Monday, September 03, 2007

How to Raise Teenagers: I Must Have Slept Through That Lecture

Those of you who are regular readers may recall that in addition to being a psychiatrist, writer, and podcasting blogger, I am also the mother of two teenagers. It's okay, no surprises here, after all I went to medical school and I'm a psychiatrist which means I'm an expert in human behavior, those teenage years being just part of the developmental process. I know exactly what to do and say to assure that I have wonderful, happy, mentally healthy, well-adjusted, and successful children who glide through life glitch-free and openly share with me any of the little bumps they might encounter along the journey.

And now let me tell you about this little bridge I have for sale, it's a great bargain.

And let me tell you what they teach you about raising children in Medical School and Psychiatry Residency Training Programs. They don't teach you anything, at all, ever, about normal developmental adolescent behavior. Somewhere along the line I learned that babies develop a social smile between 5 and 8 weeks of age and they should be fed whole milk until age 2. Either the information stopped there, or I blocked everything else out.

Pediatrics rotations in medical school take place on an inpatient medical unit. I saw children with leukemia, babies with failure to thrive, kids with acute abdomens, and inevitably half of morning rounds went like this: "Bed A suffered burns on her right arm when mom's coffee spilled on her, Bed B has burns on his left leg from dad's spilled tea...." I did learn that parents should be very careful about hot beverages, hot bath water, and space heaters (--there was a major burn unit in the hospital where I studied). We had lectures on diarrhea while we sat around a table eating cookies. Not once did anyone tell me that it's completely normal for formerly articulate, intelligent boys to suddenly stop speaking and merely grunt for years at a time. Nor was there a course that mentioned how it's impossible for the mother of a teenage girl to dress right...or even breathe right. Honestly, I thought my own mother--who handled my obnoxious teenage years with grace-- embarrassed me because she was embarrassing. It didn't occur to me until I had teenagers of my own that it had more to do with me than with her.

Three months on an inpatient child psychiatry unit, with shifts in the pediatric ER, didn't help. I met kids who were completely out of control, chronic runaways, children who'd been violent in their group homes. In the ER I saw suicidal teenagers and had no where to place them --try finding an inpatient bed for an uninsured suicidal teen who's parent says they've had it won't take them back. Not only did I not learn a thing about normal adolescent development, but I saw the worst case scenarios of children who'd had lives that were tragically devastated at young ages, already paragons of loss, chaos, and upheaval. It wasn't a setting filled with hope; it takes a lot for a child to end up in an inpatient unit in an inner city teaching hospital.

Okay, so teenagers, this is the thing I'm figuring out: It's a stage, it's its own distinct thing, and being a psychiatrist, I have this tendency to look at my teenager's behaviors and extrapolate them to adulthood. I'm just getting it that a lot of normal teenage behavior looks surprisingly like impending disaster. Nothing about being a doctor helps with this, most of what I've learned being a psychiatrist makes it hard to keep things in perspective, especially when living with a teenage boy.

I'm not much for How-To-Raise-'Em books. Mostly, I thought we were doing fine by gut, but lately I've decided we could use a little help. I bought some books, I even read them, and I thought I'd share my thoughts about these books with you.

This was my favorite:
Get Out of My Life...but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?
by Anthony E. Wolf, PhD.

This book was laugh-out-loud funny with descriptions that resonated so strongly I was left to ask how this guy knew my kid.

"What happens is that teenage boys develop terminal lethargy. They seem to catch a lengthy case of sleeping sickness. They appear to do nothing. If the normal speed of human activity is one hundred rpm's, teenage boys seem to go at around six."

You mean that's normal??? Why didn't anyone tell me? What a relief! And the list continued. I won't say I agreed with every thing Dr. Wolf says-- he sounds more willing to tolerate certain behaviors than I would ever be, but overall this was a quick read and did more for cuing me into Why I Shouldn't worry, What I Can't Control, and Why I need to Let Go, more than psychiatry ever has. Relief: yes. Sadly, I'm left knowing that my children are pushing me away because they are growing up and doing all the things they should be doing, and while it's always been easy to rejoice in their milestones, these stages entail a bit of quiet grief as I come to terms with the fact that my children will never have the relationship they had with me when they were little.

I Wanna Be Sedated, edited by Faith Conlon and Gail Hudson, is a collection of 30 essays by professional writers all on parenting teenagers. Okay, I admit it, I bought the book because the title was irresistible and at the moment I was surfing for books about raising teenagers, I really did want to be sedated. Some of these stories were hysterical-- we had both our kids read "How To Lie To Your Parents" by David Carkeet. "Mom? Everything's Okay, but..." by Linda Rue Quinn was funny even though neither of my children have actually set any part of our house on fire. The stories varied: funny, poignant, sad, even boring, but for the most part it was a compelling read. There were no parenting tips, it really was just the sharing of stories, and a reminder that teenagers, while in many ways alike in their stages, differ greatly in how easy or hard they can be to raise and what kind of people they actually are. The honesty of the writers was brutal at moments, at many points I was simply thankful not to share their problems, at other points I felt I'd found a kindred spirit. I smiled at Stephen J. Lyon's essay, "Commuting With Rose." He writes, "Anyway, as a parent of a teenager, you are always off balance--grasping at straws, parenting books, or a bottle of Zoloft. So you ten to stay with any small success. Sociologist love to rattle off statistics about how many minutes per day fathers spend with their children, always discounting the power of silent communication and the value of mere presence, along with the all-important fatherly stare and raised eyebrows. And they rarely speak of how little or erratically a teenager wants to relate with any parent."

Finally, I looked at Staying Connected to Your Teenager by Michael Riera, Ph.D. This is a more conventional How-To book and I had a harder time staying with it. In the first chapter, he suggests trying to talk to your teenager after midnight, and for a while, I'd try to stay awake that long. I made smores one night with my son and he recited to me the Shakespeare he'd had to memorize for school--it was definitely worth staying awake for and not a conversation that ever would have been had at a more civilized hour. Otherwise, though, it felt like the author had all the answers and I think my challenge has been to make peace with the fact that there probably are no real answers.