How do you describe an alien?

When I first became a mother, I was given a piece of parenting advice from our pediatrician that I lived by; it was simply, “Catch ’em being good.” In other words, be on the constant look out for places to praise my child. I could communicate my expectations and reinforce good behavior by drawing attention to it, and in turn my child would behave well through the positive reinforcement. For the most part, it worked well,  and we were able to save the “time-outs” for the times they were really necessary.

Then came the teen years…

Recently, I munched chips and veggies with a group of parents of teens. We compared notes on teen dramas. We vented frustrations. We exchanged discipline ideas. Though not expressly, I think we all agreed that our teens seem to have been consumed by aliens leaving behind people we don’t always recognize. Gone are our agreeable girls and boys, once free with public displays of affection and desires to please. Today, the bedrooms we furnished seem occupied by strangers plugged into iPods, cell phones and laptops, many rebelling against longstanding house rules and expectations.  Collectively, we confessed our longings for the days past when we picked out our children’s clothing, we stood tall upon pedestals, and it was easy to catch ’em being good. 

As a discussion point, we generated a list of adjectives that often describe teens.  Descriptors such as: emotional, unpredictable, and impulsive were blurted out. We continued: curious, questioning, and creative. There was also: selfish, moody, argumentative, self-absorbed, sneaky, manipulative, rebellious and so on. Negative descriptors became verbal bombs dropped in rapid succession. We called them “descriptors,” but, truthfully, I think these labels easily become the expectations we (as parents and society) have of teens. I was glad when we changed our focus to discuss the lighter topic of  the issues our kids are facing. 🙂

On my way home that evening, I began wondering about the role labels might play in parent/child relationships. From their very first days, we describe our child’s personality and behavior in positive and negative terms. When our children are young, we label them as bright, caring, easy, or as defiant, difficult, spirited, to name a few. In essence, we are communicating our expectations of their behavior. (Oh, little Susie is such a good girl, so caring. OR  That Susie has always been so spirited–I don’t know what to do with her!) 

 I ruminated on the list for several days. I rolled the words around in my mouth and said them aloud while picturing my daughters’ faces. It was uncomfortable. I felt my muscles tense as I mouthed the combative labels. I recognized the familiar feelings. I have often braced myself for war before any battleground was declared. I owned the guilt of viewing my own children as stereotypes at times. 

Many of the words thrown about that evening were stereotypical. Teens are often portrayed as rebellious and confrontational.  We, ourselves, may have been called rebellious and confrontational during the teen years. As parents, we may label our teens with the same terms when they challenge our authority. This led me to question,   “Could these stereotypical descriptors have an impact on the ways I both treat and react to my children and on the ways they respond to me–especially if I anticipate the negative? Do we, in some ways, create a self-fulfilling prophecy in the teen/parent relationship when we expect to ‘catch ’em being bad?'”

 I asked my girls for their opinions about the words used to describe teens. Whereas both agreed the list did describe teens, they also felt the list was unfair, limiting and discriminatory. It left both girls feeling judged and defensive. They felt convicted without having “committed a crime.” Understandably so.

A week or so later, their father and I asked them to create a “typical” teen’s list of descriptors for parents. It included: controlling, over-reactive, forgetful, busy, and, finally, loving. As parents, we felt judged and defensive. Understandably so. But, it also opened a dialogue with our children about the effects stereotypical labels might have on our relationships.

As a family, we discussed the roles media, friends, and our own experiences play in our relationships. In the media, parents and teens are commonly portrayed in battle  or as dismissive of each other. Sibling relationships are shown as contentious and burdensome. Teen friendships are typically characterized as more valuable, understanding, and fulfilling than family relationships. In general, a teen’s mission seems characterized as “a battle for freedom from the repressive forces of family.” Friends commiserate. Hands are thrown up in resignation and frustration, and the cycle continues. Outside influences, we all agreed, can significantly impact the various family relationships, often by further muddying already muddied waters.

Our family conversation led me to question my perceptions of the teens in my world as well as my parenting style. Had my parenting changed with the teen years? Had I turned my energies to maintaining control and my focus to correction? Had I lost sight of “catching ’em being good?”  In considering my own teens, I pondered ways I might positively impact our transition years. I began by creating my own list of descriptors for them; one that is honest, yet primarily focused on their positive attributes: unique, creative, funny, loving, bright, spontaneous, unpredictable, smart, curious, stubborn, independent, compassionate, testing, challenging, exploring, exhausting,  imaginative, and perhaps above all, confused and confusing.  

The teen years are confusing–for both parents and teens. These years bring a flood of physical and emotional changes. As they attempt to figure out who they are and where they fit in the world, we are trying to figure out how to best parent during these transitional years. How do we maintain our authority while allowing them to mature? What is normal and acceptable? How do we keep them safe? How long do these years last, again?

It seems my girls became “teens” as spontaneously as the tears turn to giggles in a 2-year-old.  Though a 12-year-old birthday cake should have offered fair warning, I was still caught by surprise when our house rules were first rebuffed. I know that testing boundaries is a natural process; the toddler does it when he pulls a hand away and the teen does it when talking back. Though neither may be acceptable, it is how our children learn to take flight and separate. No parent likes to feel disrespected or rejected by their child. Nor does any child by their parent. However, rules and boundaries must be established and maintained. As a parent,  learning to choose wise battles, as opposed to all battles, takes practice as well as stamina. 

I’m grateful for that conversation over chips and veggies. It helped me re-evaluate my approach to parenting my own girls. It reminded me that my teens are children in transition to adulthood, a time filled with confusion and frustration. Guiding teens through these years can be emotionally and physically demanding for all involved.  Sure, we have had our battles, and I trust there will be more before the empty nest years. A butterfly’s metamorphosis, though beautiful, is not without struggle. 

I plan to post the list I made so I can see it daily. My hope is that if I keep reminding myself to catch ’em being good, (which may, at times, include boundary testing) I can  enjoy the teen years as much as I did their toddler years. And, that perhaps one day the aliens will return my children, along with my sanity.

3 thoughts on “How do you describe an alien?”

  1. I loved the way you took a potentially depressing, angst-filled discussion about teens and pulled from it a valuable lesson for all of us. Reminding myself to look for the silver-lining during some of these “uncertain” times and finally finding the donkey amongst all the poop is always a tool I try to hold on to! Great Blog, once again!


  2. I remember reading somewhere (as I dawdle in mid life fog:-) That there was no such thing as the “rebellious teen years” before these last couple generations. It was a time of becoming an adult and characterized by doing hard, responsible acts. Indian cultures to early American settlement times have no records of this in Literature or history. I think we also must realize our community/culture may expect too LITTLE from our young adults from our educational coves to our work environment! We need our communities to set the standards high again.. let it begin with us..


  3. It’s always grated on me when people looked at my young ones and said, “Oh, they’re sweet now…but just wait!” How was that supposed to help me be a good parent, working my tail feathers off, only to have the gloomy teenage years to ‘look forward to?’ Now that I have almost four of them, I thumb my nose at those who say they have to be miserable years. At times, yes, but looking at their challenging behavior as opportunities to address their heart issues has completely transformed the way I see ‘rebellion.’ Thanks for addressing this, Mary!


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