As a new parent you look at your baby with a bright full future ahead of them. So much potential there swaddled in your arms. You look at parents of troubled teenagers and secretly look down on them; your perfect baby will never do anything like that. They must be poor parents. Too easy on their teenager. Not enough structure in the house, no rules or oversight. There is no way you will have a teenager like that in your house.
I’m a pediatrician. Literally an expert on children. I’ve also read many, many books about parenting. I counsel parents on the regular about issues with their children’s behavior, with their teen’s behavior. I once also had a perfect baby who was going to grow up to do wonderful and amazing things. There is no way I would have a troubled teen; I’m an expert on parenting! Unfortunately, that is not how this story has been unfolding for us.
My perfect baby grew up into a wonderful kid who then became a very challenging teenager. The list of things he has done is long, things I never thought I would be dealing with in my own home. With each new “thing” that he does, my shame about my parenting grows. This is what no one tells you, the shame you feel as your own child makes poor choices. Being a mother to a teenager is so completely isolating. You have friends with young children looking at you and judging your parenting. Why is your teenager so out of control? Why don’t you discipline them more, give them more consequences? Why are you so inadequate as a parent? And then you have friends with no kids who literally have no idea, but think you are just a poor parent. If you are lucky, you have a few friends who have teenagers who are just as deep in it as you are, but each of you is just trying to make it day to day. So you sit alone with your shame, trying to not let your teenager think you are ashamed of them. Because you aren’t ashamed of them. They are trying to figure things out as well.
Let me tell you, we are not easy parents on him. We are not a house without rules or structure. But the more we dolled out consequences, the further away he pulled from us. Our relationship was breaking, maybe even all the way broken for a time. This is what people on the outside don’t understand; at some point, you have to choose between loving your teenager where they are at or forcing them to fit into your expectations, forever ruining your relationship. At our house we chose love. We chose to love him even when he didn’t meet our expectations. We chose to love our precious baby that has grown up and will eventually leave our home, hopefully knowing that no matter what trouble he finds himself in, he has parents he can rely on. And maybe, our loving him will help him love himself as well.
The next time you have a friend come to you with stories about their teenager, pause before judging. More than likely, they have judged themselves already and are full of shame. What they really need is a listening ear and some empathy. None of us are the perfect parents, including this pediatrician. None of our kids are the perfect kids. Parents do not need more shame and judgment and our kids need more of our love.
Candace Engelhardt is a pediatrician.