Help! A UFO Took My Teenagers!

January 3, 2017

We ached for the creek and our future
running across the wet stones,
smooth and round. But when we found the water again,
we stood at the bank— all of us afraid to enter.
–Robert Lee Brewer, Cold Water


I’ve lost my parenting chutzpah. So I’m turning to Sharon Olds, Louise Erdrich, Rita Dove…women writers who have survived their own teenagers. Endured with flair.

When my children were younger we dwelt in possibility: finger painting, rain dancing, plushie tea parties. Fast forward to three teenagers. Nothing prepared me. I’m running scared, despite my affair with treadmills and trails. I need to find another way.

Judy, a friend of mine, once recounted a UFO took her daughter at age fifteen and left a shell. For years Judy mothered this snarky stranger, hers-but-not-hers. Then, one random day, the UFO returned her and she was normal again. I’m living this now, this body-soul teen abduction. I’m stuck in the vacuum’s roar, in the empty space where my children’s hearts used to dwell.

Friends with kids now adulting tell me to buckle up for the ride. How? I lost the instruction manual. Love and Logic? Dr. Sears much? How about a pastel What to expect when you’re expecting…teenagers? I beg advice but the answers aren’t easy: Be positive. Be patient. Listen. I’m trying. Truly. Borrowing Neil Gaiman’s words, “The hardest part is simply surviving.” I survived my own teen years, sure, I’m just not sure I can survive my children’s.

At this point in the mom-a-thon, spirits sagging, many of us cope by going back to work (done that), back to school (done that too), going entrepreneurial (been and done, thank you), or traveling abroad (done many times sans children, joy and ache and distance pulling like Silly Putty). What’s left? Pottery class? Yoga more? Pray?

On Instagram I recently saw a pic of a naked Barbie tree-stuck, kids chucked there ages ago, discovered by the economy of seasons: the tree dropped its leaves to reveal the plastic neon pink pantied glory. With kids, this is the norm, crazy weird great things. Kids dwell there, in one giant what if/then experiment gone gonzo. Possibility, an insatiable quest for life. But I’ve lost what they already own: faith and big girl panties chutzpah. Barbies be damned, what’s one to do?

Truth is I’ve receded into the background of my kids lives ungracefully. I’m an unpoetic, redundant, out-moded iPhone 6. So I fight it, grappling with sludge, theirs and mine. Evolving as they evolve, ugly duckling style. And I’m not OK with it. I’m an aesthete and parenting teens is anything but. It’s less art walk, more floorless mine field. Where is the safety net of my grandmother’s laugh reassuring me, Everything will be fine?

There is no net.

In line at the Disneyland Matterhorn, a jubilant well-groomed male voice (one imagines) booms, “Permanecer sentados por favor….Remain seated please.” Ad nauseum. Be patient; when it’s your turn stay seated, buckled, and enjoy the ride. However implied, this smacks of parenting teens. Enjoy exactly what? A bone jarring duck-and-cover gut punch despite the shakes?

With time the poetry of chubby hands and haloed heads evaporates, replaced by teenage snarls or silence. Flashes of brilliance shine, absolutely, but more often teens take offense, rebuff compliments, and assume you lie 80% of the time. No one warned me. I’d take a full Diaper Genie, a dozen hours lashed into one of my Ergo baby carriers of yore, or potty training constipated toddlers over hormonal teen jam and jelly. Pessimism + narcissism? Check. Refusal to bathe regularly? Check. Avoiding chores for the billionth time? Check. Nose in the iPhone/iPad/iWhatever device? Check check check. I should be grateful though. It’s not unprotected sex, cutting, sexting, trolling, vaping, or drugs. Fingers crossed.

Is teenagerhood half-empty? Because I’m in the dregs. OK, let’s pivot then. How about this: growing up is not a loss. It’s a becoming. An ongoing transformation, a million baby steps towards adulthood. And we’ll get there somehow. (As I write this mantra, I want to believe it.)

What of teens and failing then? I hear teen years are the ideal time to let kids fail. It’s safer than adulthood. Less at stake. Sure, only the formation of future identity, college admissions, and The Rest of Their Lives. So while I struggle to broaden boundaries and quit helicoptering, I cringe as my kids thrill and flail in the last vestiges of their pre-adult years jamming the heart button on Insta, grooming virtual pets, and maneuvering real and virtual world bullying by anything but friends.

This stubbornness and flailing though, aka learning. It’s messy and happens to be the building block of teenagerhood and life. I was stubborn too. Am still. And still learning. My own mother doulaed me through my fears, kvetching, and dreams for decades. Might I, too, find grit to do the same?

Sharon Olds, in a beautiful, truth-wrenching poem about her son, declares, “I will have him on any terms.” This is my truth, too. Whatever my children choose, my mother-heart will take on any terms they are willing to give: a rare smile, an odd helping hand, and in twenty years maybe a phone call or, “Oh, I get it now.” I will accept them, unconditionally.

My friends, this is the truth we must tell ourselves in order to survive. An instruction manual does exist, it is love.

Recently I ran into a parent-wise-friend at a holiday party. She looked stunning and younger than ever. When I asked her her secret she said two words, “Empty nesting.” Might I live as long? One only hopes.

What survival advice do you have for parenting teenagers?


  1. Lisa

    January 3, 2017

    I hear you loud and clear. I am on my 6th and last teenager (not including the several I’ve fostered) and just trying not to jump out of the seat too soon into Empty-Nester land, which looks oh so delightful! All my 6 have been different. I had one dream teenager (and she’s stayed stable for 10 more years – hallelujah), one druggie, a teenage parent, a suicidal teen, and a couple of “normal” teens. This is why I never judge another’s parenting; parents have some control over how their kids “turn out” but far less than we think we do. They are their own people, even as teens. And I’m still waiting for the joy and rejoicing in my posterity. I will say, though, that all of my grown kids are really amazing people. The ones that are parenting are doing a great job. (None of them have teenagers yet.) They all provide well for themselves. None are on drugs or in jail. They are making good lives for themselves. So yes, there is hope. Yes, be patient. In the meantime, take excellent care of yourself. Yoga and prayer, yes, and anything else that feeds your soul. Parents are people, too.

  2. anita

    January 3, 2017

    Same! Except now I also wish for a “what to expect when you have young adults”–in a choose-your-own adventure style format. I’ve decided that children are physically hard, teens are emotionally hard, and young adults are spiritually hard. This was the most helpful book I’ve read recently on parenting teens:
    Good luck from another one praying in the trenches.

  3. Kim in Virginia

    January 3, 2017

    Oh, Terresa, Thanks for the big smile and even belly laugh you just provided! Sorry it’s at your expense. My 4 grown up daughters turned out great and are now wonderful parents (a couple of the grandkids are just moving into the teen years). But I’m still not a big enough person not to wish a little of the “craziness” they foisted on me on them! It will provide an even better laugh than your post! Hang in there!

    How well I remember being told by #2 daughter that she wished another darling young couple in the ward were her parents! I remember #1 teenager sleeping on her bedspread so she didn’t have to make her bed. #4 teenager taught me not to judge other parents as she put us through hell and I had to quit worrying what the neighbors and ward were thinking of our dysfunctional family! And I had to go into counseling over #3.

    I felt guilty when other mothers were weeping over their departing college students. I was rejoicing! And I discovered every summer they came home more lovable, until one day the extra-terrestrials returned the abducted child of my dreams!

    Thanks for reminding me of what I survived!

    • Brooke

      January 4, 2017

      You nailed the most crucial aspect with this: #4 teenager taught me not to judge other parents as she put us through hell and I had to quit worrying what the neighbors and ward were thinking of our dysfunctional family!

      You will be surprised how much easier it will be to raise/love your teens when you can figure out how to completely, sincerely stop caring about what anyone else thinks.

  4. Debra

    January 3, 2017

    Great read: “Reviving Ophelia,” by Mary Pipher. Also, try to talk positively about your teenagers in front of them (you can vent when they aren’t around). I feel like so many parents openly disparage their teenagers and how hard they are in front of the teenagers and that does not help the situation.

  5. Sage

    January 4, 2017

    Yes. This has happened in my house. The once sweetest girl, now 16, grunts at me and won’t look me in the eye. Only texts her boyfriend all the time and spends the rest of the time reading or writing teen fiction. I am trying to make it through and know that I’m getting some of what I gave my mom who finally confronted me at one point (I might have been 18 by then) and asked why I didn’t like her. I get hate vibes from my first daughter every day. I take comfort in my 10 and 7 year olds and that my 23 year old son who wasn’t nearly as difficult calls me frequently and my 20 year old son, who has many struggles, is doing well and even will say “Love you, too” on occasion. I am seriously considering therapy to keep me from imploding.

  6. Janell

    January 4, 2017

    As I sit here watching the Bubble Guppies with my little boy I have to wonder if 10 years I will watch Bubble Guppies just to return to a relatively easier time.

  7. Mary B

    January 6, 2017

    One thing I learned: Teens go where they feel loved and/or appreciated. There are plenty of people who will provide that for them while encouraging or modeling stupid behavior. Regardless of your teens actions or neglect, make you and your home two of those places where they find love and appreciation (while behaving more wisely yourself) . It was one of the smartest things we did while our teens navigated that stage.

  8. EllieMae

    January 6, 2017

    Thank you-thank you! This gives me much hope & a shot in the arm to make the best of these turbulent yrs

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