S is for Secrets

September 7th, 2014

girls-whisperingI kept a lot of secrets from my mother—and not just the ones you might imagine, the ones that could have gotten me into trouble. When I got my period at 13, I didn’t tell my mother. Other girls were laughing about how their mothers gave them a surprise congratulatory slap on the cheek followed by a long hug (a tradition) or took them out for fancy lunches or engaged in buying-of-the-feminine-products rituals or gave them “today you are a woman” speeches with tears in their eyes.

Not me.

I walked to Kaminsky’s Drugstore and bought a box of Kotex (tampons were reputed to de-virginize you, according to intel gleaned from the wall of the girls’ bathroom stall). I hid the box under a spiral notebook I didn’t need, waited until Mr. Kaminsky went back to the storeroom to check on something, and quickly made my purchase from Mrs. Kaminsky, who was only slightly less intimidating (and looked uncannily like her husband, including the discernible mustache). It was my moment. My uncomfortable, semi-terrifying, I’m-a-grown-up moment. For me, getting my period was an intensely private time, a time not to share but to be silent, to go inward.

A few years later, when I learned I would be receiving a writing award in high school, I kept it to myself. Eventually, I told my parents. But that moment, that day, all that week until the letter arrived in the mail, I walked around empowered by my secret. Maybe a little smug. It felt like a time to savor, to expand, to grow just a little into the kind of person I might become.

That person was a secret, too. Oh yes, I talked with my parents about colleges and potential majors. But this was exchange of information not personal disclosure, not a revealing of self. Inside I was busy trying to figure out who I wanted to be when I left home.

So a big reason I kept secrets—not the I-drank-at-a-party-and-threw-up kind of secrets (which, of course, I also kept)—was that I needed to feel a sense of ownership over my own life. Though, I certainly wouldn’t have expressed it like that back then. It seemed, at 15 or 16 or 17, that nothing really belonged to me. Everything was someone else’s domain, someone else’s turf. Someone else called the shots. My room, my clothes, the food I ate, the schedule I kept, what I could and couldn’t do, what I was supposed to care about and when—were all determined or heavily influenced and overseen by other people: my mother, my father, my teachers.

But my secrets … they were my own. I had the power to grant access or not. Most often I chose not. I think this helped forge my independence. I believe, in retrospect, that it nurtured my sense of self-worth. But it also created, maintained—and widened—the distance between my mother and me.

She kept her secrets, too. I knew almost nothing about my mother other than that small sliver of her life she lived in my presence. Maybe she needed to preserve something as well, something that was not mother or wife. Something that was just her, unknowable, untouchable. We were two secret selves living our lives on parallel tracks. Parallel tracks don’t cross.

And now, a word from the teenage daughter:

You know that party I went to on Saturday? No parents. Yes, booze.

Remember when I was upstairs last night doing my homework? I was chatting on Facebook while surfing YouTube.

You think I eat that packed lunch at school? Not since 5th grade.

Yes, your teen keeps secrets from you. Yes, I keep secrets from my mom. That’s just the way it is.

We keep secrets about our bodies, our friends, our love life, what happens at school, risky behaviors, bad choices. Why? Well, most of the secrets have to do with things we’ve done wrong, and we know they’re wrong so we figure we’re going to get in trouble. Like yelled at, grounded or lectured. Lectures are the worst.

We also know that if we tell you, besides being punished we will be disappointing you. And even though you might think we don’t care about that, we do. And here’s something else that I never really thought about until sitting down to write this: When you tell your mom a secret and say it out loud, it becomes real. You can’t rationalize it away in your head. And teens do that all the time. So your secret is out there and you’re admitting it, and that’s scary.

And then there’s just some things that we don’t tell our mom that have nothing to do with being “bad.” Like doubts we might have about ourselves or things we’re unsure about or hurtful comments others make. Why? Because we just don’t want our moms to know everything.

So how do you talk to your teens about secrets they may be keeping? Imagine yourself in their shoes. Imagine how they might be feeling. Like, scared. Can you find a balance between being interested in their lives and not prying? Can you find a balance between relating to them and telling some endless story that begins, “When I was your age…”

Have lots of casual conversations in everyday life. Have a basic idea about what your teen’s life is like. Having some BIG talk when something seems to be wrong or troubling is a really bad idea. And hey, don’t trap them at home or in the car because they’ll feel pressured and the whole conversation will feel like an interrogation.

Do this in a public place! No teen wants to make a scene in a public place.


R is for Risky

August 19th, 2014

teen-drinking-smokingTeens engage in risky behavior. It comes with the territory. It is the territory. Admit it: You did some brainless things when you were a teen, things that could have ended badly—but miraculously didn’t. I know I did.

I allowed a boy who clearly had too much to drink to drive me home from a party. I smoked cigarettes that I stole, with regularity, from my mother’s purse. I shoplifted a pair of shoes. I hitchhiked (hitchhiked!) alone (alone!) from New York to Boston. OK, there’s also other stuff, worse behavior involving the usual teen triad of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but my daughter is going to read this, so I’ll stop right here.

I know that Lizzie has done some things she wouldn’t want me to know she’s done. And then there are the things I know she’s done that she doesn’t know I know because, well, I’m a journalist and my job is to find out stuff and, besides, she has two older brothers who keep close tabs on her and occasionally give me a heads-up. But not in a tattle-tale way. Really. Oh, OK. Sometimes in a tattle-tale way.

Why did I do what I did? Why does my daughter take risks that could endanger her health, her safety, her future? Why does yours?

Well, there’s what teens think…and then there’s why they think that way. They think—didn’t you once think?—they are invulnerable. They do not consider the idea of personal consequences. Bad things do happen, sure, but they happen to other people. Other people get in car accidents. Other people smoke and get lung cancer. Other people get caught and hauled down to the police station. Cautionary tales are meant for other people. Consequences are what happen to other people. Or, the notion of “consequence” doesn’t even cross their minds.

That’s crazy, right? Or crazy-making for us mothers. So why do teens think that way? In the process of doing research for my book, My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, A Daughter, A Journey through the Thicket of Adolescence, I delved into the mysteries of the teen brain. And there lies the answer.

The teen brain is not what we once thought it was: a fully functioning organ that went through its one monumental change in early childhood. Instead, it is a work in progress, unfinished, incompletely wired, not yet up to speed, not yet open for the business of wise and measured living. The last part of the brain to come on line is the prefrontal cortex, the seat of moral reasoning, rational decision-making, emotional control and impulse restraint.

This is the “cop” part of the brain that, if functioning well, would prevent a person from doing something stupid or impulsive (or both) that will later be regretted. This is the hey-kid-actions-have-consequences part of the brain. Without a fully functioning prefrontal cortex (it doesn’t ramp up completely until a person’s early 20s), the teen brain often relies on other parts of the organ to process information. Like the limbic brain, aka the “lizard” brain. This is the zero-to-sixty, damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead part of the brain, the consequences? what consequences? part of the brain. And this is where a lot of “decisions” (note ironic use of quotes) get “processed” (ditto) by teens.

It helps to know this. It helps to know that, for these (seemingly endless) teen years, we moms have to not only be vigilant and protective, we also have to use the power of our fully functional adult brains to provide some of that prefrontal cortex “cop” for our kids.

And now, a word from the teenage daughter:

Okay, here’s a list of my risky behaviors….

Ha! You didn’t think I was really going to write about myself, not when my mom will be reading this. But I do know about the stupid things teens do, the things that can really blow up in their faces. I’m not saying I’ve never done anything risky myself, but—listen up, mom—this isn’t about me.

So here’s a list of risky behaviors, from bad to worse, that my friends, acquaintances and kids I’ve observed have done in high school but also (sorry, moms out there) also in middle school: Ditching class (or every class); being a new driver and driving with distractions like a carful of kids, loud music or texting; dating that “bad boy”; shoplifting; smoking cigarettes; massively overdosing on caffeine and high-sugar “energy” drinks; buying prescription meds from friends (adderall, anti-depressants); being intoxicated at school; putting yourself in a situation (wild party, no parents, alcohol and/or drugs) where bad things can happen.

So the question is…why? Why do teens do stupid stuff that can hurt themselves and others? It could be peer pressure, the desire to be accepted by kids at school who seem to be having all the fun. Maybe these are the cool kids and doing what they do is a way to be cool too. It could be that it’s part of building your image. Maybe you want to come off as a tough guy (or girl) to keep people away, to protect yourself, so you go out and do dangerous or illegal or risky things. Breaking the rules is also—let’s just admit this—exciting; especially if you come from a well-behaved family where everyone else follows the rules. There’s an adrenalin rush to misbehaving.

Risky behavior is also about rebellion, like against that well-behaved family or school where life is super regimented, or just what you figure is expected of you. I think rebellion like this is about power and control. Doing something risky and against the rules is a teen making a choice for herself. Yes, it can be a bad choice, but when you’re a kid and all the choices are made for you by others, making any choice makes you feel in control.

I feel like now would be the time to give you my opinion about what moms can do to stop the risky behavior of their teens.

You can’t do much.

Remember that your kids are at school all day every day for five days a week. When they’re home, they’re on their own doing homework or texting friends or in front of a screen. Sorry, but you’re not that big a part of their lives! Besides, some risk-taking and rebellion are important parts of finding out who you are and what you want. As long as the risk isn’t life or future threatening, you should just chill out. It’s not the end of the world. It’s just your teen growing up.

Q is for Quitting

August 16th, 2014

womenMy father used to call me a quitter. Which is why—or at least one big reason why—I am not, today, a quitter. I knew he meant it as a criticism, and a harsh one at that. He was a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of guy who believed in finishing what he started. That attitude was part pride, part stubbornness and part (I think he would forgive me for saying this) lack of imagination. He was conservative in thought, word and deed (although not necessarily in politics) and once he starting walking down a path, he stayed on the path. Period.

Not me. Not as a kid. I quit Girl Scouts. (It was just too dorky to wear that asparagus green uniform after 7th grade.) I quit piano lessons. (I was terrible: truly, profoundly untalented, and no one knew this better than I did. Except for Mr. Thompson, my silently suffering teacher.) I quit drama club. (After my turn as an Irish housemaid—yes, with brogue—in my high school’s production of The Night of January the 16th, I was done, done, done.) I quit ballet. (Actually, I didn’t. My father thought I did, but really the ballet teacher kicked me out because I had the wrong body type and would never be a ballerina, and he was in the business of training ballerinas.) And, shame on me, I “quit” a boyfriend my father particularly liked—a guy named Greg who ended up being a wildly successful, globe-trotting wine importer. (Damn.)

I grew up sensitive to and formed by my father’s opinion of me. I grew up thinking of myself as a quitter. And so, when I left home to go to college and later to make my own way in the world, I vowed that I would never, under any circumstances, be a quitter. I would show him. Could he have helped me learn the fine art of perseverance with a kinder touch? You bet. But, after my skin grew a little thicker, especially after I was not under his roof, I was able to take his criticism as a challenge. It motivated me. I became, as I grew into the adult I have become, the one you could depend on, the one who was in it for the long haul, the one who finished the job. And I have my name-calling father to thank for that.

No one wants to be called a “quitter.”

I didn’t figure out until much later that, really, I was never a quitter. I was a kid who got interested and excited about things, who was given opportunities and tried things on the road to discovering what I liked, what I was good at and what I wanted to stay with. The rest, the stuff that ended up not being of interest for whatever reason (from dorky uniforms to lack of talent), I moved on from—and in moving on (or “quitting”), I asserted a bit of independence. I slowly became myself. Quitting, then, was for me an important, necessary part of growing up.

And for the record: I just started taking ballet classes again. So there, dad.

And now, a word from the teenage daughter:

There should be another word for “quitter.” It’s so harsh. No one wants to be called a “quitter.” It means you’ve given up. It means you’re a disappointment. It’s like being called a loser. If people call you a quitter or you think of yourself as a quitter, this could easily dampen your self-confidence and possibly even cause you to quit more things because you no longer believe you are the kind of person who is capable of following through.

But I think there are plenty of good reasons to “quit.” For example, sometimes it’s good to quit an activity that no longer appeals to you or has the same meaning it had when you started it. I quit track. I was super active all through middle school and into high school. But I stopped. I stopped because I’d proven to myself I could excel and stopped because competition was not fun. Practice was fun. Competition was stressful. I didn’t enjoy this activity any longer.

I quit band in 10th grade, and I had a good reason. It conflicted with a class I really wanted to take. So sometimes quitting is not all emotional. It’s just practical. And then there’s relationships. People don’t think of “quitting” a relationship, but we do all have the experience of ending friendships or discarding boyfriends. And sometimes that’s good, like when a person is having a negative impact on our lives and we just need to get out of the situation. That’s a good quit.

Or, here’s another reason why a teen might quit something: That something wasn’t her choice in the first place! That something, like gymnastics or Girl Scouts or soccer, was chosen by her mother. That’s fine when she’s 6 or 7 years old. But now she’s 14 or 15 or 16, and quitting might mean that she’s figuring out on her own what she likes and doesn’t like, and it might mean a big step in the direction of independence. Also, I remember that there’s a saying that goes “when one door closes, another one opens.” It could be that you need to close the door (that is, quit) in order even to see the other doors that might be open.

P is for Potential

January 6th, 2014

images“Your kid really has potential!”

Are there sweeter words you can hear about your daughter or
son from a teacher, a coach or the parent sitting next to you at the school play?

Potential. Promise. Aptitude. A talent in the making. The chance for greatness.
It is thrilling to see the possibilities in your child, and sometimes even more
thrilling to see that others see it.

I can—I do—get carried away
imagining various amazing futures for my full-of-potential daughter. This is good. And bad.It’s good because it shows how much I admire her talents, which are so very different from my own. And it’s good because it keeps me excited and hopeful during times when things are not going that well.

And then there’s the flip side.

It’s the overeager mother side. The “jump into your life and take over” side.

Read more. Here’s the new post, P is for Potential, at mom.me.  Take a look! Comments encouraged.

O is for Optimism

November 10th, 2013

optimismThese days, Lizzie and I are both volunteering at a free meals program for the homeless in our city. This is an act of optimism. It’s not just that we think, with the few hours a week we devote to the program, that we can help make a difference in some people’s lives. Yes, we do think that. It’s also that we exist within a community of volunteers and activists who also believe they can help. So we are surrounded by optimists. More than that—and this is a huge life lesson for both me and Lizzie—the people we serve, the homeless folks—often show themselves as optimists. It’s easy to be an optimist when life is pretty good. Not so easy when you live under a bridge and carry what you own on your back.

I believe that optimsim may be the single most important attitude, trait, behavior, way of seeing and being in the world that I can help instill in my daughter.  Here’s the new post, O is for Optimism, at mom.me.  Take a look. Comments encouraged!!

N is to Never (ever)

October 13th, 2013

never-ever-do-thisOh those things we vowed we’d never, ever do once we were mothers…We were teenagers screaming into our pillows late at night after our own mothers committed some egregious act (second-degree interrogation of new boyfriend, orders to wash off all that mascara before leaving for school…the usual crimes).

And now, here we are, mothers ourselves, committing our own set of egregious acts.  Or at least things we’d never dreamed of doing, like whipping up a box of that neon orange mac ‘n’ cheese.  Like random acts of invasion of privacy.  Maybe time to revisit our teenage vows?

Read about what a mother (me) vowed not to do — oops – and what a daughter (yes, my teenage werewolf) swears, swears, swears she won’t do if and when she comes a mother.  Our new post, N is for Never, is up at mom.me.  Take a look. Comments encouraged!!

M is for Mother

October 6th, 2013

Portrait-Of-A-Mother-And-DaughterI think about my mother more now than I ever did when we lived in the same house, when I saw her every day, when she was the single most important person in my universe.  I think about what she taught me — both good and bad — about being a mother.  And this makes me wonder what my daughter is learning from me about being a mother.  Lizzie and I decided to tackle this thorny subject in our most recent she said/ she said dual blog post, M is for Mother at mom.me.  We hope you’ll take a look.  And we’d love to hear your thoughts.  (Please post comments at the mom.me site.)

L is for Luck

September 10th, 2013

word luckDo you think you’re particularly lucky?  Or particularly unlucky?  Lizzie wanted to write about LUCK for our “A to Zs of Teenagers” feature at mom.me, and this really got me thinking:  Do I even believe in luck?  I used to when I was Lizzie’s age.  The most interesting thing for me with this new post was not what I had to say (!) but the insight it provided into Lizzie’s mind.  It prompted several conversations we’d never had before.  You might want to try this with your teen.  Ask her to talk about (or list)  the 5 ways she thinks she’s lucky, and the 5 ways she thinks she’s unlucky.  You might be surprised.

Here is the new post from Lizzie and me, L is for Luck at mom.me.

K is for Know

August 21st, 2013

I knowI’ve spent my time in the mothering-the-teen trenches.  Battle scars notwithstanding, this rollercoaster of an experience does not make me an expert.  But I have learned a few things.  In this new post, I write about the “10 Things I Know about Mothering a Teen,” while my teen writes about (gulp) the “10 Things Moms OUGHT to Know about their Teens.”  At least hers is worth reading!

Here is the new post by Lizzie and me, K is for Know at mom.me.

J is for Junk Food

August 14th, 2013

junkfoodAs a teen, I was a junk food junkie.  Now I’m the mother of one.

But when I make rules about junk food in the house, when I rag on Lizzie for eating at McD’s with her new boyfriend, when I make a comment about the occasional Big Gulp vessel (the thing can hardly be called a “cup”) I see on top of the trash, I am swimming against the tide.  Junk food is not just a personal issue or a family issue, it is a societal, cultural, global issue.

The question is: Do I want to spend what mommy capital I have on label reading, nutrition “teaching moments,” dinnertime lectures and Biggie Fry rants?

Here’s the new post from Lizzie and me, J is for Junk food at mom.me.