“There’s us and the dead. We survive this by pulling together not apart.”
– Rick Grimes, The Walking Dead
Four years ago, when Kory was still alive, he and I took a parenting class on “How to Raise Teenagers”. We were trying to prepare ourselves for this period quickly approaching in the Hunter household. Our oldest son, Ethan, was almost twelve. Our family was right on the threshold of this new world.
How will our lives change?
What can we do to be ready?
What happens if we suck at being parents to a teenager?
So many questions.
I had spent eight years teaching in a middle school, had seen first hand hundreds of children pass into the teenage years, but none of these kids were my own flesh and blood. Plus, how kids act at school may be very different from how they act in the comfort of their own homes and with their parents. They often save “the best” (aka the worst) for us Moms and Dads. I always breathed a sigh of relief when someone would comment on how polite or well behaved my child was at school or at a friend’s house knowing that I had the sole pleasure of witnessing my mini Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Ethan is our first-born, the first-born grandchild on both sides of our family. We are paving the way for the next generation, no pressure.
I find it ironic that the class we took was taught by the director of the preschool Ethan attended and where my daughter was currently a student, because the lessons taught in preschool are most likely the ones that we will be revisiting in the teen years.
Preschool vs Teenage Lessons
- How to play nicely with others: In the sandbox and playground vs social media and peer pressure
- Learning to be independent and responsible: Tying shoes and zipping jackets vs curfews and homework
- Motor skills: learning to ride a bike vs learning to drive a car
- Body Image: boys and girls have unique parts vs how we love and accept our parts and how they work individually and together
- Sleep: waking up too early in the morning vs sleeping until the afternoon
The most important take home message from our sessions was to make an effort to have individual time with each child, especially with your teenage child. During the time when a child is pulling away from the family unit, expressing their own individuality and exploring their independence, a line of connection needs to be maintained. All children, especially teenagers, need to know that their parents want to spend time with them, that they are worthy and desirable to be around.
Even when they aren’t desirable to us and we aren’t desirable to them…
Fast forward four years, and I am now tackling this parenthood game as a single mother. Parenting and the teenage years are not for the weak and frail hearted. It is messy and loud and smelly and lonely. After Kory’s death, I had to modify my defensive parenting strategies. I could no longer rely on the man to man defense that existed with two parents in the home, but instead I had to implement a defensive “zone” strategy. My house runs more smoothly and my sanity is intact when everyone is on the same schedule, the same plan. Take a typical weekday morning for example. I wake all three children up at 6:30am. They are to shower, get dressed, brushed, packed for school and ready to go out the door at 7:30. I am a master of the zones in the morning: timing showers, lining up packed lunches, PE bags, backpacks, and shoes. Most mornings our system moves efficiently and effectively getting us out the door and heading to school and work on time. However, once in awhile there will be a morning where all productivity comes to a grinding halt. The culprit? One very lethargic teenage boy.
Gone are the days when I could just pick up the child, throw some clothes on him, and deposit him into the car. When the boy is a foot taller than you, your manhandling days are over. These are the ugly mornings that I resort to yelling, threatening and deal making.
“He was never a problem.”
“She was always such an easy child.”
“I don’t know what happened.”
These echoes from bewildered parents are unfortunately familiar. In the last week alone I have had three separate conversations with parents of teenagers that have been dealing with depression, anxiety, suicide attempts, lack of motivation, under achieving and avoidant behaviors. Not to mention conversations I have had with my son and others concerning peers using drugs and alcohol. This garbage is real. We may not recognize them some days, but our fun loving, sweet, caring children are under all of this garbage. How can we breath hope into these situations? How do we lessen the anxiety that parents and children have? How do I not go crazy when my child refuses to get out of bed and go to school?
Ethan lost his dad at the end of seventh grade. By the middle of eighth grade he was experiencing severe stomach issues, missing days of school and falling behind in his school work, I was desperate to find the source of his problem. After countless doctor appointments and medications, I took Ethan to be assessed by a clinical psychologist who brought light and understanding to this situation. He explained that all people are hardwired to deal with stress. At stressful times our autonomic nervous system is activated in one of two ways. Either your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is activated or your parasympathetic nervous system is activated when faced with a stressful situation. Fight or flight is the more common situation that we think of when trouble arises. Your heart rate increases, pupils dilate, and muscles tense. However, some people’s bodies have an opposite reaction, and their parasympathetic functions kick in. Your heart rate slows, muscles relax, energy level drops and irritation to the stomach, gut and bowel tissue increases. Essentially the person “shuts down”, becomes lethargic, and may experience digestive issues. In this situation the person may report that they do not feel stressed or worried, but they may have a headache or a stomach ache. Yet, it is the stress in their lives that have created this physical response. This was Ethan to a T.
Knowing this information helped, but it did not alleviate Ethan’s stomach aches and missing school. Nor did it fully relieve my morning frustrations. One practice that was suggested that I implement at home was allowing Ethan to choose an activity he would like to do with me individually. This would help with his motivation and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Plus, it was reminiscent of the parenting class we took four years ago. Back then there were two of us. We could implement man to man defense. We could focus on one child at a time, while the other parent maintained the others. It is just me now. I am trying to master the zone. How do I have time for man to man?
Enter “The Zombies”…
Ethan: “Mom you have to watch this show.”
Me: “The Walking Dead? I don’t think that is for me honey. Isn’t it all about zombies eating people?”
Ethan: “Yah, but there is so much more to it. Just check it out once.”
Me: “Ok, but I have to put your brother and sister to bed first. Don’t want them having nightmares.”
I have to be honest. The first show I watched gave me nightmares for a week. Why this show? Why does this have to be “our time”? Two years later and I am hooked. Every Sunday night I get filled with joy, yes joy, when I hear my son ask if I am ready to watch the next episode with him. He records it and will wait to watch it (after I put his brother and sister to bed) with me. With Me! Then we have to review and make predictions throughout the rest of the week. Like real conversation but about zombies! Believe me this is a huge step in teenage parenting.
Ethan still has a tendency to “shut down” and become overwhelmed with stomach pains from time to time, and I still have a tendency to “freak out” about it. However, if we take the sage advice from Rick, one of our favorite Walking Dead characters, “we survive this by pulling together not apart”, perhaps there is hope. If they can live among the walking dead, I can live with a teenager (plus two more after this one) without becoming a zombie myself. Heaven help me, please!