The Hardest Difference Between Kid Messes & Teen Messes

Kids get into a lot of trouble when they are young. Writing on the pages of books, spilling cereal all over the carpet, squeezing out the one tube of expensive lotion you bought at Sephora instead of Walmart, peeing in a water gun and leaving it in their closet to get stinky and rancid (oh, just my kids then? Hmm).
Still, when they are small, there is a much-needed balance. Because for everything your kids do that makes you want to pull out your hair, they do something that makes your heart melt, like twirling a strand of your hair while cuddling with you before bed or putting their chubby hands on your cheeks and saying, “I love you, Mommy.” And just like that, everything is okay. They are so cute, these little demons that wreck your house. You know for sure that at the end of each long day, you are the most important thing in their lives. You will never be loved or needed as much as you are now. All of the things they do are wrong, but they do them because they are still learning what is right, or how to be people.

But, teenagers. They also make messes, but those messes are less carpet-destroying and wall-writing and more of a situation. Fail classes, break Xbox controllers, make bad decisions, act in ways you know you didn’t teach them to act, and test limits in a big way. Teens make messes that are harder to clean up than finger paint or muddy footprints. And that isn’t the only thing that’s different.
At least you know they love you when they’re little. But when they’re teenagers, there are times when you’re pretty sure they don’t even like you. And you know you’re no longer the center of their world; a phone and a social life have taken your place.

When they’re little and they have to deal with the consequences of their actions, they’re usually sorry or very upset that you’re disappointed in them. But when they’re teens and they have to deal with consequences, they’re angry and it feels like it’s your fault. Not much is there. “Wow, Mom, you’re right. I was acting stupid, and I take full responsibility for doing this stupid thing.” Because you did your job as a parent, all you get are huffs, eye rolls, slammed doors, and the silent treatment. And even though you know in your heart that you did the right thing, their anger makes that little voice of self-doubt in you speak up. Do you take things too far? Do you choose the wrong fights? Did you do what you should have?
But the messages we send ourselves are even worse. When they are young, you can tell yourself that they might not know any better. But when they’re teenagers, you worry that they know better but don’t care, and that you somehow made them this way. It’s like you forgot to do something important as a parent, and now your kids aren’t the respectful, obedient, and motivated people you’ve spent years trying to raise them to be. Instead, they’re grumpy brats who do and say things you would have been shocked to hear them do and say when they were younger. You remember the good old days when you were sure and naive enough to think, “My kid would never.”
“The prefrontal cortex, which is the logical part of the brain, is where adults think. This is the part of the brain that helps us make good decisions and think about how things will turn out in the long run. The amygdala helps teens figure out what they know. “This is the hard part,” says the Health Encyclopedia from the University of Rochester Medical Center. “In the brains of teenagers, the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the center for making decisions are still developing, and not always at the same rate. So, when teens have a lot of feelings at once, they can’t remember what they were thinking. They were feeling more than they were thinking.”

See? It’s not you, it’s just the way their brains work as teenagers. And to rub salt in the wound, the part of them that is rational isn’t fully developed yet, and another part is working too hard, which can make things even worse.

“The limbic system is another part of the brain that is fully functioning in teenagers. In an interview with broadcaster Michael Krasny, neurobiologist Dr. Frances Jensen said, “That’s where risk, reward, impulsivity, sexual behavior, and emotion live.” “So at this point in their lives, they are made to want to try new things. Their frontal lobe can’t tell them, “Don’t do that, that’s a bad idea.” This isn’t happening as much as it will as an adult.”

On top of that, you’re both trying to figure out how your relationship is quickly changing. You’re no longer 100% responsible for their basic needs, but you’re still their mom, and it’s hard to figure out the push-and-pull of autonomy. You’re both dancing, but neither of you knows how to do it.

So give yourself a break, Mama. You need it. Even though the teenage years are easier because you no longer have to wipe your butt or cut up hotdogs, they are also harder because you now have to worry about much bigger things. But those terrible mistakes in judgment and mean attitudes aren’t because of bad parenting. They’re because their brains are still developing, even if they look old enough to know better. Same as when they were young. And just like back then, their mistakes don’t mean you’ve done something wrong. They still have a lot to learn. The way it looks has changed.

Remember all of that when you feel like you’re in the weeds. But most importantly, keep in mind that they will probably be the parents of teens someday. You’ll laugh over and over again.

When they are young and make mistakes, you tell yourself, “They’re learning.” You tell yourself, “You’re failing,” when they’re teenagers.

But as a fellow parent of a teen, I’m here to remind everyone (and myself!) of something important: You’re not the only one, and it doesn’t help to compare your teens to what you think other people’s teens are like. Because your friends don’t post on social media about their big kids’ temper tantrums or bad attitudes. They are writing about the best things, like winning championships and getting into the honor society. They’re posting the happy pictures from before the dance, not the ones from the ride home at 1 a.m., when they yelled at their child for going to an unsupervised afterparty. There are a hundred other snapshots of life for every photo you see. No one can parent a teen without at least one big, out-of-the-blue, “what did you just say to me?” moment. (They are lying if they say they are.) It’s just that no one wants to talk about it because we’re all stuck in the idea that if our teenagers act up, it must be because we did something wrong.

Don’t expect your own teenager to be perfect, and more importantly, don’t expect yourself to be perfect as a parent. Because in this case, it’s not you that’s the problem; it’s them. Those lessons you’ve been trying to teach your whole life aren’t lost. They’re just sometimes overruled by that annoying, underdeveloped part of the brain that makes sense. And you don’t even need to believe me.