Challenge Accepted :: When Parenting Gets Tough

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I have raised three young adults, although with one approaching 30 I think I have to call them “adults” now. I work in a church/preschool where I chat with three and four year olds daily. Plus, I teach Sunday school to fourth and fifth graders.

Now, I mention this to establish that I have some experience with parental challenges, not only for myself but also for the ones experienced by my mom friends. In fact, a conversation with some other Birmingham Mom Collective contributors sparked the idea for this post.

As we chatted while checking in cars for the Holiday Drive-In, we shared stories about our parenting journeys. A couple were moms of toddlers, a couple had teenagers, and then there was me. “Oh I remember when my kids were three,” I said. “It’s way harder than two.” One mom practically high-fived me and agreed that she felt the same. . . and so did another mom and another. We discovered that we all had experienced what I’m calling the universally challenging ages: three-four, 11-12, and 16-17. Since I’ve lived to tell about all three challenging ages, I thought I would share my survival tips for them.

Ages 3-4: The “I Do It” Challenge

Nothing can stop your train faster than a toddler who wants to “do it myself.” Suddenly, your easily distracted and generally compliant child becomes an immovable object who only regains momentum when whatever task is completed. The challenge is that they don’t generally have the motor skills to get it done. They get frustrated, then you get frustrated. They cry, then you cry; and still nothing happens.

Survival Tip: Set the times when “do it myself” will be okay.

For instance, putting on their own shoes is a big win for a toddler. Trying to do it while getting other children to school on time is probably not the best idea, though. Instead, set the expectation that when you’re going to school the parents put on shoes, but when you’re going to the store (pick something that is not time sensitive), your child can do it. I found that my children responded well to having options they could understand better than just hearing “not now.” This doesn’t mean that new “do it myself” challenges won’t keep coming up, but at least you have a strategy for those.

Ages 11-12: The “Eye Roll OMG” Challenge

It seems like overnight you go from the best person in the world to the dumbest, most uninformed person in the world. This stage, at least for my kids, was all about trying on new attitudes, and their favorite was the “eye roll OMG” look. Certainly pop culture perpetuates the saucy responses. Yet my children grew up in a much less socially connected world, and still we suffered from this disrespectful attitude.

Survival Tip: First, try to remember that you are the safe zone for your child to experiment. You are the people who will love and accept them no matter what, right? Second, set an expectation of respect to everyone, parents included.

This “expect respect” attitude, however, goes both ways. When your tween wants to discuss a later bedtime or access to a new YouTube channel, you need to be willing to listen and consider their arguments. By modeling respect toward them, I promise, you will one day feel it right back toward you.

Ages 16-17: The “Over It and Overwhelmed” Challenge

Around your child’s junior year of high school, tensions and stress rise right along with expectations to make some truly “adulting-like” moves—decide on a college or career, get a driver’s license, find a job, and maybe start a relationship. Your child who once moved easily through school, friendships, and activities may suddenly become an emotional tsunami, unable to control which direction to go with their emotions. You get swept into it and then thrown out at some unpredictable moment.

Survival Tip: Remember that this is not about you and how you’re feeling—it is solely about your child trying to navigate what’s next.

Yes, they need your help but they don’t really want you to decide everything for them. This is an ideal time to empower them to make decisions thoughtfully and fully informed. Push yourself to guide them toward answers and pull back when they say “I’m good.” I wish I had listened more to my son as he got to this stage, and it took my daughter’s therapist to convince me to let my daughter discover how to be her own person, instead of a version of what I expected.

Between the challenging years, and of course, during them, there is always joy to discover with your children. Not every day is difficult and not every child is the same, but these years seem to be universally challenging for us parents. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself wondering if you’ll ever get through to enjoying this little human who is challenging the very limits of your patience.

Rest assured. Hold onto your patience and your hope. One day you’ll be fielding phone calls from your young adults about which health insurance plan to choose at their new job, text messages asking what you thought about that girl they brought to dinner, and surprise visits just to say hi (no laundry basket in sight).

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Born in Wisconsin, Chris moved South with her family, first to Richmond, Virginia, and then to Birmingham when she was 12. She loves being a girl raised in the South, and her only remaining Midwestern traits are a love for the Packers and a fondness for bratwurst. In 2010, Chris reconnected with Christopher, a former Birmingham-Southern College classmate, after a random meeting in the cereal aisle at Publix. They married in 2011, not realizing that they were bringing together a perfect storm of teenage angst with their three children. Today, Chris is the center support that keeps the seesaw of her family balanced, leading a blended family of three young adults and enjoying an empty nest. Before the pandemic, most days were busy managing client relationships for a corporate event production company, but after six months of unemployment, she has become the parish administrator aka “the church lady” for her church. When she's not working, she loves reading a rich historical novel, volunteering with her sorority, and planning their next wine-tasting excursions.

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