Ever since part of my heart manifested itself into two humans that walk around in the world, I find myself spending most of my mental energy trying to toughen it up.
If I’m honest, I really started to guard my heart back in 1989, when the usual Mean Girl escapades started to appear, with all the tiny micro aggressions that come along with it. Twelve year-old Me was always a little bit surprised when it would happen – to this day I can’t hold on to a social slight. I just don’t have the mental energy. I’m like a goldfish in a bowl that way, truly shocked every time I round the corner and see that plastic castle.
But those middle school and workplace exercises in emotional resiliency were nothing compared to becoming a parent. The mental attacks come from everywhere – well-meaning family or friends, parenting forums, and countless Internet comments. The vast majority of the time those moments don’t get to me too much, but like most parents, I’ve been sucker punched in the gut on occasion.
The biggest source is from my kids themselves, and they don’t even know it.
What Are You So Afraid Of?
The truth is, I’m terrified of the turbulent teen years that are around the corner. That pretty soon – any day now – the people I love most in this world are going to push me away. Reject me and maybe (probably?) even actively try to hurt me in their clumsy attempt to define themselves and figure out who they want to be. And that’s going to be perfectly normal. I’m the safest person for them to experiment on, and it’s part of my job to weather that storm with understanding, compassion, guidance, and healthy boundaries.
And so I guard my heart.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not so naive to think I’ll get through the next few years unscathed. I remember what it was like, and how it felt to be SO FURIOUS the majority of my waking hours at my own parents. My angsty rage quietly seethed on the regular right below the surface and it didn’t take much for me to unleash it. For a few years, nothing my mom and dad could do was ever the right thing. I vividly remember one occasion where an unexpected outburst from me surprised my mom so much she couldn’t put her Mom Face on fast enough, and for a split second I saw how much I had hurt her feelings. She had let her guard slip.
And so I prepare my own heart now. It’s my turn.
5 Steps on How to Guard Your Heart
If you’re like me and know you need to mentally prepare yourself for the teen years hurtling toward you, consider these tips. It’s my tentative game plan.
1. Get a Hobby
Find something you enjoy and that takes up some time and attention in your life. You’ll need something to distract you, and it’s not good for you or your kids to dwell on the small stuff. (Not to mention your spouse!) Sometimes a bit of emotional distance can help when you’re too deep in the middle of the proverbial Teen Forest. Brownie points if the hobby involves physical activity. Anything to help you be on top of your game.
2. Choose Your Battles
This is where I struggle. Sometimes, biting your tongue is the best thing to do. It’s not “rolling over” or “giving in”. It’s being strategic about the hills you choose to defend. Parents have a finite source of mental and emotional energy and it will certainly be tested during teen years. Don’t blow all of your parental capitol on something trivial.
3. Prepare to Look Inward
Few things can initiate a long and lingering look at your inner self than the sight of a mini-you fumbling around, making mistakes, winning victories, and attempting to figure life out. There’s a reason why self-help products target consumers between the ages of 40-50, and why it’s a time ripe for mid-life crises. There’s a reason why lots of people re-discover their religion or spirituality in this season of parenting. It can be a helpless feeling that requires some serious introspection.
4. It’s NOT Personal
I would venture to guess the vast majority of outbursts, space-outs, or undesirable behavior from your teen is 85% biological. Our dear friends, Alls The Hormones, get center stage and take over for a while. That doesn’t mean parents should write everything off as “Oh, they can’t help it”, but a little understanding about the true origin of the attitude goes a long way.
5. Find Some Support
This can be tricky, since most people don’t like to share too much when things are not a bed of roses with their kid, and understandably so. A few close friends, a spouse, or a professional therapist (D – all of the above!) can be a huge lifeline. The non-negotiable part is finding support without judgement. The last thing you need is someone parent-shaming you when you need their advice or a shoulder to lean on.
Adolescent brains are vulnerable, dynamic, and highly responsive to positive feedback, studies say. All that neuroplasticity is shaping your kid into the person they will become. But it doesn’t happen easily or overnight. That development can wreak havoc on emotions, perceptions, and ultimately your relationships with your family both positively and negatively. It’s our job as parents to take those rapid changes in stride and offer the long view for our kids as much as we are able.
And so I guard my heart.
Maybe I’m dreading something that will never come, but I don’t think so. I’m preparing for the worst in hopes that it won’t be as bad as all that.
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