identity while at the same time trying to belong.

So when you find yourself at a loss as to what to do with your teen, just stop whatever you are doing. Put yourself in your teen's shoes. Feel what your teen is feeling. Reach back to when you were a teenager and remember how dreadfully important EVERYTHING was. Remember when the world revolved around YOU. Then listen to your teen. If she isn't talking, listen to what she is NOT saying. It's there. Trust me-- with everything your teen does, she is saying something to you. Remember your feelings from that time and then, instead of fighting your teen or thinking of her as this total stranger, see her for the vulnerable child she is. And remember, you too were once a teen. No matter what else, the two of you have that much in common.

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