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The Collateral Damage of a Teenager

What adolescence does to adolescents is nowhere near as brutal as what it does to their parents.

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It’s a warm evening in Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, and six mothers, all connected through the usual ties (work, kids, community groups), are clustered around a kitchen table, discussing their adolescents. Beth, a public-school teacher and the youngest of the lot, mentions that her 15-year-old, Carl, has lately “been using his intelligence for evil.”

The women all stop talking and look at her.

“Instead of getting good grades, he figures out how to get around the administrator,” she says, referring to the software she’d installed to regulate his computer use. “And then I see, like, three inputs for ‘Russian whore.’ ”

Or so I thought she said when I first transcribed the tape. When I followed up with Beth sometime later, she informed me that I’d misheard: It was “three-input Russian whore.”

At any rate, Samantha, who also teaches at a public school, dives in at this moment with the force of a cannonball. “Take the freaking computer, Beth!” she cries. “Take it!”

“He has to use it. They turn things in online.”

“Put a desktop in the kitchen,” suggests Deirdre, the hostess of the evening.

“That’s what we did,” says Beth. “We put it in the living room.”

“But if he flunks out of school, Beth,” says Samantha, “what’s going to happen?”

“He’s not going to flunk out.” Then she pauses and considers. “Though when I called his therapist and said, ‘I found hours’ worth of porn on his computer,’ the therapist had no idea.”

“Yeah, but I’ve had that too,” says Gayle, a substitute teacher, quite suddenly. She has, until now, said little. All heads swing her way. “Mae”—her daughter and the best friend of Samantha’s oldest, Calliope—“was in therapy and spent a year’s worth of my money not talking to the therapist about the real issue, which is that she was cutting herself.”

Samantha finally gives in. She puts her elbows on the table, bows her head, and rests her brow in her hands. “Everyone’s in the same club,” she says. “Everyone has the same stories.” She looks up at the group. “I mean, please. I have police stories.”

Police stories? All along, as Samantha’s friends had been speaking, I’d been under the impression that she’d been spared these misadventures and was even a tad scandalized by them. Yet it turned out to be the opposite. She’d been identifying from the start.

When prospective mothers and fathers imagine the joys of parenthood, they seldom imagine the adolescent years, which Nora Ephron famously opined could only be survived by acquiring a dog (“so that someone in the house is happy to see you”). Gone are the first smiles and cheerful games of catch. They’ve been replaced by 5 a.m. hockey practices, renewed adventures in trigonometry (secant, cosecant, what the—?), and ­middle-of-the-night requests for rides home. And these are the hardships generated by the good adolescents.

But here’s the truth of the matter. The children of these women at Deirdre’s table? Also the good adolescents. Almost all attend either fine universities or competitive public high schools; all have well-developed interests and talents. All, in person, come across as self-confident and considerate. These aren’t the kids who flunk out, run away, or get expelled.

Yet their parents are still going half-mad. Which raises a question: Is it possible that adolescence is most difficult—and sometimes a crisis—not for teenagers as much as for the adults who raise them? That adolescence has a bigger impact on adults than it does on kids?

Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University and one of the country’s foremost authorities on puberty, thinks there’s a strong case to be made for this idea. “It doesn’t seem to me like adolescence is a difficult time for the kids,” he says. “Most adolescents seem to be going through life in a very pleasant haze.” Which isn’t to say that most adolescents don’t suffer occasionally, or that some don’t struggle terribly. They do. But they also go through other intense experiences: crushes, flirtations with risk, experiments with personal identity. It’s the parents who are left to absorb these changes and to adjust as their children pull away from them. “It’s when I talk to the parents that I notice something,” says Steinberg. “If you look at the narrative, it’s ‘My teenager who’s driving me crazy.’ ”

In the 2014 edition of his best-known textbook, Adolescence, Steinberg debunks the myth of the querulous teen with even more vigor. “The hormonal changes of puberty,” he writes, “have only a modest direct effect on adolescent behavior; rebellion during adolescence is atypical, not normal.”

For parents, however, the picture is a good deal more complicated. In 1994, Steinberg published Crossing Paths, one of the few extensive accounts of how parents weather the transition of their firstborns into puberty, based on a longitudinal study he conducted of more than 200 families. Forty percent of his sample suffered a decline in mental health once their first child entered adolescence. Respondents reported feelings of rejection and low self-worth; a decline in their sex lives; increases in physical symptoms of distress. It may be tempting to dismiss these findings as by-products of midlife rather than the presence of teenagers in the house. But Steinberg’s results don’t seem to suggest it. “We were much better able to predict what an adult was going through psychologically,” he writes, “by looking at his or her child’s development than by knowing the adult’s age.”


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