Among the myriad gifts my second marriage has brought me are two bonus teenagers, and so now we are six. Four teenagers means there are a lot of hormones in our house. We are outnumbered by four half-child, half-grown beastlings who are pushing boundaries, feeling their oats, discovering who they are… oh, I should just skip the platitudes and face it, they are making us crazy.
We read the brain science, we know their brains are forming from back to front and that the regions of the brain that control impulse, insight, caution and judgment are still maturing during adolescence (and for boys developing even more slowly than girls).
But that intellectual knowledge does not prepare us for the countless times we find ourselves asking our teenagers, "what were you thinking?" The answer is that they weren't. And even more worrisome, because they simply don't have fully connected frontal lobes, they can't.
And we are not alone, of course. Parents of teenagers gather together and immediately the stories are traded. Drug use, eating disorders, cutting, tattoos and piercings, car accidents, sexual exploration, "checking out" of school, giving attitude, manipulative and sneaky behavior, outright lying, wrestling with emergent sexual feelings and sexual orientation—all of these are "normal," but that knowledge doesn't help when it is your kid. So when we find pot in a teenager's car, or a girl sneaking out of a boy's bedroom in the dawn's early light, when we get the call that a teen has been hit in the head with a rock rough housing on a school outing and needs to go to the emergency room, or learn that a daughter has drunk too much vodka and was weeping in front of her peers about a college rejection, we are left not only asking "what were they thinking?'" but also, "what the hell can we do?"
The stakes are big with these changelings in our midst. We hope and pray that if they can come through these challenging adolescent years they will return to us as men and women that are delightful human beings reflective of the values we hold dear. This can be hard to remember when doors are slamming, or a litany of one's sins as a parent is dumped on one's head, or when a seventeen year old girl insists on her "right" to sleep over at her 24 year old boyfriend's apartment.
The other day I was reminiscing with friends about the good old days when our children, now all teenagers, were young enough to be intimidated by our threats to "count to ten." You know the routine: it's time to get ready for bed for example, and after the wheedling, pleading and negotiation that has already extended the time limit (not to mention your limit), you resorted to the dreaded threat: "Don't make me count to ten!" And then the counting began, and miraculously by the time you said "four" or "five" those kids were up and running to get their teeth brushed and jammies on.
My friends and I were laughing because we didn't know then, and still don't, what the "or else" would have been if we had ever reached that magical number ten. Nor do we know why the threat actually worked. Now as our children are older, and both appropriately and inappropriately pushing boundaries in every direction, we long for the day when counting actually worked.
Ultimatums without consequences are meaningless. Yet every parent I know is somewhat squishy on the subject of how to handle both the giving of ultimatums and the requisite consequences (and yes, squishy is the technical term). So the teen with pot in his car gets the car taken away for two weeks, while we agonize, is two weeks long enough? Will it make the point not only about driving while intoxicated or high, but also about the long-term effects drugs and alcohol can have on his developing brain? The kid in the emergency room is subject to a lecture on using common sense about not rough housing, but will that lecture make any difference to a brain that simply cannot recognize the dangers? The teen that drank too much swears off alcohol, but is that merely the result of having experienced a first hangover?
There are some good resources about disciplining teens. For example, http://www.lifescript.com/life/family/parenting/11_mistakes_parents_make_with_teen_discipline.aspx
And while I agree with the experts who counsel us to listen, to make the punishment fit the crime, to be consistent, etc., part of the problem is that discipline is not always what is needed. Do we really want to "discipline" a child who is already punishing his or herself with self-mutilation or an eating disorder? Who got in the line of fire of a rock? Who succumbed to peer pressure but comes clean, contrite and chastened already knowing a mistake has been made?
So the conclusion I have reached is that we all still need to count to ten. Not as an ultimatum, not even out loud, but to ourselves as the tidal wave of teenage issues comes crashing on our shore. The parent who found pot in his kid's car did what any sensible parent would do in this day and age, he Googled "what do you do when you find pot in your kid's car?" The first hit among thousands, was "DON'T PANIC." And those two simple words have become my mantra as I quietly count to ten.