A Primal, Visceral Need
Teens thirst for two main things — adventure and validation.
Adventure, as it would confirm their agency over themselves, and would allow them to test out (and build) their own judgment — a muscle they absolutely need to train as they become adults.
Validation, as they haven’t experienced enough of society outside of the home, and they need to confirm their suspicions about their nascent sense of self vs. the self-perceived and reflected by parents — usually an outdated self the teen feels they’ve outgrown.
So, adventure and validation.
This leads teens straight into the open maws of danger. Wild parties. Drinking. Drugs. Defiance of authority. Questionable friendships. Disregard for personal safety. All of these are part of the same needs.
Combine this with the firm belief in their own indestructibility, in their immortality.
The parents see the dangers, and “clip the teen’s wings.” What wet blankets! What party poopers! Or worse, “you’re out to get me,” “you don’t want me to be happy,” “you hate me,” which soon enough translates into “I hate you.”
The kid doesn’t hate you, but they do hate being corralled, being refrained, being held back. Their need to roam is innate, primal, and visceral. You’re fighting nature itself.
So, to a large degree, them’s the breaks. That’s being a parent for ya. But also…
Parents often screw this up. Parents sometimes treat the 12-year-old as though the kid is still nine. And the 15-year-old as though they’re still 12. (Kids grow at a dizzying pace, don’t they? It’s hard to keep up.)
Sometimes the dangers parents perceive are exaggerated. A slumber party at a friend’s may be harmless. Even a rowdy teen party can be harmless if well managed.
And sometimes the dangers, or at least risks, are quite real. Sometimes the kid has no idea at all what they’re getting themselves into. Children have little notion of the tigers out there. The sexual predators. The cult leaders. The drug pushers. The ensnarers, the manipulators, the exploiters.
Sometimes you need to tell your teen NO.
Now, there are three extremely important things that I urge you to convey to your teen — three things that hopefully will soften the sting of the NO and make them hate you less: I’m on your side, I’m responsible for you, and the danger is real.
“I’m On Your Side.”
A transformational point in my relationship with my teenage son came on a day when I told him this.
For context, let me first say that my father and I had an extremely hostile, toxic relationship all through my teen years. Looking back, in his eyes, I was just a problem child. But in my teenage eyes, he was actually, deliberately trying to cause me unhappiness. I truly believed he was out to get me, that he derived pleasure in my misery. I felt he was a bully and a tyrant, and he was oppressing me for his personal enjoyment. I’m still not 100% certain there wasn’t an element of this at play, but a lot of it was just him trying to parent me as best he could — thoroughly ill-equipped for the job.
Argentina has a “staying up late” culture. Supper is served at 9 p.m. on most nights. Clubs don’t start really buzzing until 1 a.m., 2 a.m. on a Saturday. Coming home at the crack of dawn is a normal state of affairs for young people. I say this so you won’t be shocked that my curfew, as a 15-year-old, was 1 a.m. And that I was positively angry about that, too.
I’d always make it back in the nick of time, or a few minutes late — to find my father sitting on the stairs, waiting for me. I hated this. I hated this so much. I felt he was like some vulture. It was super creepy.
I also hated the limitation of 1 a.m. Oftentimes things were just getting started, at the parties I was at, as the midnight mark rolled around. And leaving early was a clear signal to everyone that I was a baby, that I had a set time to be home, that I wasn’t my own person.
Many years later, as I waited for my own son to come home, worried and fretful until he walked through the door, it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks — my father had to stay up and wait for me. He was simply doing his job as a father. He couldn’t very well go to sleep while one of his children was out there.
And most likely the 1 a.m. curfew wasn’t to keep me from any fun, but simply so that he could get some sleep before going to work next morning.
My father’s failure was in the delivery. He truly was very bad at conveying any love for me, and he totally came across as a gigantic asshole.
With this context, let me go back to my son. He was thirteen or maybe fourteen (they really do grow up so fast!). He had requested some freedom — I forget what — and I had denied him that freedom. He had stormed off to his room, hating me. And I was in the living room, feeling horrible. And I flashed back to those clashes with my father (my mother was very passive, and left the discipline to him). And luckily, I thought of something absolutely brilliant to say. (Are you paying attention? This is a pearl I’m giving you.)
I went to my son, and very gently, I told him, “Listen, I just want you to know I’m not enjoying this.”
He sat up.
“I’m not gloating. I’m not enjoying myself. Do you understand?”
“Buddy, I’m a big fan of you. I want happiness for you. I don’t get any satisfaction from you being miserable. My job, as a parent, is to look out for you. And part of this is to exercise my best judgment and decide when a plan you have is a good idea, and when I don’t think it should happen. And sometimes this includes me saying NO. And of course, the NO is going to suck. Of course, you’re not going to love it. It sucks for me to see you upset, disappointed. I really wish I could just hand you every single thing your heart desires. Sometimes I have to say NO, though. Do you understand? And I don’t do this to make you miserable. I don’t get a kick out of watching you be sad.”
He nodded again. I told him to pout as much as he needs to, and then to join me downstairs if he felt like it. He came downstairs soon after. He was fine. We played some video games together. The thing was behind us.
“I’m Responsible For You.”
My oldest daughter and I were having an argument about a jacket. She kept insisting she didn’t need a jacket, I kept insisting she bring one. It was getting confrontational. And then I stepped back.
“I think I see what’s going on here,” I told her. “You think this is a competition — to see which one of us is smarter, which one of us has assessed the situation better. But it isn’t.”
I could tell I had her attention now.
“Look, for all we know, you are buckets smarter than I am. For all I know, we will learn later today that a jacket was totally unnecessary. For all I know, your IQ leaves mine in the dust. But that’s not the point. The point is that all we have here right now is one adult and one minor. Which leaves me in charge. Which means I would be the one in trouble if you get sick. I’m responsible for you. Do you understand?”
I could see her relaxing, her jaw unclenching.
“So right now, we’re going to do what I say — not because I’m right, but because I’m the responsible adult in the room. And someday you’ll be older, and you’ll be the responsible adult — which means if you get sick, YOU’re the one who has to deal with it. And then you’ll decide what happens with the jacket. Does that make sense?”
I’m not saying she loved it, but the tension left the room. And that’s the key thing — to get away from the oppositional dynamic, the “me versus you” construct.
“The Danger Is Real.”
The trope of the kid who wants to test the limits and defy the boundaries comes up often. Ariel wanting to go “out where they play all day in the sand.” Nemo going out into the open ocean against his father’s admonitions.
Kids don’t know what’s out there. Kids don’t understand that their youth is a valuable resource that many predators want to exploit — from sex predators to cult leaders to the military establishment. Kids are full of naive self-confidence and wildly overestimate the degree of agency they may have over any situation.
Think about it — almost every adult a teen has ever interacted with has been there to assist them. Their parent. Their teacher. The lunch lady. The guy behind the counter at the theater convention stand. Some of these grownups give their assistance grudgingly, but still, their role is to assist the teen.
This leads the teen to misunderstand the scope and nature of grownups.
Most TV shows and movies display “the villain” in such a cartoony way. It does us all a disservice. The Emperor, in Star Wars. Darth Vader. Such clearly obvious villains. The wicked witch — green, ugly and scowling. Teens don’t understand the villain may look like the cool kid in class. The villain may look like the fun adult who has a pool and is throwing a party. The villain may look like a beautiful young woman or a handsome young man. The villain can be charming and beautiful.
And sometimes the danger is not about a villain. It’s simply about going into deep waters when you’re not that good a swimmer. A romance with someone much older than you, a party where people are doing drugs you’re unfamiliar with, and you’re not equipped to state your boundaries clearly and stick to them. A road trip with friends.
For queer kids, the dangers are greater. The dangers are more frequent. The homophobic bully at the teenage party. The gossip who will out you to the entire class. The straight friend who will kiss you just to be “interesting” and may leave you reeling in confusion when she refuses your advances.
In the movie “Rocketman,” we see a young and impressionable Elton John get exploited by an opportunistic man who becomes his Svengali, controlling his life, breaking his heart and siphoning away his money.
Gay, lesbian and bisexual teens may often stretch the boundaries of their comfort in search for their first sexual experiences because the dating pool is so meager. While their straight friends are all pairing up, hooking up, romancing away they find themselves the odd duck.
This is compounded in a homophobic school or town.
These queer kids may only find an outlet for their emerging sexual needs in places that have a higher risk factor — a seventeen-year-old boy downloading Grindr and meeting a stranger in a car, a sixteen-year-old girl going to a lesbian bar while telling her parents she’s at a sleepover. Nothing wrong with her need to be around other lesbians, but a lot potentially wrong with her being at a place that serves alcohol, away from parental oversight, and exposed to women much older than her.
Teenage girls are tremendously vulnerable because they often have no idea of the value predators place on their youth, beauty, and blossoming sexuality.
Transgender teenage girls are ever the more vulnerable — because they often feel they have something to prove. The need to reassure themselves they’re sexually viable — that their gender variance doesn’t make them sexual pariahs. This may lead them to some unwise choices and dark corridors in search for validation and approval.
If you’re the parent of a queer kid, talk openly to your teen about such dangers. Have candid talks with them. Talk about the challenges they may face and the vulnerabilities they may have. Make sure they understand this is not about you putting into question the kid’s fitness as a human, it’s you putting into question the goodwill of strangers out in society.
The Fundamental Importance of Sexual Education
Most importantly, talk to your kids about sex. Have them understand it’s not something to be ashamed of. Have them understand that some human drives are very strong, and they can lead us to trouble. Love is wonderful — but can lead to heartache. Sex is wonderful — but it has risks as well.
Teach your kids about boundaries — teach them to respect, honor, and be proficient in establishing and maintaining their own boundaries. Teach them self-respect. Tell them they are valuable, important and deserving, and that they should never feel compelled to compromise their own sense of self in a search for validation. Tell them they’re wonderful just as they are, and that sex should be a mutual experience with someone they truly like, and never a fawning attempt at trading sex for approval.
And listen to your kids. Make it known you listen. Build fame and reputation as a great listener. Listen to their everyday stories. Listen to your teen explain to you how he beat that video game, or what she learned from that TikTok tutorial, or what Marcie was wearing at school. Show active listening. Even in the trivial things. Because if you build a reputation as a listener, they will feel that they can come to you and tell you the big things — the scary things.
Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerable side. Not in a confrontational way, not in blaming, pointing fingers, “you ruined my whole life!” vibe. But be emotional if you feel emotional. Show your teen your vulnerability. Tell your teen this is hard for you too.
My father was made out of stone. No matter what I said, I couldn’t reach him emotionally — I couldn’t impact him. This led me to say some truly horrible, heinous things to him — at him; really terrible things. “You’re a tyrant,” “You’re an ogre,” “You’re a bad father,” “I hate you.” Things that, should any of my children ever say to me, would leave me crippled and bleeding emotionally. My father never reacted — and I understood it as him not caring.
One time my son was having a tough time with his other mom (my co-parent). I told him, “Listen, I understand this is challenging for you. This is all new to you. You’ve never been a teenager before. But guess what? This is all new to her too. She’s never been the parent of a teenager before. And this is hard stuff. She’s doing the best she can, and learning as she goes. You’d be amazed how much of life is like that — doing the best you can, and learning as you go.”
That seemed to help.
I believe it’s important that teens understand raising a teenager is challenging stuff — NOT because of who they are, not because you don’t love them, not because you’d rather be doing something else. Simply because raising teenagers is challenging. You can compare it to a video game. “You know when you get to World 8 in Mario World, and there are flaming bullets and pits and moving slabs everywhere? That’s what raising a teenager gets like, sometimes. And I’m still playing the game — because I like it, and I’m enjoying it. But it’s just a tough level of the game.”
Acknowledging that it’s hard helps. Reframing the “me vs. you” paradigm into “you and me against the tough level of the game” helps.
Letting them know you love them always helps.
Always tell them you love them. Always.
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