It can be a conversation as profound as the Dali Lama’s influence on contemporary world relations to a question as seemingly simple as, “How do you think this shirt looks on me?” to a conundrum like, “Lindsey asked me to the dance on Friday, but I already told Sharon I’d go with her. What do you think I should do?” You listen, you percolate, you have something constructive to offer. But, dad, you may never have a role in any of those dramas.
Is it that the people you love the most are trying to exclude you? Is it the fact that your teenager doesn’t trust your advice, doesn’t think you know how to help him or her or doesn’t feel comfortable asking you? How do you shed that cloak of invisibility? How do you invite yourself in?
Jim in one of our focus groups summed it up best. “I couldn’t really talk about this ghostly feeling with anyone. It could have been just my imagination because nobody else saw it. They thought I was there. But I felt I’d just sort of slipped away.”
Graduating to Irrelevance
In some instances you might feel quite invisible. In another, you might even achieve irrelevance. You mutter something. You get a quizzical look. “What are you talking about Dad?” Finally, after you’ve crafted a perfect response to your teen’s dilemma, your words spill out in a foreign tongue.
“Zhhhrhrgst heilm dldlkdts.”
If you’re fortunate enough to untie your tongue and make it known that you may actually be able to help … well, you’ve probably heard one of the following responses:
1. “Dad, it’s just that you never listen.”
2. “Dad, you wouldn’t be interested in what we’re talking about.
3. “Dad, you never agree with anything we say.”
4. “Dad, you just don’t understand!”
It is a natural evolution of the father-teen relationship, which we describe as “intensional,” the built-in tension between parent and child.
Daughters experience the tensions of the teens. They must deal with the mysteries of their evolving female physiology. They assemble an arsenal of snipes and snubs as the result of peer rivalry. Boys experience their own challenges. Often they’re boys in men’s bodies.
Both daughters and sons engage in a mental and emotional tug of war between dependence on and independence from mom and dad. They insist on being right, and because they often aren’t at that age, that drives their rightness even more. They are breaking through the cocoon and preparing … no, longing for that day when they will enjoy some measure of free flight.
Dad, you are also experiencing the tensions of your teens’ teens. You, too, must deal with your daughter’s evolving female physiology or your son’s desire to be Ford tough. (Tom has used the phrase “mood swings” at least 2,000 times.) When they’ve assembled their arsenal, they have to practice on someone. Often, the target is you.
Your teenagers rely on your judgments and opinions, while at the same time resenting the fact that they have to. They want you there, and they want you anywhere but there. Exactly the two places you want to be.