Raising a Teenager

Reprinted from my blog on fiftyisthenewfifty.com

“Just wait,” my friend Tom Wilmer, who’s raised three daughters, said on the phone. “Just wait until she tells you to die.”

“Too late, Tom,” I said. “She’s already done it.”

It happened two months after my younger daughter had turned 16 (and just three months after I had taken her on a long business trip with me to French Canada).

I was divorced from her mother, and she didn’t want to have to stay with me and my girlfriend  anymore on weekends. And her fits of violent temper and foul language were driving me crazy.

On one particular Saturday, when she was at my girlfriend’s house, she wanted me to take her to a friend’s house to spend the rest of the weekend. And I was only too happy to do it.

As I pulled up to her friend’s house, she jumped out of the car, and as she was slamming the door, said to me, “I’ll see you at your funeral!” To this day, I still smile because I was lucky enough to say “You’re not invited!” before the door closed. (We both laugh about that incident now.)

This incident capped what had seemed to me a year-long spiral (for her) into a violent rage- machine, where she could be wonderfully happy one minute and a cursing maniac (at me) the next.

That incident was pretty much the last I saw of for a month or two. She was done coming to my girlfriend’s house on weekends. And I didn’t feel it was wise to speak with her for a while, because of her rage at me.

I decided to respect her rage. She was 16 now, and filled with surging hormones and deep anger. So I gave her the space I thought she needed … and gave myself the space I felt I needed from her.

I knew she had issues with me that had been simmering for years. Her mother and I got divorced when she was only six years old, and she had a lot of trouble understanding why her daddy wasn’t going to be living with her anymore. In fact, it still brings tears to my eyes when I think of a voice-mail she had left at my office a few weeks after we had told her and her older sister that Daddy was leaving.

“Now I understand, Daddy,” her little voice had said on the voice-mail. “You’re still my Daddy. You just won’t be living with me anymore. But you’re still my Daddy.”

A month or so after her remark about seeing me at my funeral, I began calling her, just to make light conversation for a few minutes. And after another month or so, I took her out to lunch. There were one or two tense moments, but it went OK. Then a month later, I took her out again. And in another month, I began seeing her every two weeks instead of every month.

Over the past six months, it’s been wonderful. We’ve gone to football games, basketball games, and out to dinner. In fact, she even sat next to me – right in front of her friends! – at one of her high school’s football games.

Now, we can talk for hours, non-stop … and it’s usually she who’s doing the talking. In fact, when I met up with her and my ex-wife for her older sister’s college graduation upstate, she wanted to drive home with me. So we spent the whole ride talking (mostly her), about pretty much everything under the sun…great college football teams, World War II, the Middle East, her school grades, problems with Iran, her sister, her mother, her boyfriend Dylan. It was, for me, truly wonderful. And I cherished every minute.

Is she totally over her rage? No. She’s still seventeen. In fact, when we had all gone out for lunch after the graduation ceremony, she had a bad fit of temper, first at her mother, and then at me for defending her mother. But things are certainly so much better.

On a drive we were taking a few months after the last rage-filled incident, she had told me about some problems she was having with obsessive behavior. One of the behaviors made me chuckle. A year ago, she would have blown into a full-scale rage, and called me every name in the book.

This time, however, she said very calmly, “I don’t think you should laugh at me when I’m telling you this about myself.”

And I told her she was right, and I apologized.

I’m hardly a model parent. But I have learned a few things about raising a teenager…

  1. Don’t feed into the rage. One of you has to remain calm. And it has to be you!
  2. Recognize the feelings. You don’t have to agree with them. But you do have to recognize them.
  3. And realize that a teenager is always right! There’s generally nothing you can do to convince them otherwise. And any attempt to do so is probably going to fall on deaf ears (as well as, possibly, a vile mouth!).
  4. Keep saying to yourself, “This may not be personal. It could just be about teenage angst or hormones.”

I wish I had learned these rules a bit earlier. But this is definitely one area where “late” is better than “never.”