Stories :: From Wild Thing to Spiderman: The Adolescent Odyssey
by Jane Aronson, DO, 21 June 2002
The other night, I was reading to my 26 month old son Ben, who, in age-appropriate
fashion, has gone from an occasional "no" to a litany of "no's," even
when he means "yes." I negotiate diapering with funny faces and crazy
antics and I make sure that there is plenty of time for transitions throughout
the day. When people ask me how he is, I say, "now that he is two, he
has become a teenager." I am completely ambivalent about these changes:
fearful that I will find him in his crib one morning with spiked green
hair, yet proud of his determination to be independent. Parents' responses
to their teenagers are a lot like their feelings about toddlers.
The book I was reading to Ben was Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are.
It is not surprising that two-year olds adore this classic. After all,
the protagonist, Max, gets to cause trouble, talk back to his mother,
be the wildest thing of all, and still be accepted, loved and nurtured.
The book also offers some implicit guidelines for parents of both teens
and toddlers. But before we can understand how to deal with our teenaged
"wild things," it's crucial that we understand what the teenage years
are about developmentally and emotionally and then to see how parents'
sexual orientation factors into the equation.
Each stage of adolescence has unique qualities. But it's important to
note that the reputation of the teenager (whatever the age) is much maligned
in our society. The media misleads us into believing that most adolescents
are brooding, sullen, distant, and at time, even dangerous to themselves
or others. In fact, the vast majority of teens ride the roller coaster
of physical and emotional change quite capably; only about 25% become
sullen (all of the time), alienated, and detached from their families.
This is not to say, however, that there are not real and significant changes
and challenges at every stage of adolescent development.
In early adolescence (12 to 14 years), one of the changes that many parents
have the hardest time adjusting to is their teen's shift from enjoying
time spent with family to preferring time spent with friends. To be brutal
about it, they just don't want to be around you much any more (I have
a lump in my throat as I write this and think about Ben whose favorite
refrain is, "Hold me.").
I interviewed my neighbor who is the mother of 11 and 15 year old sons.
She defines her 15-year old as "multitasking," by which she means that
on a typical school night he might simultaneously be instant messaging
on a conference call with several friends, doing his homework, and listening
to very loud and to her, incomprehensible music. She felt that while her
son had indeed changed gradually and moved away from her and from family
life, he still needed parental guidance and intimacy – only it had
to be on his terms. She described one incident when she was putting away
groceries and he was standing behind her. It was then, with no opportunity
for eye contact and in a very casual way, that he chose to tell her that
he was breaking up with his girl friend. Her response won her points that
afternoon. She quickly said with her back still turned, "sounds good."
It was the equivalent of that wild Max knowing he could come home and
find his supper "still hot."
During middle adolescence many teens may communicate even less. Changing
bodies, flying hormones, and increasing academic demands create a rich,
but challenging life for a youngster and his/her family. Kids are growing
and developing at different paces, and there are excruciating moments
that we all still remember: the pimple that bloomed on my chin the night
of my sweet sixteen party may seem unimportant now, but at the time, I
wanted to die.
One of my dear friends who has six children (four by birth and two through
international adoption), firmly believes that parent-teen hostility is
mostly a myth and that in fact parents can be their kids' best friends
in these years. She suggests that,
"As in modern marital advice, make the vast majority of your communications
approving and positive. Early to middle adolescence is the biggest challenge.
That's where the testing and separating starts—and you can't let
it happen, you can't let the kid rule, and you can't let the kid shy
away from all physical touch and family fun. I make a point of lightly
hugging or ruffling the hair of my 14-and 17-year-old sons. If I find
I have cash in my pocket (rare), I'll hand five or ten dollars unsolicited
to a kid heading out somewhere. When a younger teen is fighting to separate,
you figure out what a kid wants to talk about and you ask one question-"Is
rap the same as hip-hop?" and then you shut up and act fascinated."
With increasing confidence, a redefining of one's identity, and increasing
abstract thinking, middle adolescence yields to late adolescence (17 –
19 years). In these years, teens are able to encompass a bigger picture
of life. The shift in attitude is interestingly depicted in the recent
movie, "Spiderman." The protagonist, an inept and socially ill- equipped
teenager, sullenly rejects his dear uncle's platitudes about becoming
a good citizen. All this kid wants is to impress his gorgeous next door
neighbor, who barely knows that he exists. When his uncle is shot and
killed, our hero realizes that he must save society from evil. In an exaggerated
sense, this is what we expect of late adolescents – that they be
sensitive, altruistic, and take their place in society to make the world
better. We rarely make these expectations explicit (we often don't even
know we have them), and it is almost inevitable that we will be disappointed.
Throughout these years, teens struggle with sexual identity. For many,
this is a time when issues are resolved. Adolescents who are questioning
their sexual orientation may not be in step with their peers. No matter
where they grow up, it isn't easy to be a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender,
or questioning teenager. And while it's also not easy to grow up with
gay or lesbian parents, things have changed.
Public awareness is markedly different since Stonewall set off a revolution
in 1969. Lesbian and gay community centers, gay pride parades, legislation
against hate crimes, same sex partner benefits, commitment ceremonies,
and prime time television programs like Ellen and Will and
Grace have had an amazing impact on societal understanding and acceptance.
I interviewed Olivia Hicks, a social worker in New York City, who works
with adolescents. Until a few years ago, she and Mike Katch ran the "Center
Kids Older Kids Rap Group." They would meet every few months on a Saturday
afternoon in Olivia's Brooklyn apartment. The kids, who were between 11-18
years old, came primarily from Staten Island, Queens, and Brooklyn.
In those years, most of the kids were living with a biological parent
whose own life was in transition or in chaos. The parent was dealing with
his/her own issues of coming out, getting divorced from a heterosexual
partner, risking rejection from family and friends, feeling threatened
at work and possibly fearful of having their children taken away. Many
of these youngsters felt they had to parent their parents.
The kids were upset, confused and often just plain "pissed off" at these
parents for creating such turmoil in their lives. Like their gay/lesbian
parent, they were afraid of being "outed" at school, which would lead
to teasing and rejection by their friends. Their parents' own redefinition
of their sexual identity made their own sexual awareness even more confusing
A recent interview with Terry Boggis, director of New York City's Lesbian
and Gay Community Center's Center Kids Program, shows how much times have
changed. Terry recounted some of the history of groups for children of
gay and lesbian parents, including Olivia and Mike's important work, but
she indicated that there just wasn't much call for such groups any more.
While it's true that societal acceptance has made a huge difference, Terry
believes that the main reason lies in the very nature of today's lesbian
and gay families. Adults come out, find partners, and choose to create
their own families, whether through birth and/or adoption, within the
context of being gay/lesbian. They live more openly. Their children grow
up knowing who their parents are and connecting with other kids with similar
kinds of families. It's the difference between Ozzie and Harriet
and Will and Grace.
Out to lunch with a friend recently on a gorgeous spring day, I was
meandering through Chinatown listening to the music, smelling the food,
and taking in the amazing array of people. I was thinking about my own
adolescence and organizing my thoughts for this article, and suddenly,
all I could see were teenagers. There was a sameness to the way they dressed,
walked and self-consciously strode down the streets, yet each was also
unique. They were a whirlwind of color and passion and with all my heart
I wished I could be one again. Just for an hour, mind you. I walked into
a shoe store catering to kids, thinking that I might want a pair of sneakers.
Instead, I heard the blaring music and was swept away by words that talked
of love and rhythms that throbbed with sex.
Adolescence can be a tough time, especially for a kid, especially one
with a "different" family. Just make sure that whenever your Max or Maxine
comes home to you that supper is there waiting, and that it's still hot.
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