My 16-year-old is out of control

She hid her boyfriend in her bedroom closet until we went to bed

By Cary Tennis

Published June 18, 2009 10:18AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Our 16-year-old daughter, who will be a sophomore next year, disregards our house rules (home by 10, call when she won't be home for dinner, call before going with others elsewhere) and pretty much shrieks when confronted. She spends time at the neighbors' and enjoys spending time with their kids -- fishing, hanging out watching TV, etc. She's as sweet as pie with them and others, and behaves like a harridan at home. She says she doesn't like to be here because all we do is yell, without seeming to realize that her behaviors are causing the tension. When I talk to the neighbors about it, they act as though I'm a maniacal felon or something. Lord knows how she represents us to them.

We used to let her be home alone when she wanted after school and on weekends. But then a bunch of my jewelry went missing (she wasn't to have guests without our being home, but did anyway), plus we came home three times and found her here with her boyfriend, and he hid in her closet one night until after we went to bed. So we've taken away her key. We don't allow her in the house when we're not here.

No doubt, this adds to the neighbors' house allure, and to her little-girl-lost appearance to them, but this is really making us angry. Suggestions? Ideas? I'd love to emancipate her (and she'd love it, too) but of course she has no job and no skills, and not much prospect of getting there if she spends her time slacking at the neighbors' or snogging with her boyfriend. Argh.

On the upside, as far as I know, she doesn't drink or use drugs. On the downside, she's just plain nasty to us.

Had Enough

Dear Had Enough,

I sat on the left side of the three-seat middle aisle of a Boeing 767-300 on the flight back from Virginia, and as I wrote in my journal I listened to the two men on my right talk about how their daughters behaved as teenagers. The one guy was returning from his daughter's wedding; the other one's daughter is now 31, and she has a 14-year-old. But they both remember being fathers of teenage girls.

So the one guy says, Gee, isn't it crazy, aren't they hard to control, doesn't it drive you nuts, and other guy says, Yeah, feel your pain, isn't that the truth, how do we survive it. They talk the way fathers on airplanes talk, and I write in my journal the way writers on airplanes write in their journals. And then the guy in the middle says, She keeps slamming her bedroom door. I keep telling her to stop slamming the door. She keeps slamming the door. Finally one day I take the door off the hinges. She comes home and says, Where's the door? I say, You can't slam it now. I bet I'm only father who ever did that. Never met anybody else who did that.

So the other guy says, I did that! Daughter wouldn't stop slamming the door. I took the door off, too!

Two guys on an airplane.

I am not a father, but I am a person in a human relationship, and I can say that when a person starts doing things I don't like, at first I try to stop her. I can think up many reasons why my way is best. But what I find over and over is that when I am thinking of all the reasons my way is best, I am not seeing the person in front of me. I am seeing my reasons.

I love my reasons. I love my solutions. But here is a person before me that I love, and I am not seeing her. I am seeing the sponges in the sink and how they are not clean. Then I am in a relationship with the sponges. I am using the sponges against her, blaming her for the condition of the sponges. What an absurd position! So I think to myself, what if I were to die right there, standing at the sink insisting that the sponges be properly maintained? What if the world's greatest philosophers were to look down and see me focused intently on the sponges while my life passes by? What if this little moment in time, never to be repeated, is all you get? What if this is it? I have wasted it. I have wasted this moment obsessing on the sponges, how they are gummy in the sink, how there is gunk in the strainer and on the sponges, little bits of butter, a flake of oatmeal. I die complaining about a flake of oatmeal.

Meanwhile, here is this beautiful woman before me, radiant and strange, mysterious and funny, limitlessly interesting; I am choosing to complain to her about the condition of the sponges, how they must be properly maintained for kitchen sanitation, and I am a fool. I am focused on the sponges. It is some kind of terrible joke.

I am not a parent. But I am a person in a relationship with someone else who is not me. And so I have advice for anyone in a relationship with anyone else who is not themselves: Just stop for a moment and look around you! See where you are! Notice that you are alive and your life is passing by. Look at your daughter, how beautiful she is. Regard this miracle.

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with you for letting it drive you nuts. Sure it drives you nuts. But it will end and your daughter will grow up and get married, and you'll be on an airplane back from the wedding and you'll get in a conversation with some parent whose daughter's boyfriend locked himself in the closet in her bedroom until the parents were asleep, and you thought you were the only one that ever happened to ... and all those years you battled her to enforce your rules you were living through a kind of miraculous daydream whose intimate and splendid details eluded you because you were watching the clock, waiting for 10 o'clock to roll around.

Your daughter's behavior may drive you nuts, but it is not insane or evil. It is just human. Your rules are not unreasonable, but neither are they poetry or the will of God. They are just rules you made up. Surely it is good if a child respects and obeys the rules her parents make up. But it is also a rule that when a child becomes a teenager she has sudden, inexplicable needs, and it is assured that she will start trying to meet those needs in whatever improvised fashion she can come up with. This is normal.

When we are teenagers, because the world has not been designed around our needs but around the needs of the adults who run that world, it often appears that the world will not give us what we want unless we contrive to find it for ourselves, and that means breaking the rules. When a child turns 16 and suddenly has a set of new requirements for happiness -- a sudden need for companionship and society, for recognition outside the family, for a free, unfettered flow of experience full of novelty and risk -- and no one shows her how to meet these new needs (and how could anyone show her such a thing, her needs being new to her and impossible for her to express), then she naturally sets out to meet these needs. And if a few rules stand in her way, well, those rules will be broken.

Your daughter is trying to meet her needs. That is how a human being gets along in the world. Perhaps you can figure out a way she can meet her needs that is acceptable to you. It is not possible for you to meet all her needs directly, because one of her needs is to do it on her own. But within your vast area of control, perhaps you can create areas of seeming autonomy within which she can continue to explore and learn to make her own choices. That might help her. It might be what she needs.

Do you remember how awful it is to live in fear of your own parents? Do you remember that? I hope that you have not now reached adulthood repeating the catechism that whatever you endured under the rule of your own parents was all for the best, nothing you didn't deserve. I know adults who do say, look at me, I turned out OK, so it must be OK to treat my children in the same way I was treated.

It depends on how we view the human project. If we think of ourselves as components made to function dutifully within a society with fixed rules and fixed parameters, if getting and holding a job and raising a family are the primary goals, if existence is a preordained program of obedience to commands and right answers to tests, then yes, a somewhat punitive, controlling, rigid structure that denies the child the opportunity to fully master the multifarious arts of being may be just what is required.

But if you think that the child's project is much broader: to become, to unfold, to fully realize every merest spark of genius in her being, then you may agree that to accomplish that project, she needs more leeway to figure things out. She needs to make some mistakes.

You may not be able to prevent her from making those mistakes, but maybe you can be there to catch her when she falls.

Got kids? There's stuff in here about that!

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?

Cary Tennis

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