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The Collateral Damage of a Teenager

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A parent’s experience of his or her children’s adolescence can be exacerbated by any number of factors. One is being divorced. (Married parents have a much easier time as their kids enter puberty.) Another is having a child of the same sex. (The conflicts between mothers and daughters are especially intense.) Steinberg has also found that adolescence is especially rough on parents who don’t have an outside interest, whether it’s a job they love or a hobby, to absorb their attention. It’s as if the child, by leaving center stage, redirects the spotlight onto the parent’s own life, exposing what’s fulfilling about it and what is not.

All children, of course, have the potential to unmask problems parents hadn’t recognized or consciously acknowledged for years. Yet adolescent children seem to have this effect on their mothers and fathers far more than, say, children of 6. So one has to ask: Why?

There are many explanations, obviously. But perhaps the most basic, and ultimately gratifying, is historical: Adolescence is a modern idea. Yes, it’s a physiologically distinct phenomenon, too, accompanied by discernible biological changes. But it was “discovered” in the middle of the Progressive Era (in 1904, specifically, by the educator Stanley Hall), which happened to be the same moment the nation was passing myriad laws to protect its young. For the first time, parents were obliged to shelter and support older children, rather than rely on them as wage earners. And what they concluded, after observing these kids for extended periods of time at close range, is that their teenagers were going through a terrible period of “storm and stress.” How else could parents explain all the chaos and restlessness they were witnessing?

But it could simply be that the advent of the modern childhood, a fully protected childhood, is especially problematic for parents as their children get older. Keeping teenagers sheltered and regimented while they’re biologically evolving into adults and pining for autonomy can have exhausting consequences. The contemporary home becomes a place of perpetual liminal tension, with everyone trying to work out whether adolescents are grown-ups or kids. Sometimes the father thinks the answer is one thing while the mother thinks the answer is another; sometimes the parents agree but the child does not. Whatever the answer—and it is usually not obvious—the question generates stress, and it’s often the parents, rather than the children, who suffer most.

Though she is wearing her workout clothes, you can still make out the hippie that Samantha once was—she’s got a gorgeous gray mane of hair, which she has just let loose from her ponytail following her run. We are sitting in her kitchen in Ditmas Park. Samantha and her husband, who also teaches in the city public schools, had had the good sense to buy a place here nineteen years ago, when the getting was still cheap by city standards ($234,500) and the neighborhood more diverse. Samantha is African-American. Bruce is “the whitest guy ever,” according to Calliope, their daughter. Calliope is a fierce beauty, now 20 years old and home from college for the summer. She joins us at the kitchen table.

“Which bagel?” asks Samantha.

Calliope looks at her with a combination of irritation and affection. “Um, do you know me?” (As in: How many times have I eaten bagels with you?)

Samantha rolls her eyes, grabs one, begins to slice.

Calliope’s family started calling her “Alpha,” as in “Alpha girl,” when she was still in high school and was, to put it mildly, very certain about what she wanted. Perhaps because they both have forceful personalities, Samantha and her daughter clashed a lot while Calliope was still living at home. At Deirdre’s house, Samantha had recounted one particularly harrowing fight between the two of them, though she never mentioned what started it. Today I ask. Samantha isn’t even certain she remembers. But Wesley, her 16-year-old son, does—he’s joined us at the table—and leaps right in.

“Well, Calliope had a high-school essay due the next day, and a college essay due in a month. So you”—he looks at his mother—“wanted her to work on the college essay, but you”—now he looks at his sister—“wanted to work on the essay due the next day. So you basically said, ‘Mom, back off, I need to do this essay tonight.’ ” He tells this story with admirable evenhandedness. “And you”—Wesley looks at his mother again—“were trying to emphasize your point that the college essay needed to be done.”

Samantha waits. But that’s it, apparently.

“You just went back and forth like that for a long time,” says Wesley. “And then Dad stepped in.”

Samantha looks puzzled. “That’s so stupid. Why would I not want her to do her essay for the next day?”


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