The Question at the Heart of Every Parent-Teen Relationship

His silence is driving me crazy.

For two months, we’ve been dropping him off at the local community theater for rehearsals. He has performed in the theater before, and always the routine is the same. For months, we wonder what sort of role he is playing, and for months, he refuses to even read lines with us. He won’t reveal the show as it is being formed, because he wants us to first experience it when it is finally performed. Maybe that’s a teen thing, but probably it’s just a human thing: at some level, we all wish we could present ourselves to the world finely polished and finally finished.

Now, it’s opening night. The spotlights are on. The seats are full. His mother and I sit in the front row, looking slightly upward at the stage. The waiting, for us, is over. I will finally hear my son speak. The play begins.

For about fifteen minutes, there is no sign of him at all.

parent teen relationships

Photo Credit: peshkov (Bigstock)

Then, he enters stage left. However, immediately, his character becomes frightened by the anger onstage and he runs wildly offstage again. The crowd titters. The scene changes. We wait. The scene changes again. We wait. Finally, he enters stage left once again. But once again, he becomes frightened right away and retreats offstage. The laughter at his antics is louder this time. I don’t laugh. I’m too busy wanting to hear my son speak.

His silence is driving me crazy.

A long scene follows, with no sign of him, but we get a little more information: his character has been mute since the age of five. Might we go through this whole night without hearing him speak? Then, once again, he is on stage. And, once again, he is silent, this time smiling, and handing an apple to another character, as the spotlight fades and the first act concludes in darkness.

His silence is driving me crazy.

After a brief intermission, the lights brighten once again, and he is sitting cross-legged, at the corner of the stage. From the front row, I can almost reach out and touch him. He listens to the dialogue of the other characters. Occasionally, one character will raise their voice, and he will flinch, but this time he does not run away. He sits quietly. The scene goes on for five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. He sits, listening. Flinching.

His silence is driving me crazy.

As I sit and watch, I become aware that I have not felt this way in a while. On this night, I’m desperate to hear my son speak, but I have not desired that so much lately. He is almost fifteen years old, and these days, I am more likely to wish him silent than to wish him speak. In the last couple of years, his words have become increasingly challenging, in one way or another. Challenging because they test the peace of our home and the peace of my heart. Challenging because they test my patience and my boundaries. Challenging because they test my character and my love and my deepest convictions. In the midst of all that challenging, I’ve begun, from time to time, to wish him silent.

And yet, tonight, his silence is driving me crazy.

Tonight, I remember a night when my almost fifteen-year-old was almost fifteen seconds old. Then, too, his silence drove me crazy. I held my breath, waiting for his first screams, his first howls, announcing that his lungs worked. Announcing his life was intact. Announcing my life was no longer intact; announcing that everything I had worked so hard to become was now subordinate to something he had just made me: a father.

There was a time when I longed to hear his voice.

There were countless moments on the changing table when I had changed his diaper and he still howled and I fed him a bottle and he still howled and I wondered how I could possibly satisfy him and I longed to hear his voice, telling me how to take care of him. There were long nights of high fevers and febrile seizures when I longed to hear his voice, telling me how to comfort him. There were way too many bouts of stomach flu during which I desperately longed to hear his voice, giving me a warning about when he would next be sick, so we could both stay clean together. When he was blind in one eye and didn’t know it, I wish he would have known how to speak up and tell us. For most of those early years, I wanted him to use his voice. But then, sometime in middle school that voice began to deepen.

And I began to grow weary of it.

As he struggled with his loneliness—as he struggled to find a place in the world outside of our family—he made mistakes. Said foolish words. Did foolish things. Hurt friends. Hurt us. The child I once knew was still in there, but he was an understudy. This other, bigger version of him, with lengthening limbs and changing features, was always on the main stage, rehearsing, learning lines, trying to find belonging somehow while remaining safe and unscathed. This performing version of him seemed to do more and more of the scathing.

I began to welcome moments in which that voice was silent.

Always seeking a stage, he would try to turn the classroom into one as well. Seeking the spotlight, he would often find one, but not in the classroom. He’d find his spotlight down the hall, in the principal’s office. The administrative staff delighted in him, enjoying their regular conversations with him as he waited to be seen by the vice principal. But when my phone began to ring regularly, and his principal and I got to know each other a little too well, I wished that he would speak a little less.

I wished for moments in which his voice was silent.

Then, he fell in love with comedy. Stand up. Improv. He started working on his material. Like all comedy in its embryonic stage, some of it is good but a lot of it is not. After all, that’s what makes for a good comic: they don’t mind writing bad material, and they don’t mind bombing in front of an audience. We have been his audience. He has made us laugh a lot, like that night at the beach, gathered around the campfire, when he took the dare to prank call Walmart and had even the Walmart operator laughing in spite of herself. When he does things like that, I have loved his voice. But he has also bombed a lot, like that night at the dinner table when his jokes about his mother’s cooking fell flat and his pokes about his brother’s chewing fell even flatter. When he does things like that, I have longed for his silence.

And yet.

Here I sit in the front row, and he is sitting there on the stage, under the lights, in perpetual silence, and I’m longing for him to speak, and I realize this is the question at the heart of every parent-teen relationship:

To speak or not to speak, that is the question.

Do we parents invite our teens to speak only when it makes us laugh, only when it makes us happy? Only when it makes us feel good about ourselves, about our parenting? Only when their jokes are our kind of jokes, their interests overlap with our interests, their opinions are in accord with our opinions, their beliefs mirror our beliefs, their faith is compatible with our faith? Only when their words and actions and ways of living are a match for our expectations and hopes and dreams for them? Or do we invite them to speak up all the time?

Do we invite them to step into the spotlight of this life with us?

If we do, it makes for some intense scenes, as two human beings work out how to belong to each other—really belong to each other—not dominating each other or rejecting each other or mirroring each other, but belonging to each other. Two people with two voices. Two people with two sets of ears. Children being seen and heard and, in the process, finding their way into adulthood. Adults speaking and hearing and, in the process, finding their way into a second childhood, one far better than the first, in which curiosity and humility and vulnerability and wisdom all mingle into this one thing called belonging. Because, after all, that is what belonging is: a place in which someone longs for us to speak, when it makes life a little lighter, and when it makes life a little harder.

To speak or not to speak, that is the question at the heart of childhood and adulthood and parenthood and humanhood.

His silence is still driving me crazy, almost three hours later, as the final scenes of the play begin unfolding. Suddenly, my son bursts onto the stage and into the bright lights with a flurry of words. He explodes with indignation. He has a British accent, and it is a darn good one. He is all fury and assertiveness, and I delight in the sound of his voice. I delight in the strength of it. I delight in the actor he is becoming. I delight in the man he is becoming. I delight in the person he is becoming. So, I decide right then and there that I always want to be in the front row of his life.

Regardless of whether or not he is driving me crazy.

In two weeks, this son of mine will begin high school. He will walk through the same halls I walked through twenty-seven years ago, sit silently in the same classrooms (please, Dear God, let him sit more silently in high school than he did in middle school), and eat in the same cafeteria. I can still vaguely recall how big and wondrous and new it all felt. I can remember the sense of beginning. But for me, now, as a father, it feels like an entirely different kind of beginning: the beginning of the end. We have only four more years of full-time father-son-time together, and these high school years are the final scene in this first act of ours that began almost fifteen years ago, with a few moments of silence.

I don’t want to miss any of it, and I hope the next four years are not silent ones.

And I can’t think of a better way to celebrate his voice and invite him into the spotlight with me than to write a book with him. It’s a crazy idea. Dad’s are supposed to write books of wisdom for their kids, not with their kids. (I did that once.) As the parent, I’m supposed to teach him about how to live. I’m supposed to guide him. I’m supposed to be the authority on all of this. But maybe there’s a better kind of authority than the top-down kind. Maybe there’s an authority to be found in transaction, in give-and-take, in two voices mingling, in the kind of belonging where two people are both invited to speak into the silence, and both have to figure out how to listen.

I’m not sure what the next four years have in store for the two of us. What I do know is, there is nothing yet to rehearse. The script hasn’t even been written. That is what we will try to do here. If we finish this script, I will celebrate it. If we fail at it, I will celebrate that too, as long as we fail at it together.

To speak or not to speak, that is the question.

May we,

both of us,

father and son,

speak.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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