The Biggest Surprises About Raising Teens

When my four boys were born very close together in age — like stair steps — I didn’t exactly think ahead to what it would be like having three teens (and a tween!) in the house at one time. I had my hands full when they were babies, to be certain, but what I didn’t realize is that years later, I’d still have my hands full … just in a different way. Raising teens is a daily adventure. Like a box of chocolates, as Forrest Gump’s mom might say: you never know what you’re gonna get. And I thought I’d have a general grasp of what to expect, but there are a few aspects that have taken me by surprise — and though I live in an all-boy household, I’m pretty certain a lot of these pertain to teenage girls as well.

They’re STILL messy.

When they’re little, you deal with poop messes and smeared food and dumped LEGO buckets. So you naively figure that once they’re potty trained and able to feed themselves without incident, they’ll also get better at cleaning up after themselves. Right? WRONG. Personally, I didn’t take their teenage bedrooms — or wherever else in the house they spend time, for that matter — into account. Crumpled wrappers, snack remnants, and other random debris is scattered over every surface in their rooms, so much that I’m considering having “IF WE GET ROACHES IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT” printed on a T-shirt to wear around the house. They toss their laundry on the floor whether it’s clean or dirty (and I’m not about to smell it to find out — I once thought the dog had pooped in my son’s room, only to realize he’d thrown a pair of dirty socks on the heater vent and it was just hot sock funk). Chargers are tangled, beds are unmade, and evidence of extracurricular activities is strewn everywhere.

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… But they’re appallingly oblivious to those messes.

You would think that living in a literal garbage heap would start to wear on a person after a while, but no. They are happy as raccoons in a dumpster, blissfully unaware of how moldy and disgusting their surroundings may be. And though you have likely spent literally their entire lives reminding them where the trash can, dishwasher, and clothes hamper are located, it’s like their selective memory does not include any of these things. Go figure.

You will constantly run low on clean dishes.

You can start out your kids’ childhood with enough plates, bowls, cups, and silverware to throw a dinner party for 30 people — but by the time they’re teenagers, all those things vanish into the ether. And by “the ether” I mean the dank recesses of their bedrooms. There’s cereal milk congealing and ramen noodles petrifying in the bowls they promised to bring back. There’s mold growing on whatever was in those glasses, and crusty utensils in inexplicable places like drawers and closets. You’ll make soup for dinner and then open the cabinet to realize you have a.) no bowls and b.) no spoons, and you’ll angrily give the mother of all stern lectures … which will fall on deaf ears. Sigh.

They’re fun and witty.

If anyone ever said toddlers were fun, they meant it in the most sarcastic way possible. (Have kids, they said! It’ll be fun, they said!) Dealing with a house full of little people was not my cup of tea, and though I admit there are definitely aspects I miss about them being that age, I spent much more time feeling overwhelmed than overjoyed. Now, though, I genuinely think my kids are fun. We laugh at the same things, and even though I’m still their parent first and foremost, we banter back and forth like friends. We can watch and enjoy the same movies and TV shows (even though I inwardly cringe at even the slightest indication of a sex scene), and my phone is constantly pinging with a stream of memes and TikToks that my kids know will make me laugh. They have developed an actual sense of humor, and are fun to hang out with … well, most of the time.

That attitude, tho.

This is one thing people do warn you about — more than anything else, probably — but it doesn’t fully absorb until it actually happens to you. Teenagers can go from regular human beings to snapping, snarling demons in the blink of an eye, with no warning, and for no reason. This is not an exaggeration; it really does happen in a snap. You wonder if all kids are this volatile and grumpy, or if you’re just a terrible parent who has raised a disrespectful monster (spoiler alert: it’s so not you). There are entire days when they’re just in a mood, and you feel like you’re walking on eggshells … starting with the moment you had the audacity to say “Good morning!”

… And how much it stings.

When one of my toddlers gave me an earful because he wanted the BLUE cuuup! or I cut a sandwich the wrong way (oh, the injustice!), I never took it personally. Everybody knows that toddlers are irrational creatures, after all, who haven’t yet gained the capacity to manage their emotions. But after even the most petty argument with my teens, when they’re being extra snarky and impossible to please, I feel that twist of hurt in my core like I’ve been quarreling with a co-worker or my spouse. Even when I know I’m right, and that they’re being just as irrational as toddlers, it isn’t as easy to brush it off as it once was.

You become a full-time chauffeur.

Teens develop an active social life long before they develop the capability to drive themselves to all the crap they constantly wanna do. And if you’ve got a “joiner” who wants to be in every club and sport, it’s even worse. When they’re not heading to some sort of practice or club meeting, they want to go to the movies, or the coffee shop, or the football game, or the mall, or Mason’s house, or wherever else their friends are congregating. And guess what? They need a ride. Oh, and you’ve got to pick them up afterward. Oh, and their friends need rides home too. You couldn’t spend much more time on the road if you were driving a damn semi truck.

… Also, they need $20. Perpetually.

And when they do get behind the wheel? Oh boy.

You think it’s going to be so awesome once you have a driver in the house. And it is, kind of. But getting to that point is one of the most nerve-wracking things you’ll ever experience. Sitting in the passenger seat with a kid whose driving experience is limited to MarioKart is a whole new kind of stress. And when they do pass their driver’s test, you worry every. single. time they’re on the road.

Feeding them is freaking expensive.

I’m not sure what a zoo shells out to feed a herd of elephants, but I’d be willing to bet it’s somewhere in the ball park of my current grocery bill. Gone are the days when they subsisted only on air and the occasional Goldfish cracker and I worried endlessly that they would be malnourished little skeletons; if you’ve currently got a little one who doesn’t eat, don’t worry — they’ll make up for it later. Like breakfast and after-breakfast snack and brunch and lunch and a bag of Takis and some ramen noodles and dinner and post-dinner-dinner and bedtime snack. Your cupboard will be full one moment … and full-on Mother Hubbard the next. Oh, and don’t bother cleaning that kitchen before you go to bed at night, because it will be miraculously re-cluttered with the makings of late-night snacks. WHO LEFT THE BREAD OPEN?!?

The sleepless nights don’t end with infancy.

When you’re old enough to be the parent of a teen, you want to go to bed by like 9pm. This is directly at odds with your teens themselves, who want to stay out later and later. Even if they’re in a scenario you feel relatively safe about — like with a friend whose parents are taking them to a concert — you still can’t fully relax until you know they’re home and safe. You’re always hyper-aware of all the potential dangers lurking out there (thanks, internet!), and if you did anything rebellious as a teen, those will also come back to haunt you when you think of your own child doing those things. The idea of them being out on their own past dark makes it nearly impossible to rest. Because they may be teenagers, but they’ll always be your babies.

You struggle with privacy vs. boundaries.

Your anxiety will want unfettered access to every text message, every Snapchat, their complete browser history (desktop and mobile, please), and for their bedroom door to be wide open at all times. Those horror stories you hear about online grooming and cyberbullying are ever-present in your mind as your kids’ eyes are perpetually locked onto their screens. But your brain knows that logically, there has to be a line; they’re nearly-adult humans, after all, and everyone deserves some privacy. The trouble is walking the fine line between giving them enough privacy and still making sure they’re not engaging in any risky behavior online, and you struggle with maintaining that balance. Constantly.

They still want to talk to you, but it looks different.

Every parent who has ever had their ear talked off by a chatty kid has wished for just a moment of quiet. Like, take a breather and leave me alone for a minute, child! But when your kids are teens and they develop a propensity for going silent, you wish for just the opposite: you want them to open up, tell you everything, be all up in your space, even if it’s only for a few minutes. The good news is, they still do want to talk to you (despite their one-word answers of “Fine” when you ask them how their day was) — they just don’t pursue you with it like they used to. Instead, I like to compare it to fishing: you sit quietly and wait until the opportunity comes along, then seize it if you can. Car rides are great for talks (and you’ll get plenty of those while chauffeuring them back and forth). Actually, any activity where you’re idly doing something — putting together a puzzle, sitting next to each other on the couch scrolling through your phones, cooking — is ripe for conversation.

You have to let go … and it’s freaking hard.

Trust me, I get it. You spend over a decade being the absolute center of your kids’ universe, sometimes (OK, often) to the point of frustration. Like, can’t they ask anyone else for something for a change? But with the teenage years, something shifts, and you’re no longer the sun in their sky — just a planet in their orbit — and that’s a very hard pill to swallow. When your function in their life isn’t to be their main source of comfort, it’s almost like you don’t know what to do with yourself. As much as you long for that feeling of being needed, it’s not the same … because what they need from you now seems to have basically reduced itself to groceries and a ride. (Oh, and another $20.) You find yourself wanting to be one of those people who tells parents of toddlers to “enjoy every minute, because it goes so fast” … even though you remember how utterly annoying that was.

Your teenagers still need you, it’s just not cool to admit how much. But out of all these things, perhaps the biggest surprise of all is realizing how much you need them … and how much harder that makes it to relax your grip — just a bit — on the not-so-little hand you’ve been holding so tightly for so long.

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