I have a friend with a teenage son. Actually, I have quite a few friends with teenage sons, but I’m thinking of one in particular this morning. She called me the other day because her 15 year old, after a day with a particularly high number of pestering questions and little annoyances, had refused to expand the dinner he was preparing for himself to make enough for his little sister too. He was rude, hurtful, and just about as obnoxious as he could be. He downright refused. My friend insisted, and stood next to him painstakingly forcing him to do each step. After it was all in the toaster oven, he stomped out of the kitchen, leaving both dinners to either burn or be tended to by someone else. After saving the food from certain blackened and crispy doom, my friend called me, particularly livid. She was interested in what I thought might be a suitable way for her son to make amends. She was considering having him make dinner for the entire family the following day.
I listened to her account of the day’s interactions. I know this boy. He is very sweet, very funny, and very much in the midst of adolescent foot stomping. But even so, it just didn’t sound like him. His mother agreed – she kept saying that she didn’t know where this kind of behavior was coming from, she didn’t know what he was thinking, but that she wanted to put an end to it.
As my friend was talking, I imagined being in their kitchen during this time. I listened to the son’s absolute irrational responses to his mother, and I remembered making similar ones myself many times. My memories weren’t being stirred by my own adolescence, but by times when I am so hungry that I just can’t think straight. I asked my friend if perhaps her son had just been really, really hungry and hadn’t had the where with all to say that clearly.
My friend stopped, and thought. Yes, she supposed, that could easily have been the problem. Her son had forgotten his lunch at home that day, and so hadn’t eaten since the morning. She softened.
I reminded my friend that her son is growing up. It is no longer her place to proscribe ways for him to make amends when he has hurt or wronged someone in the family. Instead, it is time in his development for conversation, and for him to direct himself in apologies and amends-making. I pointed out she would never suggest such a thing of another adult. And while her son is not an adult, he is old enough to be treated with some of the trappings of adulthood so that he can start to get the hang of them.
Later that night, my friend texted me and thanked me for my questions about her son’s hunger. Her son had, indeed, been so hungry that all he could really register was resentment and anger towards anything slowing down his dinner (including making a bit more for someone else). When she talked with him, he easily apologized and said he hadn’t even realized how hungry he was. Unbidden, he talked about ways to remember his lunch in the future and words he could have used to tell his mother the real issue rather than just being angry.
The son had the space to do all of this adult-like amends-making because his mother came into the conversation with an open heart, looking to understand and ease the pain that had caused her son to lash out rather than to direct him setting things “right.”
This was a big step for my friend. She works with young children all day long, and particularly when she is angry or upset, she can fall back on that skill set when interacting with her children rather than approaching them in more age-appropriate ways. A lot of us can do this. Our children grow up so fast, from our perspective. It can be easy to forget that what worked a year ago is no longer useful for our children. It doesn’t meet them where they are in this moment in time. Keeping up with your children is critical to continuing your relationship with them into adulthood.
The other really critical take-away lesson from my friend’s experience with her son is that when you step back and give the youth in your life the space to prove themselves on their own terms, rather than forcing them to do so on your terms, they are much more likely to really get those lessons.