Dear Shaunti, My 8th grade son is getting involved in extra-curricular activities for the first time, finding out what he likes and making friends in a way he hasn’t before. Which is all great, but every new dodgeball clinic, basketball team and robotics program he signs up for is one more place I have to drive him! His dad is away on business a lot, and we don’t live near others who could carpool, so I’m the only chauffeur available. After trying this for one semester, I told him that we needed some sanity and to pick just two activities to do next semester– and he flipped. I explained that not only is it hard on me, but being up late every night, doing homework in the car and eating only fast food isn’t healthy for him. But he’s unusually upset. You’d think I was restricting him to solitary confinement. What do I do? -Frazzled Mama
Dear Frazzled Mama — As the parent of two active kids myself, I feel your pain! Before you decide to “accidentally” lose your car keys or lock your son in his room before you lose your mind, let’s talk about what is happening inside his. You know that at this age, your son is embarking on an exciting new life season – but what you may not know is how scared he is of losing it. I was struck, in my research, by how much teens and pre-teens are exhilarated and enlivened by this profound new feeling of freedom that they are experiencing: it rapidly becomes one of the most important and most motivating things in their life.
For the first time, your son is learning what he is interested in and good at without the ever-present hand and guidance of good ol’ mom and dad. He is connecting with people and making new friendships of his choosing– maybe kids you’ve hardly even met. He is being offered the chance to try new things that, it sounds like, he’s never done before. And is perhaps finding that he’s good at them! In many ways, he’s feeling like a real person instead of just a child who doesn’t really know who he is. Now put yourself in your son’s shoes and try to imagine how scary it would be to feel you were going to lose a lot of that.
When he hears you say “pick two activities” he’s not hearing a statement of sanity for the family, of compromise for you, or of setting good boundaries so his grades don’t suffer. He’s hearing things like: “You’re going to lose this amazing feeling, of fitting in and people admiring you.” “You’re going to lose the feeling that you’ve finally gotten, of being good at something.” “You’re going to lose the intoxicating sensation that you can make your own choices and be your own person.” You can see how upsetting that would be, right?
Now, don’t get me wrong: it is very reasonable to have your son pick two activities. You’re doing your job as a parent to notice that the current situation isn’t working and take steps to fix it. But the key is to understand what is underneath your son’s reaction – because to him, his worry is reasonable, too.
So as you implement your new system, try to learn specifically what his worries are and do whatever you feasibly can to address them. Ask questions about what he likes most about each activity, and pull out the feelings behind his fears. Let him know that you totally understand and want to prioritize the things that are most important to him. For example: “I saw you grin when you made that great basket and everyone cheered. That’s a great feeling, isn’t it? If that is really important to you, let’s make sure one of your two activities is a team sport like that.” Or, “Are you really enjoying hanging out with Nate and Brad? Maybe if we cut dodgeball, you can invite them over after school some days.”
Even though there is no way around having to cut back on some things, show your son that you “get” why he is upset – and that you want to value what matters to him – and you’ll not only have a better schedule, but a better understanding of the young man he is becoming.