Difficult Conversations: Teenagers and the art of letting go

There will always be things you cannot control. Let it go. Take some time out for yourself. We sometimes need to be someone else, other than a mom on the edge of the nerves, ready to breakdown.

By Tanu Shree Singh

‘Mumma godi!’ The chubby arms would stretch up for a few seconds before the little one would flop on the floor and insist on being carried. I sometimes protested and tried to show him the merits of two perfectly functional legs. He would flop some more and turn into a blob of jelly. Sometimes he had to be scraped from the floor and carried back, and at others I let the jelly figure out the demerits of being sprawled on the floor as I patiently waited for him succumb to the art of walking.

Like all other parents, I spent brief moments daydreaming of the time when the toddler would be independent. At that time, independence sounded thus:

  • No more diapers!
  • No more meal-time battles.
  • No more nodding off in the middle of the story while the toddler stayed awake.
  • No more stepping on odd toys and muffling screams in the sleeping child’s room.
  • No more, ‘What the hell caused that stain?’

No one warned about the rollercoaster ahead. The Psychology lesson about adolescence being a period of ‘storm and stress’ faded with years of dust that gathered on the degree. And there is no telling when that beast of adolescence would creep up. There you could be looking at kids all around you explode while your own child isn’t ‘acting up,’ relieved that life has dished you roses. And boom! One fine day, your child turns around with a snarl fixed on his face and tells you to back off.

So how do I, the parent who sees them as babies, take a step back, especially when I am pretty sure that their world view is straight out of a dystopian novel or a work of extreme fantasy. More importantly how do we keep sane? There are no shortcuts or surest ways to keep from cracking. But some things are best remembered as we strap ourselves on the rollercoaster to hell.

The only person you can change is you

Think about it. We spend a lifetime trying to change others, surrounding ourselves with worry and a checklist of things we need to change in our family and friends when the only person we can truly change is ourselves. This doesn’t mean that you have to put up with half-eaten meals gathering fungus under the bed in the teenager’s room! That is just a lousy habit waiting to turn into food poisoning. Accepting self as a seat of change just means that we need to look at our reactions closely and turn those into responses aimed at resolutions rather than accusations.

Strive to accept and not change them all the time

Let’s face it. Though the eggs came from the same basket, they hatch differently, have different paths and entirely outrageous ways of getting on to that path. There are days when you might find yourself gazing longingly at another egg from another basket and wondering why your hatchling isn’t like that one. “Why can’t he study that hard?” Or “Why can’t she be a 99.99 percenter?” Well, they can’t. Because they aren’t that egg. They are unique. They might look lost for now. All we need to do is accept that their choices are different. The child, albeit a six-foot tall one with a stubble and distinct baritone, needs to be told that he is loved, irrespective of his choices, failures, and successes.

Repeat after me, they are people-in-making

The transition feels sudden when we think of them as tiny pudgy toddlers. I have felt waves of shock when I have had to let them go. The day the older one decided to go to market alone, I tailed him only to be told to go home midway because, well I suck at being a secret super agent. It was like sending him to play school all over again. We will be those mums. They will carry our hearts casually in their hand while tossing it around. We will feel terror when each time they step further away from the nest. But we have to remember they are not infants, toddlers, preschoolers or whatever age group we like to define them by. They are people-in-making. And all works-in-progress need to fail, fall, carry out independent runs before they can step in to the next level.

Listen more than you usually would

I confess. There are times when I have to bite my  tongue, deep breathe so much that I feel my lungs would one day pop like a balloon. All this while the boys are defending their position on some issue with ridiculous pieces of ill-conceived logic. While they are going on and on, I am spending that time to either calm myself or preparing a comeback. I am not listening. If we want to understand them, we need to listen. It will never be enough. You will still be accused of not listening. Do not let that deter you. Do not listen to win. Do it to understand, empathise and take the child’s side.

Be ready to break down, rebuild and move on

If I were to jot down the number of times I ended up sobbing my eyes out, I would run out of pages. There have been midnight sessions of yours truly staring into space, wondering how to escape the landmine. And then there are odd messages to friends who have offered everything from a slap to the boys to a shoulder for me. Sometimes, there are unplanned walks to Old Delhi. I find walking the chaotic streets of Chandni Chowk oddly calming. Point is, none of us is above breaking down. They will crush your heart. They will break you, reduce you to a howling tangle of nerves. You might want to step away at that time. Go out. Rebuild yourself. Let go of the words that might have flown between the two of you. Teenage can be a dark phase. Once you have regrouped, let the child know what was unacceptable in the argument and express hope that such words would not be used again. And then move on. The children don’t hate you despite whatever they say. And they need to know that you love them in spite of whatever they say.

Get a life!

This is the best thing you can do for the relationship and more importantly for your own sanity. Distract yourself. The children are not solely your project. They have a say in it too, and so does life. There will always be things you cannot control. Despite your best efforts and bickering skills, the child might still not see the light. Let it go. Take some time out for yourself. A hobby, a new skill…anything. You need to refresh those neurons and add some endorphins. Endless worry and confrontations are counterproductive to this. We sometimes need to be someone else, other than a mom on the edge of the nerves, ready to breakdown.

Today as we stood in a new city, in front of the gates of an institution where the younger one is attending a week-long workshop, I offered, “Do you want me to come with you to registration desk?”

“No,” he shrugged, “I am good.”

I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from saying, “I’ll meet you for lunch then. I am right here, okay? Are you sure you don’t want to come with you?”

Instead I said, “Figure out lunch, okay?”

“Yeah.” And there he was. My six-foot-something teenager walking away. My heart quickly skipped out and followed him while I stood there feeling pointless. I had to lasso the heart back in, turn and leave. The boy is an adult-in-making. I need to let go. I can do this. Well, almost.

(The writer has a PhD in Positive Psychology and is a lecturer in psychology. She is also the author of the book Keep Calm and Mommy On. Listen to Season 1 and 2 of Tanu Shree Singh’s podcast Difficult Conversations With Your Kids.)

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