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Our 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 and painful.

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.

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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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  This page last updated September 17, 2003 8:44 PM EST