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.