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SANDY BANKS

When Teens Become More Parental Than Parents

November 05, 2000|SANDY BANKS

It is after 10 when I poke my head into my teenage daughter's room to announce that I'm leaving for a Halloween party. "It's in the neighborhood, I won't be gone long, and your sisters are already in bed."

She eyes me over the top of her magazine and begins:

You're wearing that? Don't you think you need a jacket? Is Johnny going with you? What time does this party end? Why so late? Who's giving it, anyway?

I swallow hard before I answer that last one: We don't actually know the people hosting the party, I tell her. I've met the wife a couple times. She seems nice enough, young, kind of hip. No, I don't know what kind of work they do. Something in the music industry, I think.

She puts her magazine down and stares at me, her eyes narrowing reproachfully, cupping her fingers to form skeptical quotes around the phrase. The "music" industry? Well, you know there's probably going to be drugs at this party.

I begin fidgeting, stammering. "Drugs? No, I don't think so. And if there are, we'll . . . we'll leave the room."

Leave the room?? She practically bellows. Clearly, that was not the right answer.

"We'll run from the house, we'll call the police, we'll wrestle them to the floor and confiscate their weed. . . . For goodness sakes, just let me leave. I'm a grown-up, you know. I can handle myself at a party."

She rolls her eyes and waves me off. Go. Just be careful. Get back here by midnight. And keep your cell phone on.

I dash down the stairs and grab my boyfriend's arm. "Let's get out of here before she changes her mind."

He laughs as I hustle him out the door. He, too, has teenagers at home. He knows how oppressive it can be, living under their autocratic rule.

And how difficult it can be to remember which of us is 15 and which is 45.

*

Would it be different if I were stodgy and married, I wonder . . . if my teenager didn't have to contend with a mom who goes clubbing on school nights and attends parties at the homes of folks she hardly knows?

Would she be less likely to assert her authority--to sniff my clothes for the scent of cigarette smoke, lecture me on the dangers of drinking and driving, remind me that midnight is late enough to be out when I am snack mom for an early soccer game--if my social life didn't sometimes resemble hers?

"There are some children I call 'Atlas personalities,' who tend to take the weight of the world on their shoulders," explains psychologist Joyce Brothers, who has been dispensing her trademark advice in newspapers and on radio for as long as I've been alive. Even in the most conventional families, "kids like these tend to feel responsible for their parents," she says.

With single parents, that sense is heightened "because they have this basic fear of losing you. So they're very protective, very aware of the need to keep you safe from all the dangers of the world."

That is not a bad thing, and in fact, may pay dividends for both parent and child.

Children today are bombarded with information about the evils that await them in the world outside their doors. Watching mom or dad venture into that world alone "taps into all their insecurities," says Thousand Oaks therapist Laura Thomas.

"So they resort to a kind of role reversal that puts them in control, that gives them a chance to confront their fears," to rehearse, in effect, for the time when these same decisions are theirs to make.

Parents can't afford to take it lightly, Thomas says. When our kids grill us about our behavior, they are "looking for guidance, for reassurance, for a sense that mom's got her head on straight."

They are auditioning us, these understudies, for the roles adolescence will force them to play.

And if each inquisition is a chance to teach, it is also an opportunity to learn--to realize that our teenagers may know more about us than we think they know.

*

It can be hard, when you have one foot in their world, to stay a step ahead of your teenage kids.

Ask my boyfriend Johnny, as he tries to slip out of his house late one night for a quick rendezvous with me.

"Where're you going at this hour, Dad?" his 15-year-old son asks as Johnny heads for the door, car keys in hand.

"I'll be right back. Gotta stop by the, uh, grocery store . . . pick up some things for breakfast," he says.

He hears his sons snickering in their room. All evening he'd been lecturing them about wasting valuable homework time chatting on the phone with their girlfriends. Now, he was about to be hoisted by his own petard.

"Grocery store. . . . Right," the 14-year-old says. "Well, hurry back . . . and tell Sandy we said 'Hi.' "

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