A couple of my friends like to throw dinner parties and invite single people who do not know each other. At one of these a few months ago, I performed my normal maneuver of grabbing a beer and finding a safe orbit on the periphery of several groups so I could listen in on a few conversations at once, but commit to none.
One group was skimming the surface, talking business. After a minute or two, I began circling a second cluster that was discussing the hazards of travel to Mexico. My sights began to wander over to a man and a woman in the corner. The guy was talking passionately and shaking his head in a forlorn way that I recognized. The woman struck an empathetic pose. I strained to tune into their frequency, taking tiny steps in their direction.
He was recently divorced. He missed his kids. More than anything, he feared another man replacing him in what used to be his household. The pain was palpable, as if a leg had recently been severed in an accident.
When I wandered onto their radar, they only gave me momentary clearance. But I lingered anyway and he continued cautiously. He was going to miss the little moments at the breakfast table, he wasn’t going to meet his daughter’s dates. His position would ultimately shrink to being an asterisk on his children’s résumés.
“It won’t be that way, unless you give up,” I said during a pause. “I felt that way years ago, but it has turned out to be just the opposite.” They looked at me quizzically.
When children are toddlers, parenting is all about being in the household to see the first steps, to hear the first words, to comfort them when they fall. But when children grow into teen-agers, they become focused on getting out:. Parenting at this stage is all about saying “no,” about wrapping fences around teenagers’ quests for freedom. The children are caught in a battle between their friends, who want them to go somewhere new and exciting, and their parents – who aren’t sure they want their child to go anywhere with some of these friends.
To the teen-agers, their parents and stepparents have become wardens. Amidst all this pressure, what the teen-agers need most is something the “wardens” cannot provide: perspective on their situation.
Here is what I think a noncustodial parent or a family friend or a big brother or sister can do to help the teen-agers in their lives:
• Ask questions about how the parents-versus-friends battle is going.
• Listen without giving advice or solutions.
• Offer positive theories about why you think others said or did something.
• Promise confidentiality about sensitive subjects for which they might be punished if they told their parents.
• Underreact when you hear about the bad stuff. This will reassure them that it is okay to talk more.
• Tell stories about how you or your friends went through similar stuff. Don’t sugarcoat it.
• Say, “It must be really frustrating,” more times than your think humanly possible.
• Remind them their job is to get to the other side. They are almost there.
Over time, if you’ve consistently stayed in the teen-agers’ orbit – even during the times you weren’t sure you were making a difference – they will learn to trust you and call you as the really bad stuff is happening. And you could be closer to your kids than if you did live in the same household.
I’m not sure the guy at the party believed me. But I think he wanted to.