SCENE ONE: (Mom cheerfully sweeps kitchen floor. Front door opens. Brooding Teen in hooded sweatshirt enters. Without looking at Mom, Teen shuffles down hall toward bedroom.)
MOM: (Hurriedly following.) “Hi Honey! How was school today?”
MOM: “Hmm? What was that?”
MOM: “I’m sorry, Sweetie, but I couldn’t hear what you said. Give it to me one more time.”
TEEN: “Ngood.” (Teen slams bedroom door, leaving Mom alone and dumbfounded in hall.)
This little vignette is reenacted over and over again in our house. Day after day, week after week, month after month.
Now that my son is a full-fledged teenager, all affection, conversation and attention are forced under threat of house arrest, or bribed with expensive electronics, edible treats, or cold hard cash.
His father and I used to rock his world just a few years ago. He would burst out of school each day and find me waiting there to walk him home. His eyes would light up, and he would often run at me full pelt, plowing into me with open arms. He would linger a few seconds so I could run my hand through his sandy colored hair and kiss him on the head.
But then, he became a teenager.
When he first started withdrawing from us emotionally, I panicked and thought, “Why did I let him watch that PG-13 movie when he was twelve?! And, he’s always resented me for those cute bowl hair cuts I used to give him. I knew I never should have spanked him when he put that waffle in the VCR! Oh God, what have I done!?!”
We worried and watched, waiting for a call from the police informing us that our son was holding the school principal hostage or that he was hitchhiking across the country on an historic crime spree.
Even though the police never called, we feared that our son’s withdrawal from us was clear evidence that he was on the brink of some kind of teenage nervous breakdown, all caused by our overbearing demands and inadequate parental nurturing.
Eventually, we did get reports of our son’s behavior, but not from public authorities or school officials. Other parents told us what our son was doing outside our home.
“My daughter told us the funniest story about your son at supper last night – apparently he had the whole literature class laughing yesterday at school.”
“That skit your son did for our Cub Scout den was priceless. We videotaped it!”
“Your son was so chatty and polite when I gave him a ride after football practice yesterday.”
“You must be so proud that the Biology teacher played your son’s cell project video to all the classes. It was so well done.”
Initially, we thought, “Are you sure you have the right kid here? Our son is the one that never wears anything but that hooded sweatshirt, doesn’t make eye contact and grunts. What skit? What cell project?”
Slowly but surely, we began to dissect this brooding man-child living in our house. By examining his separate and distinct parts, we started to understand the creature our son was becoming.
We discovered that our son isn’t an axe murderer, he’s just a teenager.
Outside our home, he is a smart, funny, outgoing football player, scout leader, band geek and math tutor. When he gets home, he withdraws and hides his burgeoning personality from us, afraid that we will interfere or attempt to change him. His “split personality” enables him to grow, mature, and as much as we hate it, become independent from of us.
We have to let our son create himself, whatever that creature may be, and in the meantime, we must learn to find complex meaning in the grunts and grumbles he emits.
For example, “Nghu” really means, “Wow, thanks for asking about my day at school, Mom – it actually went quite well despite the fact that I missed you terribly and couldn’t wait to come home and eat your delicious home cooking.”
Nowadays, when I force my son to let me hug him, I interpret the pained expression on his face to mean, “Mother, my gratitude and respect for you are so intense that I can only bear it for a second before I must shove you away.”
Another thing I’ve learned: Asking one’s teen for a kiss on the cheek definitely requires bribery. Pepperoni pizza and chocolate chip cookies work for me.
[See the hilarious Neuron Cell project video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OH37g_KDM_s.]