What's Going On with Your Teen?

Understanding the young person you thought you knew

His door was shut, as usual. It was quiet, which wasn't unusual. If he was on the computer, she could hear it—but if he was listening to music, he'd have his earbuds in, and she couldn't. She wasn't sure which one made her feel better because frankly both frightened her a little. It had started as an uneasy feeling about three months earlier. Jake just wasn't acting normal—nothing Tanya could put her finger on, but things just didn't seem right. She'd been putting off really thinking about her worries since then, telling herself over and over again he was entering adolescence and that's just the way it was.

Walking past his room, down the hall to her own, Tanya sloughed off her shoes and dropped her purse on the dresser. It had been a long day at work, and she was glad to be home. She was looking forward to a quiet dinner and some time to relax. Julie was over at a friend's house and would be home in about 30 minutes, just long enough for Tanya to put something together and on the table. It had been a while since she'd made spaghetti. It was Jake's favorite; at least it used to be. She didn't know anymore; it seemed like so many things she thought she knew about him were changing.

She'd heard countless parents moan and joke, sometimes simultaneously, about losing their kids through these teen years. Stories of happy, contented children transforming into surly strangers, eventually emerging from emotional hibernation in their early twenties. Tanya didn't want to wait that long. She could feel Jake slipping into that pattern and had no idea what to do. Was it just a phase? Would he snap out of it? How quiet was too quiet? What did he do in his room for hours at a time? Why would he barely even talk to her anymore?

Tanya didn't want to pry and risk pushing him further away, but her sense of unease was growing. With Julie, she kind of knew what to expect; after all, Tanya had been a teenage girl herself once. With Jake, the whole gender thing came into play, and she felt adrift in strange waters. No kid wanted an overbearing mother interfering in his life—but were her concerns overbearing, or was she just being a worried mom? Tanya wanted to talk to him, to ask him what was going on, but she was afraid of his reaction, afraid of being rejected, so she walked down the hallway, past his room, without saying anything. Perhaps the smell of dinner would coax him out.

Dealing with children in general is not an easy job assignment. Each stage of development has its own challenges, and each parent comes equipped—or not—to handle those phases. Some parents have difficulty with the young infant stage, feeling totally overwhelmed by an inexplicably crying baby who's unable to articulate what's wrong and immune to any sort of verbal reasoning. Other parents cringe at the defiant toddler stage, where eternal vigilance is the price of parenting, as anything that can go wrong seems to with a curious, tottering child. There is something comforting, almost, when children get to school age; they are verbal and easier to figure out. They can be so sweet and endearing, wanting to be with you, and mostly malleable. Then adolescence hits, and all bets are off. What used to work doesn't anymore. Your relationship begins a quantum shift, in agonizing slow motion, excruciatingly drawn out over a period of years. Your kids hitting adolescence is like you hitting a brick wall going forty. At least, that's how the popular wisdom goes. Perhaps you can relate to one mom's observation: "All the early parenting books I read forewarned me of the 'terrible twos,' but nothing prepared me for the 'traumatic teens.'"

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