When I was growing up, I found puberty difficult. I wasn’t keen on the physical changes—I quite liked having a flat chest, hair that didn’t get oily, and armpits that were hairless and didn’t sweat. As a child, I hadn’t felt particularly comfortable within my pale, freckly skin, and that feeling only amplified in my new body.
But the bodily changes were nothing compared to the emotional upheaval of those years. I desperately desired acceptance, and lived in fear of rejection and ridicule. Self-consciousness and embarrassment were my constant companions.
I also wanted independence and freedom, and resented it not being granted. I desired privacy, and became enraged if it was breached. I yearned for an intimacy with people, which often wasn’t reciprocated. I made mistakes, and felt humiliated and ashamed.
When I voiced my feelings, they were trivialised and dismissed as ‘immature’, which only made them more intense. I wanted to be validated, to be taken seriously, and I was angered that I wasn’t. I wanted my feelings to be respected. I felt caught in a no man’s land between childhood and adulthood.
No one else seemed to be feeling the same, and I felt isolated and quite abnormal. So, like I always did, I put a smile on my face and pretended I was at ease with my body and life.
Throughout all of this, I certainly had no adult to whom I could turn, and I desperately wanted one. At the time, I told my parents I wanted to become a psychiatrist for adolescents. I wanted to be that understanding adult, someone to whom kids could turn, someone who hadn’t forgotten what it was like.
I didn’t end up pursuing that career, but when my own kids reached this stage of life, I was determined to make it smoother for them than it had been for me.
I was going to listen to them, validate their feelings, give them independence, and respect their choices. Puberty, for my kids, was going to be about the child—not the parent.
When children are little, they’re completely dependent on their caregiver to feed them, dress them, keep them safe. As their parent, we must watch them, we can’t turn our backs. We have to know where they are and what they’re doing. That’s our job—to protect them.
Each milestone in a child’s life is a step away from dependence on us, and a step towards independence. They learn to walk, and we no longer have to carry them. They learn to feed themselves, and we no longer have to do it for them. They begin to dress themselves, go to the toilet on their own, and so on. They keep moving past each milestone to adulthood.
Puberty is just another milestone, I believe. Yet, it comes with so much baggage …
Despite my own experience growing up, it took me a while to spot puberty in my kids—the sudden grumpiness and anger. The bedroom door being shut. Text messages and emails I wasn’t privy to, and being snapped at for prying. Being told I was overprotective. Being told off for wanting to come to school to watch them play sport or perform. Hearing the words, ‘I hate you’. (In 2014, I wrote humorously about these experiences here.)
It seemed to come on overnight: one day I was their favourite person, their main source of comfort, guidance and protection, and the next day, I was the enemy—someone irritating and embarrassing, and whom they no longer wanted to be around. I was doing and saying the same things I’d said and done the day before, but now it was annoying, enraging even.
It hurt. I felt as if I was being ousted from their lives, being made redundant, no longer needed. I felt as if I was losing them, but the more I tried to bring them back, the further they retreated. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong, and I took it very personally.
At first, I dug my heels in, and said things like, ‘These are the rules of this house, and if you want to keep living here …’ and ‘Don’t speak to me like that.’
Then I realised what was happening. That they were trying to separate from me, trying to discover who they were without me around. It wasn’t personal and they weren’t doing it intentionally to hurt. They were struggling and feeling vulnerable, and the only safe place to vent was home, and the only safe person on whom they could vent, was me.
So, I decided not to take it personally and not to react. I let them go. I stepped back and I wasn’t so protective. I told them I trusted them to make their own decisions and I gave them their privacy and autonomy. I left their rooms alone. I stopped monitoring their homework and assignments and music practice. I let them keep their phones in their rooms overnight. I didn’t check their internet browsing history (we do have filters in place). I didn’t check if their lights were out. I let them control their own timetables and schedules.
I let them take these steps towards independence, and I just kept loving them, and taking my cues from them. And beautiful things happened. They returned to me. Voluntarily. They let me in to tidy their room. They started telling me what had happened during their day. They came to me with their disappointments, told me when they were upset, or feeling left out. They told me when they were angry. They told me when their assignments were due and how much work they had to do for a test.
And I just had to listen. That’s all.
The thing is, the rest of the world will judge our kids and dole out consequences—they don’t need their mums to do it, too. If they’re up until half-past midnight completing an assignment, they learn to manage their time better. Or maybe they don’t. It doesn’t matter.
I wrote earlier in the year about my relationship with my daughter, and how by listening to her and giving her autonomy, we became closer.
One of the many good things about having four children is that I get to practice parenting four times over, each time improving on the last. By the time I got to child #3, I felt more confident. Many of the mistakes I made first and second time around, I could correct with the third and fourth.
My youngest has now reached the age where I’m an embarrassment, he’s easily angered, and he’s keeping more to himself. While I’m grieving the loss of our sweet mother-child relationship, I know it’s a necessary milestone towards independence and adulthood. He’s doing what he must—separating from me, and discovering who he is and who he wants to be. I can let him go, because I know I won’t ‘lose’ him—I still get a kiss, a chat, little snippets from time-to-time, and my heart misses a beat when I do. I know he’ll come back, just as the others did. And when he does, he’ll still be the same person he’s always been.
It’s hard to let your children grow up and separate from you, but it’s the way it is. And by letting go, we gain so much more—independent, resilient children, who still want us in their lives.