My teen is not who he used to be, it’s hard

watercolor of canadian geese flying

By Annie O’Brien

The geese are especially aggressive in the late spring. Their babies, now up and about, pad alongside the brook that cuts through the golf course in a perfect line sandwiched between them, both the goose and the gander on the lookout for threats. Their vigilance seems to increase proportionately to the goslings’ mobility.

My thirteen-year-old son and I are sharing a tense, temporary reprieve from battle, playing nine holes. We’ve had a rough time lately in ways that go beyond the ordinary awkward de-nesting of middle school, in ways that scare me sleepless and, I think, scare him a little too. His impulsive outbursts and occasional open defiance call attention to him as a disruptor in the classroom, so when acts of vandalism are discovered anywhere in the school or on the grounds, he is always suspect number one.   

As I lay awake, I remember the bright-eyed little boy who’d greeted every morning with almost overwhelming enthusiasm. Who’d bring me my shoes and my bag and my lunch, and sometimes a drawing, as I readied for work.  I remember when, as a four-year-old, he abandoned his own search to help the toddlers find booty at the Easter egg hunt. And when he was seven or eight, how he could tell right away if his dad or I had had a tough day, hugging us hello extra long, even patting our backs. His warmth was electric. 

I stare into the dark and wonder what’s happening in the circuitry of his brain now. Does a switch go off or do the wires just steadily smoke until they burst into flames? Does he somehow relish the chaos of discovery or is that just unintended consequence of the whim? His eruptions at times seem like calculated acts of extreme expression and at other times like an utter loss of control, as if the norms of self-restraint are either beneath or beyond him. He still shows signs of what I think of as his true self: thoughtful, affectionate, empathetic; but increasingly he is truculent, removed, resistant. 

I wonder too what my part is in all of this. It could be genetics: I tend to have a short fuse. It could be my life choices: I work—a lot. Maybe it’s a million little choices, made every day over thirteen years. Coping mechanisms I failed to teach him, discipline I failed to instill, boundaries I did not set.

The trouble escalates over the course of the school year and culminates, invariably, just before his early June birthday. As if before turning a year older, he must flush out his system. I can usually tell from the way he skulks into the house or crawls into the car that we’re about to get a phone call. It’s eerie, this foresight. 

My husband and I are hauled into school and presented with descriptions of wreckage. Each time, my son denies participation, proclaims his innocence. Insists I believe him. Take his side. Clear him. But the evidence is always incontrovertible, especially to me—who knows so well his technique, his language, his whole modus operandi—and I cannot. I almost wish I could be blindly allegiant, bullishly defensive of him, but my rational brain and my fearful heart will not allow it. I know I could bring to bear my legal training and invoke due process. I could discredit the witnesses. I could argue for exclusion of testimony. I could urge commutation. But where would that leave him? Where would that lead him? 

We grapple with our options. Consultations with academic, medical and therapeutic experts provide little explanation beyond the diagnosis of the decade, ADHD. What does that even mean? What do we do about it? The three of us—my husband, my son and me —spend hours every week, together, in various combinations or alone, assessing and stressing.

But this afternoon we take a time out. I suspend the reasoning, the lecturing, the yelling, the pleading. He contains his anger or angst or whatever it is that has come to roost inside of him. We walk together across the soft springy grass and talk only about the last shot, the next shot, and where to eat when we’re done.

He’s in his back swing in the thin rough near the trickling path of the water, focused on the dimpled white ball at his feet, when the lead goose rushes him, with strangely silent stealth. She unleashes her fury at him, unfairly; he is not at fault here. He has not come particularly close to her family, but she overreacts from instinct. In that rush is all the unquestioning conviction to protect her own that he hopes for from me. My own instinct kicks in, and I charge the goose swinging my five iron wildly, scattering the whole family into squawking retreat. 

“That,” my son says as he watches the arc of his shot, “is the first time in a long time that you have defended me.” 

He smiles, but only slightly.

Annie O’Brien is a mother, wife, lawyer, writer and avid arts consumer, splitting her time between Massachusetts and North Carolina.

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