The Impossible Question: Which Parenting Year Is Hardest?
As anyone who has ever raised a child knows, parenting is no easy task. This is crystal clear even to people without kids. All it takes is a sibling, a friend or a neighbor with kids to understand that the job of parenting is multi-faceted and virtually endless.
For some parents, infancy is the hardest. For others, it’s toddlerhood. Some parents feel that the preschool years present special challenges. While many parents agree that the period between ages six and ten can offer some breathing room since kids are still very sweet and (for the most part) haven’t yet developed the attitude that almost inevitably starts to emerge around middle school, it’s not too hard to find parents who consider these years just as challenging as those immediately before and after.
Finally, there’s adolescence. It almost goes without saying that somewhere in the physical laws of the universe it’s written that the years between ages thirteen and eighteen are filled with their own special brand of turmoil and tumult. From social pressures, to pushing behavioral boundaries, to experimentation with drugs and alcohol, to boy-girl issues, to acne – a pimple in the wrong place on the wrong day can turn into the most dramatic event of an adolescent’s entire life – the teenage years are nothing if not interesting. So, given that each period is different, which one is the hardest?
The Teenage Years: What on Earth is Happening?
Some parents would even back up and say that after pregnancy, everything is gravy. But that’s another topic for another article. For the purposes of this article we’ll skip the defining characteristics of infancy (0-1), toddlerhood (1-3), preschool (3-5), and school age (6-11). Instead, we’ll focus on the early teen (12-14) and teen years (15-18). It helps to understand what’s happening during these stages, so you understand you’re not alone, and generations upon generations have dealt with teenage issues – and lived to tell their story.
Early Teenagers (12-14 years)
This period can best be summed up by the following two phrases: “Strap yourself in for an amazing thrill ride!” and “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter!”
Puberty begins, and the release of new and powerful hormones change children on fundamental levels. This is the transformation from childhood to adulthood. Children become young adults. They think, look, act and talk in new and different ways. They may challenge authority. Many seek and explore new things, such as drugs or alcohol. They might learn lessons the hard way, on their own terms. Some become moody and self-centered. Most begin to show a distinct interest in the opposite sex.
The benefit and drawback of this stage is identical: parents get to see their children become complex, independent thinkers. Depending on the parent, this can be either liberating or terrifying. No parent wants their child’s independence turned against them—it’s hard to hear a kid who used to snuggle up on a daily basis yell “You just don’t understand me!” and then slam the door. But then again, no parent wants to rob their child of going through the stages necessary to become an adult, either.
Teenagers (15-18 years)
This period is an extension of the early teen years, and many of the big changes that happen during the early teen years are still at play. They may still be rebellious and will probably still push limits.
Thankfully, though, toward the end of this stage things begin to even out. As teenagers mature, they develop a greater capacity for empathy and caring. They begin to see the value in working things out. Though they still may challenge authority and make decisions that befuddle adults, many of them show the capacity to learn from the mistakes they made as early teens and to see the bigger picture: personal responsibility is coming one way or another. Whether that means college or work simply depends on the teenager and the family.
The biggest challenges for parents during this stage is seeing their kids become more independent and grow into almost-adults. Parents who have not yet entered the “letting go” phase generally tend to encounter that phase during these years: though the work of parenting is never done, at some point the children become young adults and then become adults: their decisions are their own, as are the consequences.
The Impossible Answer
The answer to the impossible question is that it depends on the parent and the child. Every stage of development has its very own set of blessings and challenges. Some parents are emotionally equipped for toddlerhood and infancy, while others are emotionally equipped for adolescence. And both of these parents might be in the same family. What’s hard for one parent may be easy for another and vice-versa.
On top of that, every child is different, even if they’re siblings: a colicky baby might be the easiest teenager on earth, and a child who miraculously skips the terrible twos might have an adolescence more melodramatic than a daytime soap opera.
As the years go by, most parents learn that it’s the role of their kids to challenge everything they’re taught. In the words of social worker Debbie Granick, “the worst year is the one you’re least prepared for.” The job of a parent is truly never done. Our children will be our little angels until they have kids of their own, and even then, if everything goes well, they will still come to you for love, support and advice. However, a little tough wisdom taken from Navy SEALS training—given and received with a wink and a smile—might be the best thing for parents to keep in mind:
“The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday”
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.