Teens and Their Family Collisions

[This post is excerpted from Why Smart Teens Hurt. To learn more, please take a look!]

When I was young, I thought I might become a physicist. I especially liked the idea of particle accelerators. Believe it or not, our math-and-science high school had one in the basement. Students built it at a cost of $10,000. (By contrast, the Large Haldron Collider cost $6.4 billion to build and took 30 years to complete.) I don’t think our cyclotron ever really ran—if I remember correctly, when it was fired up, it tanked the electrical system in the building and in a whole part of Manhattan’s East Side. But it was, well, the thought that counted.

What went on in a particle accelerator seemed to me like some charming combination of a chariot race, a pinball machine, and bumper cars. And so, I thought, “Why not? Physics might be fun.” Lots of collisions! But collisions in real life—well, that’s another matter entirely. And collisions in the family are especially no fun. Much of family life is experienced that way, not as interactions but as collisions. Which makes family life prickly.

A given smart teen collides with her mother about what to wear. She collides with her father about his political beliefs. She collides with her brother about just about everything. Collisions over curfews. Collisions over spending money. Collisions over dating. Collisions over screen time. Opinions colliding. Values colliding. Sparks flying everywhere.

Joan, a coaching client, remembered her prickly family life:

“My father was a tyrant. He was very smart, which made him think … I don’t know what … that he had the right to look down on everyone. Just passing by him felt dangerous. Not that he was physically assaultive, but it always felt like he might be—he felt like a living threat. So, we all avoided him; except that he was also like a magnet, as if his threatening nature provoked us to tangle with him, maybe to prove that we weren’t cowards.

“I fought with him endlessly over whatever position he took on anything. If he was for a Palestinian state, I was against it. If he considered veganism idiotic, I became a vegan (for a while). If he said that 2 + 2 = 4, I would come back with, ‘Not in higher mathematics!’ We never just talked. We always butted heads, like two rams locked in a pen.”

The special collisions that a smart teen can expect are verbal ones, since she is smart and her parents may well be smart also. The whole family may be good at arguing and at picking apart arguments. This verbal sparring is not only corrosive but sets in motion a lifelong dynamic, where smart kids become smart adults who are adept at using words to fight—and to harm. This “skill” will prove useful if a smart teen becomes a trial lawyer—but in the rest of life, not so much.

A smart teen who, on the other hand, is passive, may not do the colliding herself but may end up doing a lot of ducking. Wearing her headphones to muffle the tumult and hiding out in her room to avoid becoming collateral damage, she is nevertheless painfully affected by the hubbub. She may find it hard to concentrate on her homework, leading to poor grades, feel physically ill, leading to lost school days, feel chronically anxious, leading to binge eating or secret pill popping, or grow despairing, leading to inertia. If where you live is under siege, it is not just the combatants who are affected. Even babies can feel the tension.


For parents


Everyone has a part in family collisions. What is your part? That’s the first line of inquiry, to figure out your contribution to family squabbles, verbal spats, and tense confrontations.

If your mate seems to be the prime instigator, then you have a responsibility to say something to him or her, for the sake of your children. And you will have to say it more than once. You may need to say it every time he or she blows up, creates some unnecessary drama, or acts meanly. Of course, this will not prove easy. Of course, this will not feel safe. Of course, this will amount to a collision of its own. But you know it’s necessary, don’t you?

It may be that everyone in the house has a share of the blame. But that is the opposite of saying that therefore no one is to blame. Five wrongs do not make a right—they only make for harm and chaos.


For teens


The best policy with regard to family collisions is to get out of the way, if that’s possible. In some households, that isn’t possible. Your parents may intrude so forcefully or battle so loudly that your room is not your sanctuary. If you can’t get out of the way at home, then spend extra time in your school library, your town library, a friend’s home, or in a congenial café where you can get your schoolwork done, where you can think, and where you can feel safe.

Think, too, about your part in these family collisions. Has it become your habit to do battle about nothing in particular, just to preserve your sense that you are not giving in? Are you experiencing standing your ground over small matters as worth it or as serving you? And are you maybe instigating some of these collisions? How is that working for you?

Family collisions are emotionally painful and psychologically damaging. You can’t control others, or even influence them much, but you can be thoughtful about your part in these collisions—and thoughtful about what you can do to stay out of their way.


[This post is excerpted from Why Smart Teens Hurt. To learn more, please take a look!]


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