You know that saying – if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck?
Well, it doesn’t necessarily apply when dealing with teenagers – and that’s a difficult lesson I re-learned this week.
My two teenagers have both been taller than me for more than two years now.
They are skilled at dealing with everything from waitresses in restaurants to angry parents at the soccer fields where they referee to tech support staff on the telephone – and have been for a couple of years already. They handle most social issues themselves, without my hovering. My daughter even has the same driving freedoms that I enjoy as an adult, minus a state-imposed curfew for new drivers.
When I listen to them speak, they often sound just like I do – especially when they are making a case for why they should be allowed to do something.
In so many ways, they appear to be adults. And honestly, that appearance has lulled me into a state of complacency at times.
Because the reality is they are not yet adults.
Their brains will continue to develop and form new, important connections for several more years. They do not always have the capacity to understand when they are in a dangerous situation, and the fact that they have successfully navigated childlike problems in the past does not mean they are fully ready yet for the grown-up world.
That hit home for me in a big way this week, when we realized that our kids had been shouldering a very difficult – and adult – situation for several months now without our boundaries and support. While I had heard bits and pieces of the problem, I failed to fully connect the dots and it made them less safe as a result.
They and some of their friends were in over their heads and needed help from us – even if they didn’t quite ask for it.
When I realized how long I had let them grapple in relative silence, it hit me like a punch to the gut. They might seem OK on the surface, but these teen years are difficult, and our kids still need our help to process things – a lot.
It is our responsibility to loan them our fully developed adult brains and to give them structure to process problems they aren’t quite ready to handle alone.
We are admittedly regrouping a bit at our house right now – talking more about safety and being realistic and candid about some of the dangers in this difficult – and ultimately broken – world of ours.
I share this with you as a gentle reminder: We can’t operate in a place of paralyzing fear. We should not over-protect our children at this age, since very soon they will be called upon to fully function in the adult world, often without us.
But we have to continue being vigilant, even if we feel our kids are mature and (mostly) responsible. We have to listen like crazy, trust our gut (I ignored mine for a little too long on this one) and support as needed.
Our kids’ very lives may be at stake. Hang in there, friends. These years are both beautiful and achingly difficult.