This article contributed by Benjamin Dancer.
I’m a high school counselor, which means I work with parents every day. Because I’ve made a career out of my work with adolescents, I see what a parent might be seeing for the first time. This includes a long list of unfortunate life events.
Back when we were teenagers, there wasn’t a massive network of servers positioned strategically across the globe to capture and record, forever, the embarrassment of our adolescent choices.
As a parent, I have a lot of empathy for other parents. It’s not easy, especially when you’re going through something for the first time. My life, on the other hand, is a little bit like Groundhog Day. In a sense, I’ve never left high school. Every school year I see the same things. Different kids, but the same behavior: alcohol, drugs, tobacco, bullying, kids running away from home, pregnancy and something new: sexting.
Take an adolescent boy with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, which by definition means he is incapable of fully contemplating notions such as consequence; take this teenager raging with sex hormones and give him a tiny device that he will carry with him everywhere, a device capable of sending messages instantly to anybody, anywhere in the world, and install a camera in that device. What do you imagine might go wrong?
Over the last seventeen years in my work of mentoring adolescents and partnering with their parents, I’ve seen a lot of parenting styles. I’ve learned some important strategies in dealing with the situations teenagers present–strategies the average parent doesn’t have the time, through repetition, to learn. I feel confident telling you that there are some really good ideas out there. And some really bad ones, too.
Because I’m a writer, it occurred to me to write it down, what I’ve learned over the years. I’m a parent. I know it just as well as you do. We need a little grace in our lives.
The police called the sexting child pornography. So I understood Nicole’s concern: she wanted to talk to me about her daughter. Jessica was fourteen and three years younger than her boyfriend. He had been distributing images of Jessica through his phone. Nicole was worried; she was scared, and understandably so.
Jessica still thought she was in love.
“He calls her a bitch,” Nicole told me. “I read the texts. He says horrible things to her.”
“And she still wants to be with him,” I said.
The pain I felt for her was communicated in my voice. As a teacher, I see the scenario every year, but Nicole was experiencing this for the first time. Jessica was her daughter. Not long ago she was her baby. I could only begin to imagine the suffering the situation provoked. Nicole was in no position to hear how common this was.
Why do girls throw themselves at boys who treat them badly?
In Jessica’s circumstance there was a tremendous amount of grief. She had barely processed the loss of her dad. He was killed in an accident over the summer.
“I can’t stop her from being with him. I’ve tried. I took away her phone. I grounded her. She sneaks out of the house. I drop her off at school, and she ditches to be with him.” The mascara was now running beneath Nicole’s cheekbones, “Last night, she told me that she wished it was me who was dead. He was waiting for her out front. I saw her get into his car.”
“Unless I physically restrain her, she will find a way to get back to him.”
I allowed for a long silence, as I thought there might be more Nicole needed to say.
“What did I do? What did I do wrong?”
I didn’t answer her question. And I didn’t dismiss it. I sat with her in it.
* * * * *
My role with Nicole is not all that different from my role with Jessica. It doesn’t matter whether you’re fourteen or forty, what you need is for someone to listen. What you need is for someone to understand.
Jessica and I talked later the same day.
“She went through my phone,” Jessica was angry. “She read my texts.”
I let her know that I understood her frustration.
“She won’t let me leave the house.”
“She’s trying to keep me from him.”
“Have you told her that you love him?”
“She hates him. She doesn’t want me to see him.”
“Why does she hate him?”
At this Jessica paused. We had already talked about the pictures. She had told me stories about the boy. The way he had flaunted his sexual conquests. He was in my English class, and I had seen it firsthand: there were countless other girls.
After a long silence, she answered my question, “She thinks he’s not good for me. Is he?”
It was ground we had already covered. In past conversations Jessica told me that she respects her mom for trying to protect her. I handed Jessica a box of tissues. She wiped the tears and told me, “No. He’s really, really mean.”
I listened to her cry for several minutes. I was thinking about her father. I knew the man well. I liked him. I was thinking about her mother. I was thinking about my own daughter. It was true for all of us. What we need is empathy.
“I’m sorry,” I told her. She questioned me with her eyes.
So I answered it, “I’m sorry you’re so alone.”
Jessica’s whole body shook when she sobbed.
* * * * *
“What do you think?”
“I think Jessica needs to figure this out for herself. I’ve tried to protect her, but I can’t. I just can’t protect her from everything.”
“Does that mean you’ll give it back?”
“No. She’s not ready for that.”
“I don’t know the answers to the particulars,” I told Nicole, “but I know this. You’re a good mom. Jessica needs you right now. She needs you to be confident in your role.”
I saw the tears washing through the mascara, gave Nicole the box of tissues, and kept on going.
This is universal: the teenager wants desperately to have her independence, and she is terrified of it.
“Jessica loves you, and she knows that you love her. Jessica is not aware of the fact that she is conflicted about this. She’s just a kid. As much as she pushes you away, she wants you to be strong, to love her.”
* * * * *
I talked to Jessica again a week later.
“Do you still see him?” I asked.
She was embarrassed, “Yeah.”
“Is he good to you?”
“How about last night?”
She hesitated then said, “Last night he left me in a parking lot. I had to borrow a phone and call my mom to come pick me up.”
“Why’d he leave you?”
“To hook up with someone else.”
“Will you see him again?”
“I have a vision for you,” I said.
Jessica smiled, like she had heard lines like that from me before.
But that didn’t deter me. I have an advantage over most parents of teenagers: I’ve made a career out of the adolescent. Their behavior can be alarming, infuriating and even demoralizing, but after seventeen years of guiding teenagers as they come of age, I have established proven routines.
I have a pretty good idea of how many repetitions it will take, of how many times I’ll have to say it before Jessica can even make sense of the words, of how many more times I’ll have to repeat it before she begins to adopt the language as her own.
So I told her again, “In my vision of your future, you will love yourself too much to let a boy treat you badly.”
* * * * *
About Benjamin Dancer:
Benjamin is a high school counselor at Jefferson County Open School where he has made a career out of mentoring young people as they come of age. He wrote the novels PATRIARCH RUN, IN SIGHT OF THE SUN and FIDELITY. He also writes about parenting and education. You can learn more at:
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