Embracing the toddler/teen in all of us

by Kristin on March 28, 2014

in Love, family & community


“I wanna do this on my own.”

These words were uttered just this morning, but with a slight tweak in the wording and a bit more whine, one could almost think I’m parenting a toddler again. I don’t say this to suggest for a second that my 14-year-old daughter (14! as of today!) is immature. In fact, the thing she wants to do on her own (and has been doing on her own for the past two months) is a project that requires more maturity, communication skills, and hutzpah than many adults can conjure up.

But in the midst of parenting this particular teen, I’ve begun to really get what psychologists are talking about when they compare the developmental stage of the teen brain to that of a toddler’s. (Saying I “get it” is not to say I fully get the neuroscience, which has something to do with the development and size of the frontal cortex in relation to the rest of the brain. I just get the behavioral comparison.) It isn’t just the impulsiveness, the pushing of boundaries, and the inability to foresee possible consequences that I recognize. There are also similarities in the compulsion to learn by trial and error, to get in the mix and learn by doing—by doing it MYSELF! [Insert foot stomp here for the toddler version of this.]

For parents deep in the teen realm, this involves slightly less annoying busy work—putting away all the Tupperware the toddler has strewn across the floor, or hurrying into the next room to see what’s up when things have gotten too quiet—and more breath-holding. I can’t follow my teen around everywhere she goes, distracting her with a cookie when she’s on the brink of trouble. And I can’t do everything for her (well I could, but then her sense of ownership would dissolve and she wouldn’t care about any of it any more, and she certainly wouldn’t learn anything).

So I watch. And wait. And hold my breath.

And I think about how much I want to believe the @TEDtalks tweet I saw yesterday: ”The riskiest thing you can do now is be safe. The safe thing to do is to be at the fringes, be remarkable.” Because my daughter has spent the past year of her life not playing it safe, in some really admirable and some really frightening ways. I want to believe playing it safe would be riskier for her, in the long run, but it’s still so hard to just watch and wait, hoping that turns out to be true.

I try to comfort myself with another recent @TEDtalks tweet, in reference to Neil Gaiman’s belief that scary stories play an important role in our lives: “A little bit of fear in a safe place, when you’re sure you’ll come out the other end, teaches you to be brave.”

Knowing that a knot of fear, deep in your stomach, isn’t always a bad thing helps me as I wait—wait for her show to happen this evening, wait for her to start high school, wait for her to find herself, little by little. I’ll try to stop holding my breath along the way. And as I breathe, slow and steady, maybe I can create the mental and emotional space to relocate the toddler/teen in myself. Maybe, for a moment or two, I’ll be able to let go of everything that’s calculated and rational—everything that’s couched comfortably in 40-some years of hard-earned wisdom—and learn something from my daughter about bravery and dreams.


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  • Joi

    Kristin, there is a ton of wisdom here for all of us who have any interactions with teens to consider. I think you have some great insight into why so many parents either stress continually about where to draw the line, or find it just easier to turn their kids loose and hope for the best. Because I know a young adult who continues to behave like a teenager due to brain damage when he was a child, I have observed the real limits of the adolescent decision-making processes and the pain that can result when the “teen brain,” anxious to be an adult, does not have the careful guidance and discipline of a devoted, determined, caring parent. It is for sure often a no-man’s land! That’s why all families need lots of prayer to carry them through.