By Elizabeth O’Brien
My husband and I are decidedly uncool in the eyes of our teenage son. Even though it’s only been a couple of years since our daughter was a high school senior, and four and half years since our firstborn son was this age, it seems we’ve forgotten, again, how to back off. We’re clingy, intrusive, overly affectionate and corny. We try too hard.
I have to hand it to Sam. He’s the only one left, and at 18, he is holding up admirably. He is tolerant of our sentimentalism, but he’s quick to draw the line. He knows who he is. His boundaries are firm. We are trying to respect this new young adult, while maintaining a certain dignity.
How do parents restructure their roles as their children mature? With our eldest, an exuberant and impulsive boy who bulldozed every limit, we never figured it out. I still catch myself treating him, at 22, as if he were 14. With our daughter, who is 20, it was never an issue. She was born an old soul and was more likely to play the adult. If her dad became too rigid, or I too emotional, she “contained” our anxiety by being calm and reasonable. She conducted her life-both at school and beyond-with a quiet self-confidence.
Sam is another being altogether. Since he was a baby, he’s been focused and intense. He sets goals for himself, and accomplishes them. Then he raises the bar. If he chooses to “disobey,” to break the proverbial rules, it is a determined, considered decision. A few weeks ago at a friend’s house, he and two friends snuck out in the middle of the night, having stuffed their beds, and when they were caught, he stepped up and took his punishment. He suffered no remorse, nor did he reveal their late-night agenda. It is almost as if he feels it is his obligation, and part of his job, to act out just enough.
Indeed, he is right. Psychological research bears out that adolescents who don’t experiment, and try out different roles-who don’t rebel-are not as healthy as those who do. When they leave home, they generally don’t handle themselves as well as young people who have “done their job” in individuating from their parents by pushing against the rules. Of course, this is a delicate period, and not every teenager negotiates it unscathed. Still, human beings articulate themselves through pain and adversity, through forging their own path-not by being sheep. The ability to face obstacles and figure out a way to remove them is a necessary, and invaluable, vehicle for coming of age. In fact, it is a lifelong task that leads, ultimately, to what the late psychologist Abraham Maslow calls “self-actualization.”
Sam is on this path. He’s been accepted by two colleges now, and is awaiting word from others. Every day, as we watch his face and stature morph into manhood, his character fills out in kind. He connects to us now, in a way he never could before. He integrates his knowledge, making new connections daily. He is making sense of the world, and we are in awe of him.
Though I can’t hug and kiss him, now, as much as I’d like, there are occasional chinks in his teenage aloofness. The other morning, he came into my room, dressed in his soccer gear, and asked for my help. He gave me his necklace, bowed his head to my height and allowed me to clasp it. His neck is still soft, with traces of peach fuzz.
As my husband and I work to prepare his “launch-pad” and loosen our grip, we are realizing that he is already in tentative flight. Now it is up to us to look in the mirror, swallow hard, and launch ourselves.
Elizabeth O’Brien, M.A., LPC-I, is a Licensed Professional Counselor-Intern practicing in Westlake under the supervision of Dr. Sunny Lansdale.