“It’s just like when you’re pregnant,” says Lenore Kilmartin, the mother of five, including 14-year-old Liam. “People see that you’re expecting and seem to feel obligated to tell you horror stories about birth. Once you have kids, they will say, ‘Oh, just you wait’ and give you a horror story about teens.”
On the other hand, some parents will tell you that having teens in the home can enrich your life — sometimes in surprising ways. Linda Clement, the mother of two daughters (now 18 and 21) says: “They spend so much time trying to be cool that they bring lots of cool into your home. I learned about all the new music, the new styles in clothes, the best gaming systems and all the issues that were front and centre for young people.”
So are the teenage years the stuff of parental nightmares or a chance to move the parent-child relationship to new levels? Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, says that adolescence has the potential to be both, but it’s the negatives we tend to hear about. Read on for some positives.
• Teens won’t let us be hypocrites “Teens expect you to live up to your ideals. We can get defensive and fight back against that, or we can let ourselves be inspired by their idealism,” says Schonert-Reichl. “It keeps us on the straight and narrow.” For example, she once came home from a visit to a house worth tens of millions of dollars; when she described it to her 13-year-old son, he was unimpressed and said: “Think of all the people who could have been helped with that money.”
• Teens make us examine our beliefs “As part of discovering their own identities, they question everything — and that can lead to important discussions that make us think too,” says Schonert-Reichl.
• Teens bring a variety of gifts as they discover the wider world and branch into areas we might never have explored. Your teen may develop an interest in the War of 1812, training dogs, playing in a band, making stop-action videos featuring Lego characters, or any of a million other possibilities. This can be an opportunity for parents to discover something new as well.
And these gifts are sometimes surprising. Melissa Young admits her idea of interior decorating is “moving the clean laundry off the couch,” so seeing her 13-year-old daughter Heidi discovering a love of domestic tasks has been a revelation. “Heidi loves to cook, especially pies, cakes and cookies,” says Young. “She wove placemats for everyone in the family, and she sews, knits and does all kinds of traditional crafts — things I’ve never had time for.”
Any of these components can be part of discovering their interests and strengths, and Schonert-Reichl encourages parents to support their kids through this process by expressing appreciation for their contributions. “A lot of parents will, for example, hand over a new cellphone to their teen and say, ‘Can you program this?’” she says. “When we show appreciation for this kind of help — when we express admiration for their ability to master the intricacies of cell-phone programming, or thank them for recommending a new book – it goes a long way to encouraging them to continue trying new things.”
Of course, teens are not perfect. It can be more irritating than inspirational to have your 14-year-old daughter critique your wardrobe and make-up, especially because she’s likely to be less than tactful. “These years are kind of a dress rehearsal for adulthood,” says Kilmartin. “A lot of what comes out of their mouths isn’t quite right, and can sound rude or confrontational. They’re practising. That’s when we need to role model compassion, understanding and patience.”
My teens weren’t perfect either. But they were nowhere near as bad as I’d been led to fear. They introduced me to movies and TV shows I wouldn’t otherwise have seen, books I wouldn’t have read, music I definitely wouldn’t have listened to, and ideas that had never occurred to me. They turned out to be excellent map-readers and great travelling companions. And yes, they were particularly good at pointing out my flaws and mistakes. Parents of teens certainly never need to worry about becoming too conceited. That’s a gift, too.