Teenagers don’t really come from another planet, although it sometimes seems like it. Really, though, they’re just doing what they did when they were in the terrible twos: they are trying very hard to establish their own individuality. Dave and I wrote about our unique experience of having teens and toddlers at the same time.

This article originally appeared in the Corning Leader on March 30, 2003.

While Dave has had multiple trips through the toddler years by fathering our oldest three children, these same three children, now 16 and 12 years old, are providing new territory for both of us as parents through the teen years. Whoever coined the term “terrible twos” did not wait to see how “terrible” the “teens” could be!

We are lucky—we have relatively well-behaved children who have not been in nearly as much trouble as their parents were at the same age.  Molding our kids into fine adults and decent human beings while allowing them the freedom to explore possibilities, make mistakes, and learn independently (without jumping in, fixing mistakes, or doing everything for them) remains the biggest challenge.

Derek, our 16-year-old son, has a laid-back personality where the world that surrounds him is of little consequence. The basics of life: food, shelter, clothing, sleep, and visual entertainment are met; chores, responsibilities, and routine changes are an annoyance. From our point of view, he does not seem to realize how quickly he will be responsible for every decision affecting his life. It is difficult for us to just let him “get there” at his own pace.

On the other hand, Kira, our 12-year-old daughter, would prefer we turn her loose with money, a credit card, and a cell phone as needed, so that she can get on with her life. Reigning her in for the next few years may be an ordeal. Granted, she is not technically a “teenager” as defined by the counting of years; but let’s not split hairs. If it walks like a teenager and it talks like a teenager . . .

Kyle, our 12-year-old son, has Down Syndrome and falls into a category all his own. He is developing physically as would a typical 12-year-old boy and will soon be reaching puberty; however, developmentally he exhibits the skills of a 5-year-old. He has the attitude and rebelliousness of a teenager with the emotional and decision-making ability of a toddler. He must be incredibly frustrated sometimes, wanting to have the freedom he sees his older brother and twin sister enjoying, yet being restricted to some extent as much as his 3-year-old brother.

We try to let the little things go: the unusual hairstyles, the trendy clothing, the latest anime fad, and the independent, sometimes aggressive behavior. Letting go of control is difficult, and we are not always cooperative when it comes to letting the older children explore. We realize that when the children reach adulthood, our opinions regarding the interests and hobbies they have now won’t matter. What matters now is that they are happy. What will matter down the road is their abilities to contribute to society with honesty and integrity, to care about their community and the people in it, and to give something of themselves for making the world a better place.

We struggle to foster the altruistic behaviors without stifling the selfish ones. For our oldest son, we encourage him to shovel the neighbor’s sidewalk, not to earn a buck; but because the job may be easier for him to accomplish at the time, and helping can be fun! In turn, we attempt – unsuccessfully at times – to mind our own business when he obsesses over the latest licensed card game.

Kira tends to be in a hurry to experience everything life has to offer. We try to encourage her to realize that there is time enough to experience everything she would like to without rushing. At the same time, we want her to be selfish enough to chase her dreams and develop her individual style. Dave, especially, strives to give her some breathing room and understand that being overly concerned can be harmful.

Although Kyle has more than his fair share of challenges, he is held accountable for his behavior to and around others, as we would with any of our children. He is taught that he can make a difference for himself and his world, regardless of his disability. We encourage every bit of independence we CAN give him so that he does progress and feel good about what he does accomplish. We have to remind ourselves and others that Kyle is sharp and picks up on more than what we sometimes give him credit for.

Derek, Kira, and Kyle are old enough that we don’t have to help them dress, bathe, or eat, as we do with our younger kids. Fulfilling those needs, however, seems simplistic in comparison to providing the guidance they do need at their ages. We trust that they are capable of making the best decisions and that they are capable of accomplishing their goals. Our goals are to encourage them to take risks, so that they may have successes that build confidence; and to show restraint, and let them make their own mistakes, so they may learn from their failures.