11.01.2006

The Space Between Words

When your thirteen-year-old says, “Thanks for helping me make it through yesterday,” you know you’re doing something right even if you can’t put it on your resume or boast of your accomplishment to others. Spouses can brag to each other of successful parenting, but such words spoken outside the privacy of home is bragging like any other kind.

But as I pulled out of our driveway and my son uttered his thank you, I internally smiled as I reached over and squeezed his leg. And I want to tell someone. I want to share how good it feels to navigate a touchy situation and know you handled it well. I’m calling up my bragging rights.

The previous day started simply, my son enthused about plans to meet up with a girl later for a movie. But it never happened. Her cellphone broken, he couldn’t reach her. Her not calling him made him feel rejected. He disappeared in sulking.

My son doesn’t see himself as dating yet, but the social navigations he powers through daily are the same thing. The encounters mostly take place via instant messaging online, but the conversations that go on for hours are the equivalent of dinner and a movie, and I suspect in many cases more intimate.

I know not to point this out to my son. The biggest skill I’m learning as the parent of a teenager is what not to say. I can know something, he can know I know something, and through an unspoken agreement of discretion, we communicate with our eyes and with phrases that mask the obvious.

I could ask my son, “Do you like that girl?” which would cause him to shut down and shut me out. Or I can see the obvious and offer to facilitate social plans as if he’s meeting up with a buddy from preschool. He knows by my effort and attention that I can see how important this girl is to him. He may not be certain of his feelings yet, but he’s interested and curious. So I allow him to explore without declaring anything to his mom. Why put him on the spot? Why make him risk the embarrassment?

And when disappointment comes, I can let him lead the conversation by reading his mood, by speaking when subtly invited rather than barging in with parental declarations of experience. I can be patient with his hurt without babying him. I can trust the process.

As a single parent, I may have an edge in relating to my son’s social struggles, struggles that are more emotional than concrete. I understand his interpersonal uncertainties, his letdowns, his occasional insecurity. I don’t have to reach back decades to connect with the mystery of finding your place in the dating world. I’m there right now.

The teen years are expected to be tough, for both child and parent. But somehow as I stand beside the son who will pass me in height in just months, I’m comfortable with this stage. At least for now. I look into his eyes, and I sense I understand. And I’m wise enough to know that this ease is unlikely to continue for long.

Many parents feel that when their teenager withdraws, it’s time to do battle, to be angry, frustrated, and hurt. But I’m hoping that when my son's retreat comes I can look at it differently. I’m hoping I can honor his need to experiment with greater independence, to allow him to see how he’ll answer his own questions without his mom. When he turns inward or seeks friends for guidance, I’ll try to hang back, to only nudge in for his own safety and to let him know I still care and want to know him.

It won’t be easy to step aside – or accept being shoved – but it also hasn’t been easy to see my son hurting and not hover over him with suggestions reflecting my need to fix his problem. Instead, in those times, I breathe deliberately, which prevents my own caring parental anxiety from exacerbating my son’s pain. I retreat into silence and envision his eventual peace in whatever challenges arise. I stay calm. I trust.

And if my son gets too entrenched in his own distress, I seek to break the ennui. I might suffer a small explosion from frustration because just like him, I am human, and I’m not afraid to point that out. And then I gently offer up diversions. I carefully share anecdotes without preaching a solution. And finally, I insist on our taking a walk with our dog whose bouncing joy pokes fun at most sorrow.

But mostly, I concentrate on what not to say, for as parents, we usually say too much.

11 comments:

fringes said...

Great story, Mom. I've discovered that sharing relevant anecdotes is extremely effective for expressing empathy while soothing the kid's jagged nerves. Your 13-year-old's thanks warmed my mommy heart.

Anonymous said...

Great post and thanks for the advice. I've been frustrated with my 15 yr olds shutting me out. I know it's normal, but it feels so much like when his father shut me out I want to take him by the shoulders and shake him...which would be hard, because he's taller than I am.

Thanks for reminding me that just because he's going more alone, he's still expecting me to be there for him.

stephoto said...

Very astute. Lots of wisdom here. I am treading similar waters right now.

acumamakiki said...

This is so very wise of you Deezee. I felt that when we talked a few weeks ago and I read it now, in your words here. I hope to be a listener rather than a do-er and it will take everything in my power (and beyond) to not exert and smother, but I can see how this is possibly the only way to keep your child communicating thru the tough teen years and still seeking your guidance even as they push (I liked your words, shove) away.
And you're right, that sweet little dog of yours brings a smile to the grimest of faces I'm quite certain. Fresh salt air and his smiling face.....that will get both of you thru these next few years.

Margaret said...

Sometimes it's so hard to say less. Good job

Stepping Over the Junk said...

I am already starting with getting my kids to talk to me with being a single parent and their going to their dad's house, as well as school and relating to others other than me. They talk to me. I love it and always want to encourage it, not infringe, but have them trust me and know I am there no matter waht. Inspiring post, thank you!

V-Grrrl said...

This is on the horizon for me, and I know it will be an enormous challenge to find balance in my relationship with my son.

ecm said...

To have the words to say thank you at thirteen is a gift right there. I think being thirteen is so hard, how lucky your son is to have someone who is aware of those challenges and brings such wisdom to parenting.

Rrramone said...

Bravo for you!

Penny said...

Wow. That was amazing. I love your insight and your story. I hope you are still blogging when my little one hits that age.. I'll come back and read you, again.

Well.. I think I'll come back and read you, again, anyway, if it's all the same to you. :)

Great blog.

Alison said...

You're doing something right. Mind if I take notes?