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The Good Enough TeenRaising Adolescents with Love and Acceptance (Despite How Impossible They Can Be)
By Sachs, Brad E.
Strangers in Paradox
The Inner Life of Adolescents,
Their Parents, and Their Families
Go forth from your native land and from your father's house
to the land that I will show you.
-- Genesis 12:1
As I mentioned in the Introduction, while the process of seeing any child as good enough is a formidable task, there are some exceptional challenges that occur during adolescence that are likely to make this process that much more daunting.
So what is it about teenagers that so bewilders and bedevils parents? Often forced to conclude that adolescents must be some alien life form that was dredged up from the bottom of the sea, we have an unfortunate tendency to oversimplify them, to see them as ambulatory beakers of churning chemicals who will eventually settle and stabilize themselves as they finish their awkward lurch through biologically based puberty -- sometime, if they (and we!) are lucky, by their early twenties.
But it is more accurate and, when it comes to understanding and accepting our teenaged offspring, more practical, to amplify our definition of what adolescence is all about and delve into the breathtaking emotional complexity of this stage of life.
What is perhaps most important toremember is that adolescence does not only happen to the adolescent, it happens to the entire family. It is a sui generis juncture in the family's development, the effects of which reverberate deeply within each member and broadly across each generation. The overlap of the adolescent's individual development, the parents' adult development, and the parallel and ongoing development of siblings, grandparents, and other important family members heats up the family system, magnifying its interactions and intimacies, making its strengths and weaknesses, its tendencies and patterns, more visible and, ultimately, more available for change.
Having an adolescent in the family is a bit like having a canary in the mineshaft. Just as the canary's demise warns the miners that there has been a gas leak, the adolescent's most exasperating behaviors and problems warn the family that changes need to be made if they are all going to survive. Any adolescent worth his salt pounds away at the family's structure, as well as at society, with whatever tools he has at his disposal -- his brutal tirades or his deft indictments, his broody withdrawal or his brazen sarcasm -- but he does so not in an effort to annihilate that structure but in an effort to revise and rebuild it, to help design a new, more flexible and functional architecture for all.
Adolescence, then, can best be understood as a collective battleground in which all family members -- teen, sibling, parent, grandparent -- struggle with their desire to cling to what's old and valuable from the past and an equally strong desire to create something new and valuable in the future. It is the stage during which we try to strike a balance between continuity and change, tradition and innovation, equilibrium and evolution. It is a "hinge in time" when one generation begins to hand itself over to the next, when every family relationship begins to unlock itself and seek out new ways of interconnecting.
Teens instinctively perform their part in this transformation with a variety of strategies. They bring a playful, good-natured spontaneity to family life that can enliven, stimulate, and inspire. They question long-standing assumptions, undermine ancient prejudices, bludgeon outmoded myths, and provoke new insights and outlooks. They play the role of ambassador to the great, diverse world that lies in wait outside the family's small, protected enclosure, acting as conduits for new personalities, ideas, values, and information and as bridges linking the past, present, and future. Through this exchange and interchange, they insist that the family change, and prevent it from becoming stale, redundant, or obsolete.
As we all know, however, their efforts to spur their family's evolution are not always easy to bear, and can make it quite diffi- cult for us to see them as good enough. For example, the profound changes in teens' physical and cognitive development often create concomitant changes in their moods, which may make for kaleidoscopic displays of enthusiastic exhilaration, gloomy lethargy, affectionate attentiveness, surly defiance, mulish stubbornness, compassionate idealism, and searing cynicism, all within the space of a few hours, and without any observable triggers.
Their developmentally appropriate thirst for autonomy and their hunger for new experiences will lead them to try out their wings in ways that are likely to uncomfortably jostle and jolt their parents' values -- experimenting with drugs and sex, rejecting long-standing religious practices, espousing extreme political positions, adopting alien (to the family) manners and customs. They will focus great energy on trying to outmaneuver parental authority -- highlighting inconsistencies, exposing hypocrisy, exploiting differences of opinion between their mothers and fathers, or between parents and stepparents, and dexterously dancing their way around the rules and limits that are supposed to be adhered to. Immature and inexperienced as they may be, they are still mercenaries, motivated to do whatever it takes to get whatever it is that they want.
At the same time, they need us to remain in charge, and experience waves of anxiety and panic if they're unsure that we will be there, as a consistent rudder, to guide them through the turbulence of adolescence. So their testing of our limits is also a way to calculate with more precision than ever before the firmness of the very family foundation that they are planning to launch from. And if it doesn't feel firm enough, they'll continue to push us in an effort to awaken us from our torpor, unify us with other adults, and rouse all of us into collective and effective leadership. Whatever the reasons behind this incessant assault on parental command, however, rare is the parent who can always tolerate it with equanimity. Continues...
Excerpted from The Good Enough Teen by Sachs, Brad E. Excerpted by permission.
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