I have three teenage kids…or almost. The youngest is turning thirteen this year, but she surely behaves like a teen already. Since they were toddlers, I have tried as much as possible to explain the whys of my behavior as a mum. Why they have to brush their teeth, why it is important to have healthy eating habits, why it is important to have a sleeping routine, why we wear a hat and mittens when it’s cold outside, and so on.
I am not sure how much they’ve listened, or how clear my explanations were because the older they get, the poorer choices they seem to want to make. Especially our oldest and our youngest. The one in the middle has less liberty because she was born with a syndrome and one of the recommendations with her diagnosis is to have very clear routines, so she knows there is little room for discussion when it comes to food, sleep, and exercise. Otherwise, she is happy to follow instructions when it comes to outdoor clothing.
Our oldest is 15 years old and turning 16 this year. The last year or year and a half, I had started to let him make his own choices more. I had stopped insisting on him wearing a hat, or mittens, or a rain jacket. During weekdays, we still insist on him going to bed as soon as he gets home from his swimming practice, but they sometimes end so late that he goes to bed at midnight. We tried to keep a routine during holidays too, but this Christmas break, we gave in and let him go to bed when he wanted, trusting that it wouldn’t be ‘too late’. It was sometimes at 2am because he was gaming online with his friends.
The struggle with our 12-year-old is food. She has always been picky, but when she was younger, we had at least the authority to make her eat what we considered healthy at each meal. Now, she can refuse to eat breakfast and no matter what we say or do, she won’t listen. She can spend hours in front of her dinner plate until we give up and let her leave the table. But make a batch of brownies and guess who will eat three in no time.
So little by little, I have been giving in to some of my kids’ poor choices explaining why I disapprove of them and why I would rather see them make better choices, but I didn’t fight, I didn’t nag enough.
Until last Saturday when our oldest broke his arm and ended up at the hospital. The whole experience made me reevaluate in many ways how we are parenting our teenagers. While our son was recovering from surgery, I sat by his side feeling overwhelmed by the love I feel for him, and although his life was never in danger this time, thinking about how frail life is. How, in just a little moment, everything can change. Do I know him well? When was the last time I had a long chat with him? Not because I didn’t want to, but because he is always ‘busy’ with something else, and I don’t want to ‘push’ him. He is a lovely kid, kind, very generous with his smiles, and very reserved. When I ask him, how his day was, his answer would always be “okay” or even “I don’t know”. As he grows older, I notice that “I don’t know” has become a standard answer. You might think – as I did – ‘what is wrong with that?’ In reality, there is nothing wrong with that answer, but I feel that it often can be a way to avoid being in contact with what he really thinks or feels because it might be unpleasant, or because he doesn’t want to take a standpoint that might put him in opposition with someone.
I don’t like making people feel uncomfortable, so, throughout the years, I have avoided pushing our son to talk or to give his opinion. Sitting by his side, remembering how stressed he was right before the anesthesia kicked in, and how helpless he seemed, I told myself that I have to push him a bit more. For his own sake. He needs to learn to notice how he feels, what he thinks and be with it. Share it. Find strategies to overcome unpleasant moments. Be brave. Stand up for his thoughts, feelings, and opinions. He will need these skills in life as he grows older and becomes more independent. It is my job to make him a bit uncomfortable from time to time because he is safe with me. He can deal with his mum pushing him, and this will train him to be ready when the world pushes him harder than me, in less safe contexts.
After the operation, and when he was back in his room at the hospital, I allowed him to check his messages on his phone and answer them, but after a little while, I took the mobile away. He was anxious about not being able to sleep and wanted it back, but I stayed firm. He didn’t sleep very well that night, but I told him that it was okay. He would have the chance to rest at home. Once at home, I have been stricter with screen time – wondering at some point if this was the right time since he is after all convalescent – and pushing him to rest and go for short walks with me. Today, during one of our walks, he told me: ‘mum, I think the medicines I got at the hospital finally had an effect on me. I feel relaxed.’ I told him I don’t think it was the effect of the medicines, it’s been already over 24 hours. It’s the effect of resting while awake and sleeping enough hours. The walking must have helped too. Me making him a good breakfast. Drinking enough water…
I have a feeling that in our modern society we tend to forget that everything in the human system is interconnected. How we feel physically, mentally, and emotionally is dependent on everything we do day after day. The quality of the food we eat, the quality of the thoughts we cultivate, the quality of our sleep, how much physical activity we include in our everyday life, how much we allow our mind and body to rest, how well we are connected with our thoughts and emotions, even how much water we drink. When one aspect of our system is out of balance, we need to look into the whole of our everyday life, and often, the solution is most probably in changing more than one habit.
As a teacher, I see the number of students struggling with sleep, motivation, and even depression increase year by year, and I think it is connected with the lack of a holistic approach to their struggles.
I notice it myself, if I am deprived of sleep, I feel more vulnerable. If I eat poorly for a day or two, I feel sad without understanding why. Some people feel irritated, some lethargic.
I will, from now on, push my kids more to face their thoughts and emotions, to go for walks with me, to eat properly, to give me their phones and turn off the computer, to go to bed early even if they dread not falling asleep right away. It doesn’t matter if they get annoyed, it is partly my job to annoy them, as long as I know it is with the intention to take care of their physical and mental health. And I will continue repeating why I do it: because I love them.