Staying Close to a Teenager

When you say “teenager”, most adults cringe. When you say “troubled teenage boy,” they disappear as fast as possible. Yet I had an experience with just such a one--and it has remained with me vividly all these years--that was a turning point for me in my sense of what is possible between human beings.

It helped to know this boy as a neighbor when he was smaller, to have him in and out of our house and playing with my very playful husband, to develop our relationship before either of us started thinking about the chasms that were supposed to open us between us later on. It felt good to be able to offer a refuge to this wild child, to give him and his parents a break from each other, and to start genuinely liking him.

Once he became a teenager, however, I assumed--as so many of us do--that he would become more independent, grow out of play, no longer have much use for a female neighbor. So I mentally resigned from the relationship and let whatever momentum remained be carried by my husband.

Well, luckily he carried it. One result was an invitation to this young man--now aged fourteen--to join us and some other friends for a weekend at a cabin in the woods. Now, he had always tried hard to please (with us, at least), but got frustrated and lost control easily. By the evening of the second day he was teasing and taunting, trying to goad somebody into some kind of emotional or physical response that he could use as a target for his feelings. But nobody else had much attention--their response of tired irritation couldn’t shut him up and certainly didn’t ease his feelings. So, although I had never taken him on that way before, I took a deep breath, and when the next pointedly sexist remark came out, I plunged in.

I jumped out of my chair hollering (lightly), and went at him. I chased him around the cabin, finally caught and pinned him (with what must have been some cooperation, since he’s bigger), and demanded in mock outrage that he correct his statement--from “women are weak and stupid” to “Women are strong and smart.” When he hesitated, I sat on him and pounded his chest.

He entered into the spirit of the occasion wholeheartedly--producing one sexist stereotype after another, being chased and mauled, correcting himself, producing abject apologies, then “forgetting” and offering up another insult--laughing hard the whole time.

At one point my pretense of anger slipped into the real thing and I intentionally hurt him. We were both aware of the change right away. He asked in an injured tone why I had done that, and I had the sense to explain that I’d lost it for a moment, and to apologize. We could then return to the original format with undiminished energy.

After about an hour, I wore out. When I told him I was too tired to play anymore, he persisted for a while, but soon gave it up and moved on easily to another activity. He’d gotten a lot of accurate information about women and men, in a context in which he could vent piles of embarrassment and fear. He was clearly refreshed and his warm connection to me was obvious. And I was pleased beyond words.

How many stereotypes had been broken down in that process? Teenagers don’t like to play (except sports). Teenagers don’t like to be close (except with girl/boy friends). Teenagers don’t want to be with adults. While there’s a possible use for adult men, as role models and sports players, teenage boys have no use for adult women. Teenagers need to work their problems out with their age-peers.

Of course, this one experience can’t possibly represent all issues for all teenagers. But it points out forcibly to me that acting on the pervasive assumption that we’re not wanted firmly closes many doors that might otherwise have stayed open--or at least been left hopefully cracked on the other side. And the benefit goes both ways. Whole new worlds were opened up to me in that interaction: if I could be of significant emotional support to a teenage boy, then anything was possible.