Recently, we were having a, uh, discussion with one of our teenagers, and it became, as such, uh, discussions sometimes do, unpleasant. We were told quite pointedly that, beyond a shadow of doubt, it was clear that Molly and I hated the teen, that we were abysmal failures as parents, that said teen rejected us, our values and everything we hold sacred, and would, at his earliest opportunity, leave, never to lay eyes on our sorry asses ever again. Pretty strong stuff.
And within twelve hours, the same teen approached us, apologizing for his harsh words, asking our forgiveness, and expressing a desire to have our trust, and a good relationship with us. Which, of course, is what we want, too.
This has happened several times, across pretty much the entire range of our children above the age of 14. By now, we are almost used to it. Almost. The thing that has come to impress me about it is how, within a day (or less) of throwing the most vile, hurtful words imaginable at us, the kids will come to us, all contrite, and want us to brush it all aside, as if it had never happened.
Then it occurred to me – even to our teens, we parents are fairly god-like beings, wise and powerful, so capable and sure of ourselves, even above our emotions. It’s easy to see that in our young children, in whose eyes we can do no wrong (sigh; those are wonderful days, and it’s probably God’s mercy that we have a couple of them left while we’re dealing with our teens). But our teens, even while they’re in the process of separating themselves from us and establishing their own individual identities, still maintain a residue of this god-like view of their parents. They believe that we are impassive Olympians, above and beyond the emotional responses of mere mortals. Their insults are supposed to bounce off us, falling harmlessly to the ground, without effect. Our toddlers think we are physically all-powerful, and by their standards, we are. But our teens think we are emotionally impenetrable, that they can throw all manner of abuse at us, and we will absorb it all without flinching.
And, for the most part, that’s what we need to do. But I have begun to make the point to my teens that I’m not quite as god-like and impassive as all that – when I get cut, I bleed a bit; when I get battered, I might show a bruise, and it might be painful for a while before it’s completely healed. I’m not sure they really understand, but it’s probably good to plant the idea in the backs of their minds.
I can recall when I went away to college; my freshman year, my dad would call me on the phone every Friday afternoon, just before dinner. At first, it irked me a bit – it wasn’t always ‘convenient’ for me to talk when he wanted to. It was Friday, I had places to go, etc. Then one day, I was struck by the sudden realization – my dad missed me, and he was concerned for how things were going for me, being away from home for the first time, and all that. It had never occurred to me that my dad might miss me - that he might have any emotions; that I, or my life, might affect him on an emotional level. I mean, I knew I was OK, so what was there for him to worry about, right? Besides, he was my dad; he didn’t have emotions.
And that was a kind of epiphany for my life – the first time I saw my Olympian, god-like father as in any sense a vulnerable human being.
And my teenagers aren’t there yet. They are capable of a lot, both physically and intellectually. They can dish out pain and punishment virtually as if they were adults. But they aren’t developmentally ready yet to think of their parents as human beings. Not yet.
Soon, but not yet.