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The A to Z's of Teenagers: K is for Know

Mothering a 21st century teen is not a job for the faint of heart. The path is rocky. The learning curve is steep. And every time you think you've got it down, you soon discover—or are summarily told by aforementioned 21st century teen—just how utterly clueless you are. I am in the midst of this mothering thing, knee-deep and slogging through like all of us. But, in addition to the private roller-coaster ride I’ve been on with my daughter, I also more broadly explored the mothering a teen thing when I researched and wrote (not to mention lived) a book on the subject (My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, A Daughter, a Journey Through the Thicket of Adolescence). However, this does not make me an expert, so it is with humility that I offer the following “10 Things I Know About Mothering a Teen.”

1. I know that she knows more than I think she does, sometimes astonishingly more than I think she does—both about those subjects I wish she didn’t (drugs, eating disorders, the messed up domestic lives of her friends’ parents) and the ones I’m glad she does (how to protect herself from online predators, sexually transmitted diseases). It’s important to recognize this, as it helps me be less patronizing and preachy and more conversational.

2. I know that any time I can honor her expertise, whatever it happens to be (applying eye makeup, throwing discus, baking brownies, trigonometry), is an opportunity to empower her and show that I respect who she is.

3. I know that to get a story, I tell a story. This is an old journalistic interviewing trick, but it works wonders at home. Instead of those “So, what happened at school today?” questions that elicit either monosyllabic responses or eye rolling or both, I tell a short (very short!), preferably funny or self-deprecating story about an experience I had that day to open the conversational door.

4. I know that there’s text and then there’s subtext—and that teens’ comments, observations and stories are often all subtext. So I’ve trained myself to listen for the real meaning lurking behind and underneath the innocuous (or, for that matter, objectionable) remark.

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5. I know that I must remember—or, oh boy, will I ever be reminded—that not every moment is a teaching moment. You know how it used to be, when your teen was a toddler or a youngster, and you’d see something or they’d do something or something would happen and boom, you were all over it because what a great time to talk about the environment/being kind to others/how older people can be wise! I don’t do that anymore.

6. I know that I must let her make small mistakes (spending her allowance unwisely, not handing in homework) but fiercely protect her from the life-altering ones (DUI, unprotected sex).

7. I know that I need to respect her space. This has been a particularly difficult one for me, as every time I pass by her room I want to grab all the wet towels from the floor, put the dirty laundry in the laundry basket and the clean clothes in the drawer (a revolutionary idea, eh?) and, you know, tidy up a bit. But guess what? This is not considered helpful. It is considered invasive.

8. I know that when she pushes back, talks back, is ornery or downright nasty, I need to remember something: If she were not completely secure in my love, she wouldn’t be acting this way. If she didn’t trust that I would be there for her no matter what, she wouldn’t be acting this way. It’s her deep sense of my unconditional love that gives her permission to be such a monumental pain in the butt.

9. I know that “this too shall pass.” The thunderclouds, after dumping monsoon rains on me, will scud across the sky, and the sun will reappear, and all will be glorious ... until the wind whips up and the temperature drops and it starts all over again.

10. I know that everything I appear to learn about how to mother a 21st century teen, I will have to relearn, again and again. Because these are some of life’s toughest lessons.

You have secrets, and so do we.

And now, a word from the teenage daughter:

I’m writing about what I think moms ought to know (or realize) about their teens. I want you to know that I didn’t look at my mom’s entry before I wrote mine. Actually, we never look at each other's until we’re both finished. But I’m mentioning that because, as we discovered, my #1 is pretty much the same as her #1. Except hers is written better. But then, that’s what she does.

1. Teens are much more mature than you think. You might still be thinking of them as your “little girl” or “little boy,” but they’ve been out in the world. They know more than they let on.

2. You don’t have to be perfect. We teens actually ENJOY when we see or hear about our mother making a mistake. That means you’re just as human as we are.

3. I know this is a tough one, but YOU WILL NEVER FULLY UNDERSTAND YOUR TEEN. Yes, you were a teen once yourself, but it’s a new generation and things are different. Your teen might even like to “teach” you about that.

4. You might consider BACKING OFF once in a while. We need and want the space to work out our own problems sometimes. It’s part of growing up.

5. Keep in mind that high school classes aren’t the only thing that might be stressing out your teen. Social life (good, bad and ugly—real and online) can really affect us, especially mood swings.

6. You have secrets and so do we. Please respect that!

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7. When your teen lashes out at you, it might not be you she’s really lashing out at. You just happen to be there.

8. Just because we say someone else’s parents are cool or we like spending time at someone else’s house, that doesn’t mean we don’t think you’re cool.

9. We heard you the first time. Because we didn’t do what you asked doesn’t mean we didn’t hear what you asked.

10. We love you, we hate you, we love you, we hate you, we love you, we hate you. But really we DO love you.

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