I have a 13-year-old son who is currently frustrating me. He used to be my fun little buddy but is now a gangly, reclusive kid with a mustache! I don’t know what to do – or not do – with him. Recently, after a long basketball tournament weekend that brought out all the emotions, I realized my mommy superpowers of healing and consoling were gone. I needed a new game plan if he was going to make it to 14.
So, I decided to ask my therapist for advice. My next appointment with her went like this:
Me: I know teenagers are moody and concerned with what other people think of them. I also know that my ‘cool’ status disappeared the second he became a teenager. But I need to know how to deal with him.
Also Me: and when should I be concerned that he’s moved beyond normal stuff and into trouble?
Therapist: When the school starts calling you because he’s causing trouble, cheating, getting into fights, or the police call because they have him, or you start smelling weed in his room or clothes, that’s when you get involved.
Me: But before all that, what do I do with him now? He spends so much time in his room and he doesn’t tell me anything about school or stuff he’s doing, how am I supposed to know what’s going on with him?
Therapist: I have a metaphor that I think will help you. I don’t know who came up with this originally, but I like to use it. Think about a puppy. The puppy is excited to see you, follows you everywhere, licks you, jumps on you, snuggles with you and needs you to feed him and take him outside. Then, one day you turn around and you have a cat.
Me: *confused face* My son is a cat?
Therapist: Yes. Think about it. Cats are aloof and independent. Every once in a while, they grace you with their presence and they really only interact with you when they need something. Occasionally, they hiss at you for no apparent reason and pounce off into the next room.
Me: *imaginary lightbulb dings over my head* My son is a cat! I get it now. If I think about him as a cat instead of a puppy, I’ll have a better idea of how to interact with him. I don’t like it, but I understand it.
Therapist: And don’t worry, eventually he will turn back into a dog. He won’t be the puppy that licks you and stays under your feet all the time, but the aloofness and arrogance go away.
Me: My son is a cat. As long as he is a cat, I need to give him space and tend to him when he needs something. This is so weird but I’m totally sharing it with my friends who have teenagers!
*Photo by Natalie Board/Getty; via Scary Mommy website
Click here for the origin story of this metaphor Adair Lara wrote an article for the SFGate newspaper in the mid-90s where she compares teenagers to cats.