Middle School Monday: "Why Do These Things Always Happen to Me?" Understanding Your Adolescent's Tendency to Pretty Much Destroy the World.
Welcome back to school! Here at Mockingbird Cottage, the air is getting less humid, the nights are cooler, and we get just a hint of a whiff of smoke in the air (the farmers near us are drying tobacco in their barns by smoking it for several weeks). It's all very picturesque and lovely. Of course, with all that autumnal picturesqueness comes a few other things. Mostly much earlier alarm clocks as we head back to school.
As I look on Facebook, most of my friends are either back in school--or going soon. So, I thought it might be good to start (cue the big radio announcer voice) Middle School Mondays again! (Confetti, applause, cowbells, etc.)
Today's post comes from a reader comment. As she started reading Penumbras, she said, "Conner just doesn't have the best luck, does he?" She's referring to the fact that when he's around, all kinds of mishaps occur. Conner is a little confused by all of this stuff--wondering why these things just happen. He didn't mean to set a bullie's gym shorts on fire or blow up a school bus or destroy the bathrooms. This stuff just happens as he lives his life and tries to get away from the bad guys.
While there is some definite tongue-in-cheek in the books, they are based on a true pattern I've observed over the years. Adolescents are often surrounded by a maelstrom of destruction. They ruin shoes, they lose clothes. They misplace homework, they crack the screen of the laptop. Their grades burst into flames and end up in tiny ashy heaps. Their friendships might do the same, and it's not uncommon for a minor encounter with a parent to turn into a full-fledged fight.
Suddenly, that kid is looking at the charred remains of his or her life thinking, "I didn't mean to do that" and, something I have heard dozens, perhaps hundreds of times over the years: "Why do these things always happen to me?"
Nearly every adolescent I know is convinced that he or she simply has the worst luck in the world. Bad grades just happen. Property is mysteriously damaged when they use it. Valuable items vanish. Teachers and parents have it in for them. Unseen forces, as malevolent as they are omnipotent, seem to search for ways to make their lives miserable.
It's easy for adults to see these kind of things and roll our eyes. Bad grades "just happened"-- because the kid didn't do his homework, or because she insists on texting while studying for tests. A teacher "hates them"--meaning they were disciplined for talking in class. Expensive shoes "disappear" because no apparent effort is ever made to pick them up. And so on.
Here is what we need to remember. They don't see it. They just don't. I'm not a neuroscientist so I can't tell you exactly what parts of their brains are not firing on all cylinders, but as someone who is around kids all day, every day, I can tell you that their brains definitely do not fire on all cylinders. They don't discern cause-and-effect like we do. It's like they are color blind and you are not. You are staring at something glaringly, obviously red and they just don't see it.
They definitely can't anticipate cause-and-effect, and they even struggle to see it in retrospect. With coaching, I've found you can get to the point where they will sometimes acknowledge leaving a laptop out in the rain wasn't a good idea. However at that point, they'll jump in with, "But, it's your fault for not reminding me!" or something similar. They will usually remain convinced that their part of the whole mess was one teeny-tiny factor, regrettable, but unavoidable, and completely insignificant in light of many other things. "How was I supposed to know it was going to rain? It's not like I tried to leave it out all night. Sheesh, I didn't call up and order a rainstorm!"
So, what do you do about it?
First realize this is a something almost every kid pases through. Your child is very normal.
That being said, I believe you still have to talk to them, specifically discussing how their small choices ended up causing a big thing to happen. They won't often get it, but if you do this enough over the years, you'll help create a habit for them. When their brains do start firing on all cylinders again, they have both the habit and the capacity to use it. If you neglect to build the habit, simply having the mental capacity will not make a difference. It will be like a car with no gas (lots of metaphors, similes, and images today).
I also believe that they really need non-punitive, natural consequences--if they break it, they buy it. Or as close to it as they can. That will also help them when the brain starts working again.
Mostly, you grit your teeth and love them. And you realize that they are usually very, very frustrated. They feel keenly the fact that everything they touch seems to turn to ash and mud. Nothing goes well. They ruin everything they touch. They feel that. And they hate it--absolutely hate it! It makes them feel bad. It really does. But they just don't see the connection between lack of judgement and negative consequences. They need so much love and understanding.
Every child will vary with this, both in terms of how severe it is, and when it starts and how long it lasts. In my experience, this tendency begins around 5th grade or so. It's mild at first. But it grows pretty steadily. It seems to hit rock bottom in about 7th grade and then things start to slowly improve.
Another generalization: most often, I think boys tend to have external chaos. At least that's where it's most visible. Rooms, grades, angry outbursts. Part of this is their growing size. They are larger than they used to be. Their actions suddenly have a lot more velocity and strength behind them. So instead of just thumping the wall, they put a hole in it ("Stupid wall! This house is a piece of junk! Who built this thing anyway?").
Girls may seem to hold things together a little better, at least outside the home, but their chaos seems to me to be more internal. They tend not to be so destructive of property, but may be slashing and burning through fields of friends. They may also lose all manner of clothing items. This seems exacerbated by the fact that at their most thoughtless mental stages, they want to have the most accessories they've ever had before. Where boys seem to get angrier, I feel that girls will often feel that they are being unfairly persecuted. Here's one other thought, again, a generalization. Most times, boys existing habits simply seem to get louder, and bigger, and more destructive (and much, much smellier). In my experience, many (but not all) girls seem to actually change in terms of their personality.
These are generalizations, though, and your boy may burst into tears about his friend situation just as quickly as your girl throws her lunch box through your antique stained-glass window. Previously organized, neat, and motivated students of both sexes may suddenly be imitating the worst cliches of lazy, messy teenagers you've ever seen.
Both boys and girls may demonstrate a stunning lack of common sense or the ability to think through even the most simple steps. "Why didn't you put the ice cream away?" You ask, upon arriving to a floor covered with a quart of sticky, ex-ice cream. "You didn't tell me to!" Your teen replies with an icy contempt that withers your soul, as if you are the world's biggest fool and knave.
My observation is that they start to grow out of this by being a little more mindful of physical or external things. They leave things out less frequently and are more responsible with their belongings. And they also seem to manage their peer relations better. Their room may still be a disaster and they may not seem to be maturing much in their relationships with you, but outside of home, things seem better. Maturity at home does come, I promise! But in my experience, that is a lagging indicator. I think that has to do with the fact that they prioritize social situations and peers outside of home--so their best efforts start there but eventually spill over into domestic life.
But, things will improve. I promise.
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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