Why I Need To Start Really Listening To My Teen

by Janice Ricciardi
Originally Published: 

Well, I can never go back to that Starbucks. After the barista twice asked me if I had an “outie,” I abandoned all civility and snapped, “What is wrong with you? Why would you ask me that?!” And he, wounded, replied, “I just thought we had the same car.” And gestured to the Audi key in my hand.

With this came the crushing realization that I don’t listen. My barista was equally culpable; every week I give him my name and every week he writes “Jazz” on my cup. I am inappropriately buoyed by the fact that he sees me as someone interesting enough to have the name “Jazz.” But when we recover from our awkward encounter, I order and I listen to myself. Sure enough, I pronounce my name like I am recovering from a stroke. This propels me to question my ability to listen, to myself and others, in my life outside this Starbucks.

My newly minted teen is wont to say I don’t listen to her. Oh, but I do. I am just so often afraid of what I hear, because it means my adoring little sidekick is growing up and away from me. Straight into the arms of Dylan O’Brien. Or maybe Drake. And I want to roundly reject this. It’s hard enough to let her go. But how do we listen when we don’t want to hear echoes of our own unhappiness at this age?

Suddenly, her thoughts no longer perfectly align with my own. The horror. Why, oh why, did I encourage her to question authority? Not mine. I meant: start a second-grade petition to take stuffies out to recess. I am mourning the loss of her babyhood, hoping to stuff a kid with bigger boobs than me back into a Baby Bjorn. Instead of paying attention to the young woman she is becoming, I am unfairly stifling her by instructing her to remain the guileless, sweet girl she was when she was 7. I have to stop trying to quiet the emotional crashing around that is necessary to her development as a person who is not me. I am not doing this gracefully.

Methinks I doth project too much. There may be a connection between her growing up and my hypersensitivity to what I hear. Suddenly, her innocence, and my ability to protect her, is threatened and everything I hear becomes obscene. When puberty struck in sixth grade, I irrationally shrieked at the pediatrician with the slight lisp, “Next time you ask my 11-year-old about school, you may want to tag the word “grade” onto your inquiry so it doesn’t sound exactly like you just asked her, “So what do you think about SEXth so far?'”

When she was safely wrapped in my infantilizing arms, I didn’t listen so closely. In fact, I blithely ignored that niggling inner voice that cautioned, Is your kindergartner’s Halloween costume really a “bunny ballerina”? Or are you sending a 5-year-old to school dressed as a Playboy Bunny? Because really, what’s the harm?

But now the harm feels huge and predatory. I know adolescence is another normal stage, but it feels so much more dangerous: sex, technology, drugs. This is not the stuff of potty training and lisps. Those I had a fair amount of control over and knew the outcome. This can so easily go wrong.

So I scramble to protect her. I try to preemptively fix it all for her, to give her advice that comes out as barked orders. And forget to listen. This is not a working strategy. And I know that if I don’t start really listening, she’s going to stop talking. Conversation is suddenly stilted as I try to penetrate her teen force field. The pressure to be more interesting than Instagram is enormous. As we talk about the stress of her day, I imagine “Lean on Me” building to a tear-jerking crescendo as I award-winningly mother. Only to realize there is a booming silence as she surreptitiously tweets.

My peers tell me I have it pretty easy, that the climate with their teens can be icy. Around here, it’s not the hate, it’s the humility. It is so hard to allow the person who peeled open my heart and taught me what joy is the space to step away from my wildly clutching arms. To accept that I cannot fend off every hurt or disappointment she will face is humbling and horrible.

Giving her the benefit of my experience and perspective is not working out as I planned. I hear myself imparting Maya Angelou-worthy nuggets of wisdom. My advice is not well received. I may as well be wrestling a Club lock onto the steering wheel of a Yugo. Not that it’s ineffective, it’s just so misguided: Nobody wants that shit. I so desperately want her to heed my counsel. But she hears: “I’ve vetted some of the riskier ones, and here are some thoughts for you to think.”

I have to stop throwing up roadblocks on her path to independence by trying to fix her teen ills so she can skip the messiness of adolescence and launch straight into well-balanced adulthood. I forget that she really is listening and learning how to navigate her own thoughts, her own life. Hell, I’m not that well-balanced of an adult anyway. I am learning that refusing to listen will not stop time.

Maybe by the time my younger daughter is a teen, I’ll have gotten this listening thing right. I’ll stop jumping in and start trying to really hear her. I’ll be a little more “Jazz,” a little less crazy and controlling. But my skewed listening reared its head tonight. Revelation: When your 7-year-old reads from a Disney Fairies book and, inexplicably, drops the final “n” from words, a book featuring lots of “barns” and “horns” sounds exactly like Bukowski.

But I must stop hearing threats, and creating fear, in every stage of my daughters’ development and try to listen to what they are grappling with. I practiced with the little one tonight when she announced, “I only sleep with black guys.” I was alarmed, but before the phrase, “I know the feeling” popped out of my mouth, I sat back and listened and she clarified: “I don’t want these stuffies with blue eyes, just black eyes.”

I might hear a lot, if I stop and listen.

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