There are thousands of books, articles, websites, and blogs dedicated to supporting parents from conception through the tween years. What no one talks about, though, is when your teenager isn’t like all the picture-perfect kids in the college brochures or the weird but likable kids on TV sitcoms. Everyone else’s kids do at least marginally well in high school, to say nothing of the plethora of overachievers, so graduation is never a four-letter word and post-graduation involves something more than a part-time job and eating all your food, right? At least we assume as much because admitting your teenager is anything other than “normal” has become a largely taboo topic for parents.
I spend too much time worrying about what everyone else is going to think when they find out that both of my sons only graduated high school by the skin of their teeth. I worry what people will think of me as a parent when they find out that one of these moderately intelligent, good-looking, relatively well-mannered young men of mine works at a gas station and has catastrophic issues with his teeth because part of his rebellion in his teenage years was to refuse to perform basic dental hygiene and to drink only sugary sodas and energy drinks.
I worry that my daughter, a freshman in high school will have the rest of her life colored by her severe social anxiety and that it will eventually prevent her from achieving all the amazing things I know she’s capable of. I can already see it slowly chipping away at her formerly very steady, realistic sense of self-esteem, and she questions how she’ll be able to function in the real world after high school.
I have to struggle with supporting her and lifting her up while making sure I never make her feel like her anxiety is something she can control or shut off. I have to figure out how to balance the risks I force her to take with my acceptance of her limits. I feel like no one else could possibly understand the precarious balancing act of trying to help her learn to live with anxiety and succeed in spite of it.
No one wants to admit their daughter flunked out of college after one semester and had to move back home. Who wants to brag that she came home drunk on Thursday or that you found pot in her room, much less that she now takes her community college courses exclusively online because she “just can’t handle” going into a classroom? We don’t discuss the pitfalls and disappointments we experience with our teens—most of which are perfectly normal. And so we’re left feeling like utter failures who are the only ones with these problems.
We need to start talking to each other about Bobby missing curfew or Susie flunking English; we need to share our feelings of failure and inadequacy with other parents. Just because our teens have made some bad choices or aren’t meeting our expectations doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve failed at parenthood. Often, it means that our children have decided to forge their own paths, and we have to trust that the lessons we’ve taught them will provide them with the foundation to become somewhat productive, responsible adults at some point in the near future.
It can also mean that there are some things in our children’s lives that are largely out of our control, and we have to learn how to accept those things and help our children succeed despite their challenges. In the meantime, we need to stop acting like our imperfect teenagers are a family secret and instead support each other through the rough spots.