MomsOnMonday: Prep for Parenting Your Modern Family

Posted on March 4th, 2013, 0 Comments

The Teen Stage

Season 4, Episode 17

The Framework

Tonight on Modern Family the four teens are on stage. Luke has a case of adolescent-stage fright about sending a message to a classmate he has a crush on, but he eventually lands a first date with her when his dad helps out by on-line chatting as him. And Manny is crushed when the romantic dinner he planned for the new nanny – a dinner complete with candles, love poems, pizza, and tiramisu – doesn’t even make it to first bite.

Meanwhile, Haley accepts her mom’s invite for a dinner date, bails on her, and then rejoins Claire to watch Alex play in her new band. But after the concert, just when it looks like Claire might get to have a double daughter mom-date, Alex (acting just like a teen) blows her off instead:

Claire: We’re going to get some dinner. Do you want to come with us? You can bring your friends from the band.

Alex: Ummm, no thanks. We’re (pointing to the band) actually going out. And I have a ride home. So see you guys later.

Alex (to her band friends): Oh, my God! Sorry about that.

Haley (to Claire): Did she just apologize for us.

Claire: Yep.

Haley: But we were just being nice.

Claire: Sucks doesn’t it?

Claire has a theory about the teen stage and what makes teens act the way they do. Actually it’s an analogy that Phil gave her:

Raising a kid is like sending a rocket ship to the moon. You spend the early years in constant contact. And then one day, around the teenage years, they go around to the dark side, and they’re gone. All you can do is wait for that faint signal that says they’re coming back.

Flipping the Frame: My Notes

I can get onboard with Phil and Claire’s rocket ship analogy – at least as far as the moon. I can envision the soon-to-be-launched teen rocket being fueled as our kids’ physical maturation, their increased thinking capacity, and the intensified expectations placed on them all combine for their blastoff into adolescence. I can even use the Dunphy’s analogy to picture our kids extending away from us as they form their own identities. Our girls tend to extend away by revving their rocket engines in our faces while our boys tend to takeoff to their bedrooms and stay there for so long that they might as well have gone to the moon.

So I was right there with Claire and Phil on their moon mission for the firing of the rockets, the revving of the engines, and the takeoff. But when we got to the part about teens going around to the dark side and that all we can do is wait while they’re gone, I had to bail out.

We used to think that the Dunphy’s analogy pretty much described how things worked. For years psychologists told us that teens needed to separate from their parents so they could establish their own identity and become independent. We believed that during their early years kids were dependent on us – we were in constant contact as Claire put it. We thought of adolescence as a time when kids form their identity by venturing out on their own (to the dark side, so to speak) to discover who they are. And like Claire and Phil, we thought that about the only thing parents could do was wait, and if we waited long enough, our kids would eventually come back to us as fully individuated and independent adults. Sounds just about as plausible as when Claire described it, doesn’t it?

We now know that this theory about growing up is way too simplistic. Today experts agree that connection – not separation – is the foundation for strong parent and teen relationships. And this connection is not based on the dependence of a young child or the independence of a mature adult. Instead the connection is based on an in-between stage of interdependence.

Don’t get me wrong, though. If our teens are to do their job of forming an identity of their own, they have to keep us at arms length (hence the revving of their engines in our faces and the takeoffs for their bedrooms and beyond). If they didn’t work hard to extend away from us, they couldn’t be sure that the identities they’re forming are truly theirs and not just a copy of our opinions, values, and ideas.

So just to be clear: Our teen’s job is to extend away from us. And it’s our job to stay involved and connected to them– even as they extend away.

The BottomLine

Tonight Claire lamented to Haley: When you were little, we used to do everything together. And I thought maybe you were coming back around, and we could be friends again. I miss being part of my daughter’s life.

Take heart, Claire. Adolescence is a stage. It has an end. And while it’s true that conflict within families is particularly evident between daughters and mothers, it’s also true that the conflict typically increases and peaks during the early years of adolescence – around the age of thirteen or fourteen. So Haley is on her way back around.

Our kids do change. And it’s almost always for the better. It takes time, but they’ll eventually be friendlier on a more regular basis. They’ll be more cooperative, more responsible, and less argumentative. They’ll no longer criticize us constantly and disagree with all our ideas just because we happen to be in the same room with them.

Tonight Claire notices the transformation beginning to take place in Haley, remarking to Phil: Did you hear that?! First she complimented my fashion sense. And then she told me I did something right. I think it’s happening. Although Haley is not yet fully independent, we’re beginning to see glimpses of the adult she is becoming.

Flipping the Frame: From My Life as a Parent

We too can sometimes get a peek at the young adult our teens are working to become. Our best chance is often late night because that’s when teens tend to be most reflective and most able and willing to give us a window into their lives.

Even though I’m not quite the night owl my kids were as teens, I did find it was worth my while to occasionally make myself available late at night to connect with them. One word of caution though: I found that this was not the time to lecture or to probe them about some upcoming event in an attempt to calm my worries. If I did, the window into their lives quickly got slammed in my face. But if I stayed quiet and receptive, I was often rewarded with insights into their thinking and sometimes even a glimpse at the adult they were becoming.

Flipping the Frame: Your Parenting Experiences

• Claire and Phil talk about their kids going to the dark side of the moon during adolescence. When you think about the distance your teen has put between you and them, what kind of words or analogies do you use?

• Think back to your teen years when you were extending away from your parents. What kinds of things did you do to put distance between them and you?

• Have you noticed your teen actively extending a way from you? What kinds of things are they doing to keep you at arms length?

• Have you ever tried connecting with your teen late at night to get a glimpse into their lives? Have you found other times when you can get this kind of glimpse into the adult they are becoming?

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