Busting the Myth of the “Teenage Monster”

My daughter and I made a promise to each other several years ago, and we're trying to keep it.

We swore we would avoid becoming the stereotypical mother and daughter through her teen years.

We wouldn't subscribe to the myth that teenage girls naturally become disrespectful and condescending to their moms or that moms are unreasonable and oblivious to the real feelings of their girls.

Mind you, this is a cultural myth that has a whole lot of traction keeping it going. Just stand outside the fitting room in any Gap store on a weekend and listen to an entire generation of girls treat their mothers with the same courtesy and respect they would afford a cockroach (the same mothers whose credit cards are relied on at the checkout counter). You'll know why society takes for granted the truth of the “difficult teen.”

Back when Katie's 13th birthday approached, I heard endless warnings about what my future would hold with a teenager in my home. Because she is my oldest, I had no experience with teens, so parents offered the conventional wisdom.

“Just wait,” I was told. “She'll turn into a monster.”

Or this encouraging thought: “Get ready to find out just how stupid you are.”

And my favorite piece of optimistic advice: “Don't worry. It'll get better by the time she's 23.”

If I had a nickel for every time someone told me to get ready for the change in my daughter, I would have — well, I would have a big honking pile of nickels.

I couldn't imagine or believe that my delightful teenager was destined to become a holy terror for 10 years or that there was nothing I could do about it. More than that, I wouldn't stipulate to an assumption I simply didn't buy.

Why should I accept that my daughter couldn't help but treat me like a necessary encumbrance or that I should wish away her growing years because of excessive obnoxiousness? Who says?

Not me. Not us.

Back then, on trips to the store or at school functions, Katie and I started to notice moms and daughters. We saw many whose relationships we admired, but sadly, it was easier to spot examples of the kind of behavior we wanted to avoid.

Whenever we overheard daughters speaking disrespectfully or impatiently to their mothers, we talked about it — not only about the lack of courtesy on the part of the girl, but about the lack of self-respect in a grown woman who would let her child get away with a tone of voice that seemed to say, “Mom, you are an idiot, and you are embarrassing me.”

I made sure to stress to Katie that the girl wasn't the only one at fault. After all, teens who talk back to their parents do this because they know they can. Apparently, parents who accept such communication are getting the behavior they pretty much expect.

Our observations brought Katie to the conclusion that she didn't want to sound like the girls who “dissed” their moms, and I concluded I wouldn't step into the role of maternal doormat.

That's when we made our deal. We would do it differently.

I would try to be patient and understand when stress, hormones, lack of sleep and general feelings of teenage discombobulation ran rampant through her growing mind and body.

She would remember that “Honor your parents” is on God's short list of important ideals for human behavior. It wasn't something she could choose to do or not do — it was a given.

To be clear, we were not agreeing to be “buddies.” I love my teenager, but I'm not her friend; I'm her mother. Big difference. I insisted she treat me like a mother even if our relationship is mostly friendly.

Busting this myth would be a 50-50 bargain. Katie had to uphold her promise to speak respectfully, just as I had to expect and demand the behavior my role deserved.

We made that deal nearly four years ago, before high school started — before we entered the world of cell phones and car keys and a growing sense of independence that clearly wants its way.

Still, most of the time we do all right.

Katie has a propensity to say “I know” with a bit more assertiveness than I would like. It's not so much “I know” as, “You have told me this same thing 110 times before, and I wish you would stop telling me.” She manages to get all that in there by stretching out the word “know” into two long syllables.

I have a tendency to lecture rather than listen. OK, not a tendency. A habit.

So far, though, I've only had to remind her of our promise a few times.

Doing this is the one thing that jars her — in part because she treasures our relationship — but also because she's a girl who keeps her word, and when we set out to bust this myth, she intended to succeed.

Then again, what Katie doesn't know is she already has succeeded. Simply promising to be different made her different.

In a world that makes excuses for disrespectful behavior on the grounds it's just a part of growing up, Katie is proving my contention that this is just a myth.

We still have a way to go, but so far, so good.

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 18 years and mother of four children from third grade to junior year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.MarybethHicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)

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