It’s hard to say who suffers more during the adolescent years: parent or child. It’s a time of great change, often for both.
When considering those times, I operate on the understanding that the drive for attachment is our greatest need. Long ago, our very existence as part of an identifiable group was a life or death question, so it’s important to not take personally someone else’s striving for connection. And we know the teen brain is an incomplete entity; heck, many adult brains never seem to get past this stage. But our need to belong and the uncertainty of the teen years carries with it heightened vulnerability, an understatement most people can relate to.
The transition from family to peers during adolescence also has allies, characteristics like uniformity and magical thinking. Uniformity is striving to be like other kids to fit in. Magical thinking is the notion, “It won’t happen to me.” Teens are susceptible to these forces, especially during the whole incomplete brain thing. Knowing they have a tendency to take risks without necessarily having the intuition to apply filters to their thinking and brakes on their behaviour is something that scares the heck out of most parents.
It’s not enough to expect our kids to behave as we think we might, no more than we’d expect a four year old to make dinner. During the teen years, connection and education are your default approaches to retain waning influence. So that’s connection and education on one side; uniformity and magical thinking on the other.
Education without connection is weak. In that case, your imparted wisdom can go unheard, or be dismissed outright. Connection is an imperfect measure of parental effectiveness but represents your best shot at influence. Human beings are made to attach to each other. You either make it easy to attach to you, or people will find others to connect with.
That’s true at any age.
In his book, Hold On To Your Kids, Dr. Gordon Neufeld talks about how children can orient towards their parents or towards their peers, but not both at the same time. It’s one or the other. Neufeld and co-author Gabor Mate talk about how easy it is to lose connection with a child and see them orient towards peers, TV, video games and all manner of other influences. Using a compass metaphor, they advise imagining attachment direction in the same way you would see the needle on a compass orienting towards magnetic north.
Kids can only have one north.
But the truth is, by the time our kids are teens, we want them to make good and safe connections outside the home while maintaining their primary attachments with us as parents. We hope we’ve taught them enough to do that. The alternatives are painful, even dangerous.
As that conflict of loyalties plays out, backtalk, condescension, avoidance and outright contempt can develop in a teen’s attitude towards adults. Looking back at those years with my now adult son, I remember the fear and dread I felt at the notion of losing him. I saw the dangers; I knew the pitfalls. I was out of the house early, the result of a breakdown between me and my dad. Noticing these forces at play in my beloved little boy now grown to adult size, I was damned if history was going to repeat itself.
I used an approach that reassured him, and modestly addressed uniformity and magical thinking.
Every kid likes to hear about themselves as a child, so I sat him down and told him some favourite anecdotes. I made sure he knew he was loved and appreciated, that we felt blessed to have him in our life, but I did this by way of examples, not just by using well-meaning words that were empty of realism. I gave him things he could hang on to. If a memory was triggered and his view differed significantly from mine, I strove to understand why that was. I sought to see things from the viewpoint of his recall, taking the opportunity to find common ground between us, even apologizing for being a shitty parent at times.
“Remember when I came to the end of the school year thing where parents got to play ball with the kids. Maybe it was grade two or three?”
“I remember that,” he answered.
“We used a kind of big volleyball instead of a regular ball. I remember I was playing third base and you were at bat, you hit the ball my way. Do you remember trying to steal an extra base and me firing a laser shot from third and beaning you right in the head on the line between first and second, knocking you on your ass? You were pretty shook up for a minute. Remember the teachers consoling you while I told you to tough it out? Do you remember the looks they gave me?? Hahaha, great times son…hey, sorry about that.”
He laughed quietly at the memory. He knew stealing that base was risky.
I told him that kids who don’t get along with their parents happen in “other” families, not ours. I showed him that we’ve always been good to each other, that we took the time to understand things, and that when we had a conflict, we sat down and resolved it. I gave him examples. I reminded him of the closeness of our relationship, and the many times I backed him up. That he was part of a larger Wallace Clan with many aunts and uncles who ask about him regularly. His grandparents send gifts and cards at Christmas and on his birthday. “People in this family care about you. We are not like other families,” I said.
I also used anecdotes like this one:
“Remember your grade four teacher, tough guy martial artist Mr. Black? Remember when he blamed you for leaving the tap on in the portable and it overflowed? But you told me it wasn’t you; it was that other kid in your class. Remember how you complained that he threatened to throw you through the window? Do you remember how I told your principal that your uncle Duncan (fifth Dan black belt) and I were happy to have a word with Mr. Black about him threatening my boy? That if he wanted to throw someone through a window, he could try me first. And do you remember the principal getting rid of Mr. Black and replacing him with Madame Rose, and how well that worked out for you?”
We spoke about how he happily did all the rest of his grade school at that school. How he stayed in the French Immersion program at Norwood Park in Hamilton, just as I had attended French school as a boy. Because of this, I could speak French fluently and he could understand me. And did he remember going to the big sports day at the end of his last year before we moved to BC, where he met that young girl? “I’m pretty sure she was the first girl you kissed.” He smiled.
“Son, one of my best memories is when I got to watch you bat the winning run in and your team won your Little League Championship. Remember that?” Oh, how he remembered…
I ran a door to door sales team in the evenings at the time but I’d driven back from territory to watch his game. I caught a lot of them that way. We did some batting practice that season, especially on Tuesday evenings, the day he got to come to work with me every week. I was an outfielder and decent hitter in little league; he was even better.
“Remember in high school when you were getting harassed because you owed someone at school ten bucks? Remember how I handled that for you? Yeah, turned it right around. You see son, in this family, we have each other’s backs.” He was listening.
“I need you to know the difference between your family and your friends. I know you feel a strong pull towards your buddies right now, and that’s perfectly natural, but you need to remember where your base comes from. It’s your parents who brought you into the world and who will always be there for you. I’ll tell you why: shit happens.
What do I mean by that? Well we always think stuff won’t happen to us, but it’s just that the universe has randomness to it and we just never know when shit is going to hit the fan.” (I may have given him local or news examples of randomness–tornadoes, floods, robberies, etc.).
I told him, “No one can predict where lightening will strike next, son. God forbid, but what would happen to you if you were ever in an accident? You’re going to learn to drive soon. Think it doesn’t happen? Happens all the time. People get seriously hurt. And all those people thought the same thing: how could this happen to me?”
“Worse: what if you wound up in a wheelchair?” I said, reaching over and symbolically touching wood. “Let me tell you what would happen. If you lived long enough, you might make it home. Oh, and your buddies from school would definitely come around once you were in your chair, maybe they’d even take you for a spin through the mall, so they could look good being kind to the paraplegic. But soon enough, despite their best intentions, visits would come less and less. After a while, they might not visit at all anymore. They’d get on with their lives.”
“I mean, could you blame them, son?”
“No, I guess not,” he answered solemnly.
“But do you know who would be there? Me and your mom,” I said, answering my own question.
“It would be your mom who would care for you, change you out of your soiled clothes and empty your piss-bag a few times a day. I’d lift you in and out of the tub so your mom could wash you, and I’d build ramps and stuff so you could get around. I’d move if we needed to, buy a different car with hand controls, and get you what you needed to survive. Do you understand me here, son?”
He was quiet. Then, I went for it:
“Or what would happen if you were ever falsely accused of something in your life? Where you were totally innocent but were being used as a scapegoat. Think it doesn’t happen? It happens to both men and women. Look at that nurse in Toronto who was accused of killing babies during the time we lived in Hamilton. Killing babies, son! They went after Susan Nelles for years until she was cleared. Turns out it was all bullshit—the drugs found in the babies were a natural consequence of the autopsy process. You can look it up.”
I continued, quieter, more seriously, “And what about people who get accused of crimes they never did? Just like when Mr Black accused you as a kid. This shit happens for real. You are never immune. None of us are.”
He stared at me silently…dumbfounded. I had his complete attention.
I continued: “Look at cases even here in Canada. What about David Milgard? He was accused of raping a nurse in Saskatchewan and spent twenty-three years in prison! Rape son! And, twenty-three fucking years he did! Completely innocent! Can you imagine? And where were all his buddies? In fact, if I remember, at least one of them testified against him, saying he’d gone out that morning and came back looking suspicious. Turned on him! He was pressured by detectives looking to nail someone for the crime.”
I continued: “Everyone abandoned this guy, and he proclaimed his innocence the whole time. He wouldn’t admit it so they wouldn’t let him out. No one would listen. NO ONE!”
“Can you imagine everyone abandoning him, son?” I don’t remember if he answered.
“Except for one person: his mother, Gail”.
“She never, ever gave up on him. She worked tirelessly behind the scenes to free her son. She would protest on parliament hill, accost justice ministers. She linked up with US organizations that helped the falsely accused. This was back when there was no Internet to gather information. There was no regular DNA testing to exonerate people. Gail Milgard worked year after year, never, giving up and finally… was able to bring his case into the public spotlight. She never wavered, she knew her boy. I remember seeing her on the news at the time, and she was relentless. FEARLESS! No one cared about David Milgard or that he might be innocent. He had no one… but his mother. And what a force! After 23 years… she got him out! You can look it up.”
He sat there, spellbound.
“That’s the kind of thing that parents do for their kids. It’s how Mother Nature made them. You mean everything to me. You will feel the same way about your own kids one day.”
Then, I reminded him that he was representing himself out there in the world, but also his family of origin. That he ought to feel a lot of pride, and even an extra dose of confidence to have parents like us in his corner. That we were not perfect but did what we thought was best. We were behind him.
Also, that no matter where he went, or who he had as friends, or how many wives and kids he had, or jobs he went to, or where he lived, that here, we would always have a home for him. Here, he would always be known and accepted. Here, he could count on being loved in a way not possible anywhere else.
My boy is in his thirties now. During his life, all I did was focus on connection. After that talk, the issue was never in doubt again. And I never worried about spending quality time with him; I just spent time, any kind of time. I kept the contact between us at all cost.
He now lives 3000 miles away. He is even contemplating moving across the Atlantic Ocean to Ireland for love later this year. No matter where he is, each time I step off a curb, every time I walk across a busy parking lot, I can still feel his little hand in mine.