My own adolescent rebellion came late. Somewhere around the age of 35. I don't recommend waiting till then. Better to drag your parents through it than your kids. I was the good child in our family. My job was to be happy, to make up for my brother, who wasn't. Even as a teen, I gave my parents little trouble. I told them only what I thought they wanted to hear. I kept the rest to myself. I played my role well, but it took its toll. My rashes were famous all over town. My aunt called me Camille.
Yet my friends envied me. Our house was a haven. a gathering place. Rules were simple and reasonable. My mother was always available (a physical presence if not an emotional one) and my father was warm, funny, loving. He told me if I ever had problems, I should come to him. Other young people did. They'd go to his office just to talk. My father wasn't a psychiatrist or counselor--he was a dentist--yet people of all ages confided in him. But not me. I was his daughter! I wasn't supposed to have problems. (At least that's what I thought.) And I didn't want to disappoint him.
My father died suddenly, when I was 21, and my life changed overnight. We never had the chance to know each other as adults. Until I began to write this piece it never occurred to me that I have taken my father's place, becoming a confidante to thousands of young people who write to me every year, in response to my books.
They write about their most immediate concerns--family, friends, love, loss, sex, school. The same concerns I had as a teenager. They wish their parents would acknowledge their feelings and take them seriously. They wish for unconditional love.
They worry about their parents' problems with drug and alcohol abuse. They are angry, hurt, sad and fearful when their parents divorce. They are hostile to unrealistic expectations for stepfamilies. They will not live happily ever after--at least not right away.
They wish their parents would make more time for them.
Sometimes they say how lucky they feel. This usually means a close, loving relationship with parents, siblings and friends. Not a perfect life, but these kids can roll with the punches.
What has changed are the numbers of letters about family violence, incest and other abuses. There are letters expressing such hopelessness and despair they leave me in tears. Letters about wanting to die to end the pain.
While most letters are not so pessimistic these deeply troubled kids need something to believe in--a future with possibilities. Someone has to prove to them that change is possible. Not an easy task. All I can do is offer support and encouragement. I know for the most part they are desperate for someone to listen. As one 16-year-old wrote: "I just want someone to hold me and tell me it's going to be all right."
So I certainly should have been prepared for my own children's adolescence. My daughter and son (and later, my stepdaughter) grew up hearing how lucky they were. "Your mother is Judy Blume. You can tell her anything . . . right?" Wrong. I hoped they would feel they could. But when the going got tough my daughter went to someone else. "My mother just wants to hear that everything is great!" Randy said. Was that true? Had I sent my kids the same message my parents sent to me? I don't know. But if that's the way she perceived it, the rest doesn't matter.
At 16, my sweet daughter became angry, sullen, judgmental, emotionally closed to me. In other words, a typical adolescent. And even though I knew her rejection was necessary to prove she could survive without me, it hurt!
I was feeling very fragile myself at that time, in the midst of my own late adolescence--confused about life, about where I belonged, trying to make up for what I had missed out on when I was young. Two years earlier I had run away from the authority figures in my life--my mother, who I believed had almost total control over me, and my husband. I wanted what every teen wants--to make my own decisions, to control my own life. But the last thing my daughter needed was a parent in the same boat.
My son, Larry, who is two years younger than Randy, wasn't sympathetic to his sister's behavior. He swore he would never act so stupid. Ha! Two years later it was his turn, and he made Randy's rebellion seem tame. The details of their adolescence belong to them. All I can tell you is what it was like for me. I felt alone and frightened. Like so many recently divorced parents, I blamed myself.
How could this be happening? I wondered. After all, thousands of kids were writing to me every month. They trusted me. I knew how to listen without judging. (Yes, but it's so much easier when they're not your kids. And it's so much easier for them to tell someone other than their parents.)
Maybe I should have cheered Randy's and Larry's rebellions. At least they came at the right time of life. Years later, when we could talk about what we now refer to as the difficult years, Randy said, "You know, Mother, we took turns. We never gave you more trouble than you could handle!"
The good news is, most of us survive our children's adolescent years. My only advice is to stay aware, listen carefully and yell for help if you need it. Somehow, with common sense and humor most of us manage to muddle through. And on the other side is a reward. A new relationship with adult children. I spent last weekend visiting my married daughter at her new home. We laughed a lot and talked about each other's writing projects. It was a lovely weekend. It was worth every minute of her 16th year.