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Perspective

Think of Your Teenager as an Overgrown Baby

November 21, 2000|SUSAN REIMER | BALTIMORE SUN

Those of us who are convinced that our teenagers have at least two personalities--the polished one they show to teachers and other parents and the grumpy one they inflict on us--are right.

This Eddie Haskell syndrome, according to psychologist and bestselling author Anthony Wolf, is normal and, if we were honest, it is something we would recognize in ourselves.

"We all have two modes of operation," Wolf says.

"There is the 'baby-self,' the at-home, relaxed, unwinding version of ourselves. The one who wants to be fed and get nurtured and not be bothered.

"And there is the 'mature-self,' the one we are all day. The working, delayed-gratification self, who has self-control and who can tolerate stress.

"There is a real switching of gears when we walk in the door, and it is that way for our kids, too."

Wolf's first book, "Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager," was a hilarious roller-coaster ride through the mind and moods of a teenager, and the slim paperback became the underground word-of-mouth Bible of parents in the grip of their children's adolescence.

His new book is "The Secret of Parenting: How to Be in Charge of Today's Kids--From Toddlers to Pre-Teens--Without Threats or Punishment," and it describes, with the same uncanny ear for kid-parent dialogue, this baby-self that children become the minute they drop their backpacks in the front hall.

For the baby-self, anything is too hard, everything is an irritant. They crave the deep nurturing they need to be the mature-self at school and in the world. Home is the hyperbolic chamber for the baby-self. It can't tolerate any intrusion or any demands during this refueling stop. The baby-self wants what it wants.

"When the baby-self isn't getting his way, he can be very unpleasant," Wolf says, in a huge understatement. "Would you rather have the mature-self at home with you? Sure you would. But you don't have a choice."

We can all recognize the baby-self Wolf describes: demanding, whining, uncooperative, irritable, lazy and capable of launching an emotional hand grenade at the parent if she doesn't get her way.

"Baby-selves have no conscience. They are ruthless," Wolf says. "They will use any weapon, say anything."

This spoiled-rotten behavior does not mean that we are bad parents or that our children are monsters. In fact, if we had a videotape of the way our child behaves at school or at a friend's dinner table, we'd be astonished. That's because our child's mature-self is in command when he is out in the world.

The good news, Wolf says, is that mature-self is a sneak preview of the adult your child will grow up to be. In the meantime, interacting with the baby-self at home is very frustrating for parents.

The only answer is to reduce that interaction.

"When baby-selves are not getting their way, they will resort to anything. But they will always settle for second prize, which is you," Wolf says.

If they can't get what they want, they can at least engage their parent in a long, drawn-out argument. We see it as fighting. The baby-self sees it as special time with Mom, when the baby-self has her undivided attention.

"What the baby-self hates more than anything else is to separate from you," Wolf says, and this goes for teenagers as well as toddlers. "They will never let go. And they will never let go first."

The solution is to disengage--fast. Make a decision, state it and then shut up. Don't let yourself get drawn into a discussion. Don't try to defend or explain yourself.

"The baby-self won't disengage. After years of trial and error, they have crafted just the custom-tailored argument that will provoke you," Wolf says.

And they will run you into the ground on the topic because they have nothing to lose and nothing better to do.

"Even a big, emotional dose of you is OK with them," Wolf says.

Wolf believes that "deciding fast and sticking to it" may be the greatest skill in parenting, and the most difficult to perfect. We have this misguided notion that we must be fair and right, and, as a result, we waffle.

"The longer this process takes, the more the baby-self comes out and the more unpleasant it becomes."

If we begin to think of our obstinate, combative teens as outsize toddlers, it is much easier not to view their bad moods, verbal darts and whining as a judgment on the job we are doing as parents, as a measure of their love for us or as a preview of what kind of adults they will be.

If we imagine them in their footed sleepers, it is easier not to be hurt by these sometimes painful exchanges.

The problem with this approach, however, is that when we come home at the end of the day, we are looking to shed our suits and pantyhose for the emotional equivalent of footed sleepers, too. Parents, who are mature-selves all day at work or in public want to be baby-selves at home, just like the kids.

"This approach requires time and energy," Wolf says. "And you only have a certain amount of time and energy, which means you have to pick and choose your battles."

All of us have listened with astonishment as a teacher or another adult describes our child as bright, conversant, cooperative and delightful company. "You are talking about my child, right?" we ask, certain there has been a mistake.

Wolf gives us hope when he writes with absolute certainty that this phantom child is a preview of the adult our child will become.

That glimpse is a wonderful image to keep in our heads for those times when we find ourselves battling, yet again, with a great big baby-self.

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