Just a few years ago, it was, “Can I get you anything while I’m up, Papa?” and “Look what I made for you at school today,” as well as “Let me make you breakfast in bed.”
Today my daughter Riley is fifteen, and I consider myself lucky if I can get her to look me in the eye for more than a nanosecond when I’m talking to her. Her computer screen and iPhone see her face far more than I do. But, that’s not the worst of it. She doesn’t seem to be as caring or giving as she used to be.
If you are a parent of a teen, odds are this sounds familiar. Teens are selfish. I don’t mean it in the way that they want everything because they’re brats. I mean it in the way that they want everything because they can’t help it.
For many years, this planet we live upon used to revolve around the sun. Apparently now, according to Riley, it revolves around her.
She gets a package in the mail, opens it in the kitchen, takes the contents to her room and leaves a pile of cardboard and bubble wrap for someone else to clean. She makes a bowl of cereal, takes it into her room, and leaves the Cheerios and milk on the counter until the cereal becomes as stale as wood chips and the milk can pass as cottage cheese.
My wife and I know our teen wants something the moment she emerges from her cave of a room (filled with package contents, old cereal bowls, and God knows what else), looking at us in the eyes whilst feigning a smile.
And, if she can’t get what she wants, she huffs and puffs and the whole house gets blown down by Hurricane Riley. It’s all about her. And…I…don’t…like…it!
The funny thing is, none of our friends seem to notice it. She only displays her selfish ways in the privacy of our home or only within the range of immediate family.
I was at the post office last week and saw the mother of one of Riley’s best friends since first grade. I asked the mom, “How’s Gloria? We haven’t seen her around lately.”
Her response: “You can have her. She’s so difficult now.”
I asked, “You wanna trade?”
Her reply, “In a heartbeat.”
This woman thinks my daughter is an angel, and I am sure that hers is a saint. So, that tells me, that these teens still have the capacity to be the wonderful young people they once were, making cookies for fire fighters and asking Santa to heal the girl in the news with two broken legs from a car accident (yes, my daughter really did these).
So, what exactly has happened to our teens?
Recent research on this topic has shown that due to hormonal changes, it is developmentally normal for teenagers to go through a self-absorbed or self-centered stage. During this time, teens tend to produce more oxytocin receptors. Although oxytocin is often called the ‘bonding hormone,’ its effects on a teen’s limbic system (the emotional side of their brain) can cause him or her to be self-focused. It is also a time of healthy self-discovery when teens are naturally separating their identity from their parents.
What all that really means to me is that our kids are caterpillars, and the ages of thirteen through eighteen are the cocoon years (technically
“the chrysalis years,” but “cocoon years” has a better ring to it). And, one day they will emerge as beautiful butterflies.
This is their official metamorphosis, the time that our little caterpillars are being hit with megadoses of brain chemicals and hormones that make them the selfish stinkers that they are, not unlike the three-year olds they once were.
Here’s the big difference: caterpillars get to go through their changes in the confines of their mouth-made sleeping bags, whereas teens have to do it out here in the open for all to see (and film—maybe even post on YouTube). We may not like how they are acting, but it’s no cake-walk for them, either.
I remember being a selfish teen myself. No one understood me except other selfish teens. I’d be on Cloud Nine one moment because a senior girl smiled in my general direction, then would crash and burn when I noticed a pimple on my nose. It was all about me…and I had nowhere to hide until my hormones balanced again.
So, what’s a parent to do? Being a teen is not an excuse for being selfish, but it is a reason. What that means is don’t just accept that your kid is acting out because she’s cocooning. It’s important to find the balance of giving your teen enough space to figure out their future identity, while also setting limits around their behavior, especially when it impacts others. You still need to parent. Catch her when she’s being “all about herself.” Point it out, and let her know that you’d like her to think of others.
Will she? Probably not. But, don’t worry. You’re not really even talking to her. You’re talking to the caterpillar that’s still in there somewhere. And, that caterpillar is going to pass on all you say to the butterfly that will eventually emerge. You just have to be patient.
Leon Scott Baxter, "The Dumbest Genius You'll Ever Meet," has been an elementary educator for the last eighteen years. He's the author of Secrets of Safety-Net Parenting, which helps parents raise happy and successful children. Learn more about raising happy successful children at SafetyNetters.com or on Baxter's YouTube Channel.