Teen terrors trigger toothlessness

Several months ago, I was at the dentist, complaining about pain in my jaw, and my dentist asked, "Do you grind your teeth?"

"Of course I do," I said. "I have teen-agers at home."

Oh, he and his assistant had a good laugh about that, until they realized I was serious.

Parenting teens is an exercise in jaw-grinding, tongue-biting, hair-pulling, brain-busting frustration. Even if you have the most responsible, scholarly, polite kids in the world, they'll still drive you crazy. It's nature's way of preparing the parents for the children's departure from the nest; by the time they're out of high school, we can't wait for them to leave home.

The dynamics of the parent-child relationship center on the struggle for autonomy. The child wants the freedom to do whatever he wants whenever he wants with whomever he wants. The parent, on the other hand, wants the child to stay in his room, quietly doing his homework, until he's 40.

The most difficult task for parents is "letting go." If teens are to learn about life, they must be free to make their own mistakes, but we parents know it's a dangerous world out there, full of hazards and stupidity, and it's hard for us to let the kids out of our sight. We've invested all these years in keeping our children safe and healthy. Now that they've reached adolescence, we balk at letting them spend the evening "just riding around" in a bald-tired van with someone named Crazy Jake. Call us paranoid.

We parents try to build safeguards into our teens' behavior. We say "no" a lot. We set curfews. We require adult supervision. We ask for references. We use cell phones like leashes, maintaining contact. We wait up. We constantly worry.

Why? Because we remember what we were up to when we were that age. The trouble we got into (or narrowly avoided), the near-misses and the almost-wrecks and the passing scrapes with The Law. We'd like to believe that our children are smarter than we were at that age. We'd like to believe that we've taught them so well that they'll avoid the pitfalls of youth. But hahaha on that.

Each generation must get into the same trouble all over again. Adolescence is about experimenting and taking risks and acting a fool. Some behaviors (and I'm thinking here of sex or wild driving or mouthing off to authority figures) are just too tantalizing to avoid, no matter how well-trained the child may be. We parents know this, and that's why we stress out over our kids.

Once children reach high school (and certainly once they start driving), they're determined to do things on their own. Nine kinds of parental rules and restraints won't keep them from going out into the world and screwing up. We can wheedle and lecture and preach, and they'll ignore all that and do what they want. We can absolutely forbid certain behaviors, and they'll sneak around and do them anyway. We can lock the kids in their rooms, and they'll climb out the windows.

Just like we did when we were their age.

Teens see it as their job to drive their parents nuts by staying out half the night doing who-knows-what and coming home disheveled and suspiciously bleary. And it's the parents' job to fret and stew and grind our teeth.

This tension between parents and teens has always existed. It's the way of the world. It's the natural order.

And it's why your parents wear dentures.

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