How to Raise a Teenager?, Part I

At the age of 22, I was left penniless after a bad divorce in a new country whose language I barely spoke. On the day that happened, my 16-year-old sister came to live with me. She had gone through the trauma of emigration 3 months before and was starting to go to a CEGEP (a Canadian pre-university college type program) where she was the youngest kid of all. She also had to study in a language she never had a chance to speak before. We were so poor that going to Tim Horton’s was the most extravagant, chic thing we could imagine. And it was also the best time ever in our lives.

I had to come up with ways of dealing with the typical teenage stuff pretty much overnight. I believe I did exceptionally well. Today, my sister, let’s call her Molly,  is 29. She is an entrepreneur, a brilliant businesswoman, a professional, a true intellectual, and a wonderful mother. I messed up quite a bit in the process of bringing her up but, overall, my results are really great. We are best friends today, which is significant, given that most people fail to maintain closeness with people they raised during the difficult teenage years.

So here are the principles of dealing with a teenager that I arrived at for myself:

1. The most important thing one can do when dealing with a teenager is uphold the three wise monkeys principle: I see nothing, I hear nothing, I say nothing. The poor kid is going through intense hormonal changes. She can’t help being in a vile mood most of the time. All one can do is breathe in and look the other way.

2. But what if she gets in trouble??? Yes, the teenager will get in trouble. That’s pretty much a given. S/he will either get involved with a bad crowd, or get drunk, or experiment with drugs, or get into debt, or stay out all night, or let the grades slip, or antagonize the teachers, or start dating some horrible person (or two, or three, or fifteen.) If everything goes the way it should, the teenager will do all of these things and, probably, all at the same time. This is a sure sign that, until now, your parenting has been really good.

Teenage years are the time of figuring things out, trying on different roles, and messing up. People who didn’t have all these experience during their adolescence will try to catch up later. And the later one lives through a teenage rebellion, the more painful and damaging it is. I’ve seen people who begin their teenage rebellion at the age of 40, and that is a sad sight to see.

3. But what if this teenage experimentation destroys her life??? When a person is 14+ years old, it is way too late to inculcate any foundational moral and ethical principles in them. This had to be done before. It is way too late to start lecturing a person at this age. Also, you need to remember that part of rebellion is doing precisely what the parental authorities specifically prohibit one from doing. Your kid needs to play at rejecting your way of being as a necessary step on the way of figuring out who they are.

I remember when I was 15-17, I rejected the experience of my bookish father by not reading. At all. Books and learning were an anathema to me. I would almost give my father heart attacks by loudly declaring, “Books are stooooopid!” Now, twenty years later, I’m a professor of literature. As we can see, this was simply a stage I had to go through to figure out if reading was something I needed outside of my father’s influence.

17 thoughts on “How to Raise a Teenager?, Part I”

  1. “People who didn’t have all these experience during their adolescence will try to catch up later. And the later one lives through a teenage rebellion, the more painful and damaging it is. I’ve seen people who begin their teenage rebellion at the age of 40, and that is a sad sight to see.”

    Could you elaborate on that ? Does that somehow tie into all these stories how people don’t want to grow up and stuff like that ?

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  2. Teenage rebellion, in my never be humble opinion, is something we have artificially created in our culture. We bemoan the fact that the kid is acting out, yet tell them (and anyone within earshot) that we expect teenagers to act out – to try and find their individuality by attaching to and imitating those around them. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Frankly, by the time the kid is in double digits, the parenting (teaching) aspect is over. From that point, you are a resource, a mentor. And if you’ve built a solid communication basis with your kid, they’ll be much more likely to come to for guidance. Of course, they may also feel competent enough to make their own decisions. Good teenage relationships are built on good foundations.

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  3. *The poor kid is going through intense hormonal changes. She can’t help being in a vile mood most of the time.*

    It is very individual. I don’t remember any vile moods or feeling “intense hormonal changes” and my mother also says I didn’t have teen years period and neither did she, but my brother did, according to her. Not all teens go through it, I guess.

    *But what if this teenage experimentation destroys her life???*

    Hugo Schwyzer wrote 2 not bad posts on it, which can be helpful to some worrying parents. Recommended, if you haven’t read them:

    http://hugoschwyzer.net/2009/02/09/one-mistake-will-not-ruin-your-life-thoughts-on-onesies-and-the-myth-of-female-frailty/

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    1. My in-laws were VERY concerned about their teenage daughter a few years back – (she was making some horrible choices) – I told them, death is the only thing she can’t recover from. Everything else is fixable, eventually. Sounds a little harsh, but it gave them some perspective. She was in no physical danger, she was only ‘wasting her life’, as they say. She got out of it, eventually, and has her life on track now.

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  4. Wanted to ask: surely, you too see the difference between 16, when one can get a driver’s license already, hardly a small child, and 12-13 or even 11? The word “teenager” is too wide: 11 year olds and 17 year olds aren’t the same. You got practically an adult person at 16, then it’s really too late and then in many cases the three wise monkeys principle is the best, but the post suits worse the earliest teenage years imo. Normal 11-14 years old don’t “experiment with drugs, or stay out all night”. What’s more interesting is how your parents raised your sister before 16 to get such good results. I don’t think at 16 teens can be that much changed for worse even with 0% attention. I hope you don’t get me wrong, it’s not against you, you overcame huge obstacles and have all rights to be proud, but I remember myself at 16 and nobody would be able to raise me at this age. I would like to hear RE your parents practices during childhood and early teenage years (<15), if possible. What did they do to raise your sister and you that well?

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    1. That’s a very good question. When I talk about teenagers, I refer to the age of intense hormonal changes that are very individual. In girls they normally (but not always) begin at around 14. In boys, later. For me, for example, it was 15-17. My sister, too. Other people get there later or earlier.

      Before my sister turned 16, I was very present in her upbringing, too. My parents had to work a lot to put food on the table. In the USSR, two highly educated hard-working people who only cared about their family had a very hard time feeding their 2 children, as you know. As I wrote in my previous post, Molly was my responsibility from a very early stage. I was the one to get her from daycare and later from school, feed her, change her, walk with her, play with her, read with her. I never went out with friends between the ages of 9 and 16 (more or less) because I was in charge of her.

      I will gladly blog, however, about what one needs to do as a parent to create such an unbreakable bond between siblings.

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  5. My parents let my siblings and I do whatever we wanted as teenagers. Now, I realize that this was pretty sneaky, as we rarely ended up wanting to do anything they disapproved of and thus they didn’t have to deal with rebellious teenagers.

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