When I had toddlers, I understood the basic parameters of communication. Even granting that all behavior is communication, for toddlers their message boils down to five basic issues. Hungry/Thirsty? Dirty/Wet? Tired? Sick/Hurt? Bored? By ticking through the five options, you can invariably discover what is making the toddler sad, mad, and/or unsocial (it’s usually “and” not “or”). And you’re able to fix it.
With teens, all behavior is still communication. The same five questions don’t quite cover everything for this age group — but close.
Just as with toddlers, silent teens should cause warning bells. You need to begin investigating.
Hungry/Thirsty? This almost doesn’t qualify as a question for teenagers because the answer is yes. The issue now: Are they hungry or thirsty enough to consume what you offer? Is it the only food in the house? They won’t eat it. Is it what you worked hard to serve? They won’t eat it. Is it something you were saving for yourself? It’s gone.
Tired? Yes. Nap schedules I find are more enforced by teens than toddlers. Sleeping hours (after dark), however, seem to remain about the same … with the unspoken motto being, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” Proposing the putting away of electronics to facilitate sleep? That’s just crazy talk.
Dirty/Clean? This one can be a constant battle of extremes. One teen views showers as anathema, while another thinks washing your hair twice a day is how best to interpret the instructions, “Lather. Rinse. Repeat.” That’s for clean bodies, but for teenagers this same issue applies to clothes. They use dirty clothes (which they’re old enough to launder themselves) to communicate: I want more clothes, I need more clothes. Can we go shopping because I can’t find something I want to wear.
Sick/Hurt? This one is tricky, because although they’ve lived on this planet for somewhere between 12 and 19 years, the capacity to self identify illness has not yet become a life skill. I find the same approach used with toddlers works best. Band-aid it, give them some Tylenol, take their temperature and bring them a ginger ale with ice. No matter what the malady, you’ll get a “Thanks Mom” if they’re really sick, and a “Could I have a Coke instead?” if they’re not. Either way, you know.
Bored? With teens, that answer is “always.” And there is very little you can do as a parent to cure this one, because everything you introduce, even if it’s ziplining with the stars, wrestling laser sharks and eating pizza on the moon, is, by virtue of your suggesting it, “boring.” So, if you’re damned anyway, go for the gold. Suggest reading a book or playing a game with their siblings. Recommend chores or catching up on summer assignments. Come up with a list of helpful places they could volunteer, or pull out an actual job application. I promise, if you put on your adultest adult act, teens will scatter for fear of catching your adult cooties, and that sullen frustrated look of angst they give when “there’s nothing to do…” will not be shown to you again for fear you’ll sign them up to rake their neighbor’s leaves and to be a reading buddy at the preschool library fest.
The five questions still apply, which makes me think it isn’t that teens are so different from toddlers, it’s just that as parents with teens, we don’t have the support groups we had as new parents. We need Re-Mom Club, or the Advanced Parenting Club — a group that meets at a coffee shop or bar and allows the folks to swap tips, share stories and toast to the reality that these years, too, fly by fast, and that we aren’t alone in our struggle to understand these not quite rational but taller than us human beings that we love.
There is one thing that makes it harder to raise someone past their first decade: the unanswerables. Sure, toddlers ask some of these questions too, but little ones can usually have their attention diverted. Big kids are capable of bigger questions: Why did he call? Why was she mean? What if no one likes me? What should I do? Why did this happen?
But, then again, even if the questions are harder, the answers are perhaps the same: hugs, prayers, ice cream … and an assurance that tomorrow is another day and there’s always a reason for hope.