Teenagers are unpredictable, temperamental, impulsive, sexually confused, insecure, defiant, and exceedingly needy beings who require more patience than their two-year-old counterparts. Compile all these words into one and I would say, teenagers are tricky.
Being that I am on my third teenager, this stage should be easy. I should have all the answers; I should have this down pat, able to maneuver around the land mines that come with raising teenagers. But here's the first thing I have learned: no two children are alike and no two children can be raised exactly the same way.
My first two children were relatively easy teenagers. My oldest, a boy, was the easiest which was such a treat since he was the most difficult between the ages of about 5 to 13 (and also when he had colic as a newborn). I shudder at the memory of the tantrums and meltdowns he seemed to have on a daily basis due in part to his ADHD. There were times when I wondered if I would lose my sanity and there was always that fear that I would do something to hurt him in the process of trying to control his raging outbursts. But, I survived and so did he, both of us growing through the process and gaining a better understanding of his needs. My second child, a daughter, was, and still is, a people pleaser. Although she was hypersensitive as a baby, never allowing me to put her down, and had her share of meltdowns, she tended to listen and follow rules making it easy to impart my husband's and my wisdom and expectations without resistance. As a teenager, her struggles were more with friends and school than with her parents. So, when the third child became a teenager, my husband and I were ill-prepared for what we would encounter and endure (and we are not done yet).
My third child was an amazingly easy baby. She rarely cried except if she was hungry or her diaper needed changing. My husband would often comment that if he didn't know better, he wouldn't know there was a baby in the house. I would tote my little bundle everywhere, even to school when I would volunteer, and she would sit happily in the stroller and almost never make a peep. I was so thrilled to have finally gotten my easy baby. But through the years, she became more difficult. Like my son, I considered her a strong-willed child who pushed the boundaries we had placed around her. But nothing could have prepared us for the teenage years.
When my third child was in fourth grade, she complained of being bullied by another girl. The school didn't seem to do anything about it, even after a number of other parents complained that their children were also being bullied by the same girl. I made a decision to take her out of that school and have her start a new school at the beginning of fifth grade. Little did I know that there was another bully, a boy, at this new school who quickly latched on to my daughter. At first, my daughter didn't say anything about it but by sixth grade, it was taking a toll on her. Eventually, this boy bully and some of his friends messaged her on Instagram (she didn't have a phone and I had no idea they could message on Instagram through their iPods). The boys encouraged her to kill herself, backing her into a "virtual" corner. Of course, there are two ways you can endure being abused: you can take it until you're trampled to death, or you can fight back which is exactly what my daughter did. The fighting back only bit her in the ass and got her and the boys in trouble (which in retrospect I wish I would have fought). This bullying along with sexual abuse at the hands of a trusted friend changed my charismatic, sweet, funny, and talented daughter into a shell of a girl who, as a teen, struggles to get through every day without giving up. Because she was unable to control what happened to her in middle school, she is resistant to rules, authority figures, boundaries to keep her safe, and anything that takes the control away from her. My husband and I were not prepared to deal with such adverse behavior creating even more friction and mayhem at home. It lead to my daughter being hospitalized four times, attending partial hospitalization and out-patient programs, getting treatment from therapists and psychiatrists, doing neurofeedback therapy, and spending 37 days in a residential facility all in the hopes of getting her stabilized. When none of our attempts to help her worked, my husband and I needed to re-evaluate how we were going to raise her.
As I've indicated, and as some of you already know, raising teens is difficult. But when you have a teen who has suffered severe trauma and struggles with incapacitating depression, there are so many added layers to pierce, to rip through to get to the person it's protecting. Each layer has been built, from pain, like a thick scar after an injury. And like a physical injury, it never heals back to its original, unblemished skin. The scar not only protects but also reminds the recipient of how it got there, allowing the recipient to relive the pain and trauma over and over again. Even the best plastic surgeons can never make a scar completely disappear and so the recipient must live with the reminder for the rest of his or her life. The brain is no different from the physical scar on one's skin and yet, for those who don't live within the head of the hurt, they often expect that the trauma will eventually vanish and the brain will be back to its former self. But we know that is not true, unfortunately. Those who suffer a trauma live with that for the rest of their lives so it's not a matter of erasing it, it's a matter of living with it. My husband and I learned this the hard way.
1. Throw all the previous rules out the window. What worked for your other children won't usually work for this one. Yes, you must have boundaries, but you also must be flexible to move those boundaries if necessary.
2. Trust will be hard to build. It will be broken over and over again, but never give up.
3. Don't be shocked or exasperated or reactive to their poor decisions. They will make more mistakes than the average teen. You must learn to let things roll off of you or you will make the problem worse than it was to begin with.
4. If you invade their privacy, don't let them know by taking action for what you have found. You will lose their trust which is incredibly important and they will only do more of what you have just forbidden them to do. If you find something concerning, try to figure out why they would be doing this and see if you can redirect the behavior through open communication and understanding.
5. Don't expect them to be excited about something just because you are, and don't be disappointed that they aren't excited. Showing them that you are disappointed that they are not feeling the way you are, only shows them how depressed they are. But when they are excited about something, make a note of it and enjoy the moment.
6. Don't give them advice if they don't ask for it. If they come to you about a problem (consider yourself lucky, first of all), repeat back what they told you and empathize with them. Often, they don't want your help, they just want you to understand how they are feeling and why.
7. Take care of yourself and your marriage. Having a troubled teen can put a big strain on you and your relationships. Get therapy to help put things in perspective. I recommend both individual and couples therapy to nurture both you and your relationship. Often, parents aren't on the same page when it comes to how to handle their teen so having a neutral party to help sort through both of your concerns is greatly beneficial. As parents, being on the same page, together or divorced, will create a more supportive and stable environment for your child.
8. Expect the unexpected at all times. Don't let your guard down when things are going well because they rarely stay that way for too long. I always refer to it as the "shoe drop" which happens when we least expect it. If you are always ready for that "shoe drop" you won't be as disappointed or underprepared.
9. Celebrate the good times! There will be some good times between the tough stuff that cannot be ignored. Take your child in a warm embrace and relish this victory when they have found the sun shining through a dark cloud.
10. Don't let your friends make you feel like a failed parent. It will seem like your friends have the perfect children when compared to your own. It's only natural to compare, but when you have a child who suffers from depression or other mental health issues, you can't compare nor should you. Focus on your's and your child's journey through this unpredictable maze. Your child will grow and mature and work their way out of the maze, but until then their journey might be more complicated with more turns and dead ends. Just know that they will get to the end and when they do, you and your child will be stronger and more resilient than many who were given a straight line to the end of the maze. We all learn from our experiences. Those who encounter more of the tough stuff tend to get along better in life than those who don't.
I hope this helps those who need it. You're not alone, believe me. Depression in teens is on the rise. According to mhanational.com, almost 20 percent of teens ages 12-17 suffer from depression. In addition, 60 percent of those teens don't receive any mental health treatment. 20 percent might not seem like a large amount but if you were buying something and you got 20 percent off, you would think that was a great deal. 20 percent means we're close to a quarter of teens, 1 in 4. Again, you and your teen are not alone. Don't be the 60 percent who don't get help, don't make the mistakes that I had to make to learn the above lessons. Be proactive and make the appropriate choice that will help both you and your teen. They are not terrible teens--just teens who need a little extra help along their journey to adulthood.