Teenagers are often like wild animals.
Sometimes they love you, pontificating about why you’re the best and telling their friends about how “cool” you are. Other times, they’re snapping off and driving little shanks into your heart. You never know what you’re going to get with a teenager, and entering the jungle with someone new you’re seeing can be even more difficult.
The best thing you can do once you’ve passed whatever limit or boundary that you needed to and it’s time to meet your special someone’s teenage child or (God bless you) children is to be a cat.
Not a feral one, but, you know, a proper house cat. One that is chill being by itself. Self-possessed. Not really caring whether it’s being pet or not. That sort of cat.
I’m in the middle of practicing being a cat myself.
My partner has a thirteen year old daughter who is anxiously shy and tiny and beautiful. The first couple of times we spent any time together, she was silent. I tried to draw her into conversation, but it was difficult. She was often moody and sat scrolling through her phone. I was convinced she didn’t like me until my partner screenshotted a text she sent to him that said I was “super sweet and nice.” I couldn’t remember even having the opportunity to be “super sweet and nice” to her, but I took it.
Whenever I’m around, she curls against her father, often stringing her fingers through his. When we go out to a restaurant, she sits on the same side of the booth as him, often looping her arm through his while they eat. She and I are very different, but sometimes while her father is messing with her, doing his “dad joke” routine, she looks at me and says, “Does he ever annoy you?” And we can laugh together, which is sometimes the closest we get.
Since her mother, whom he left when his daughter was five, her father has only dated two other women seriously, the last one being four years ago. The relationship between her parents today is contentious. She is often the liasion, coming out of the house to pick up her mother’s monthly child support check, sharing when doctor or school appointments are. I am sad that it is that way for her. I am sad that it is that way for him.
I like her, but I’m unsure how to navigate our relationship. Being a mother of much younger children, I find it hard not wanting to pull her into my lap or barrage her with questions.
I can tell she is unsure how to navigate our relationship too. Sometimes she pops out with questions for me that I’m surprised she cares about (how my work is for me, what people I see everyday). Other times, her father mentions that I’m wearing a new perfume and she purses her lips and says, “My mom wears Clinique Happy everyday,” asserting her mother’s presence into the conversation to show she’s still first.
In order to best practice being a cat, follow these tips:
- Be friendly.
Say hello and ask questions, but be prepared for them to ignore you completely or be curt with their responses. They’ll appreciate the effort you’re making and, as long as you’re not spending interrogating them or forcing them into conversation, they’ll appreciate that you’re allowing them to be who they are. You may also get surprised sometimes when you ask them about something they feel passionate about and then they just don’t want to shut up.
Teenagers are struggling to find their own identity. They may also be struggling with their parents’ difficult relationship. Often you may be the one they complain to, pretend don’t exist, or somewhere in between. Listen, don’t advise, and be as approachable as you can. The more you are consistent and available, the better off your relationship will be in the long-run.
3. Don’t take things personally.
Teenagers have enough going on in their own little lives and bodies that they probably aren’t going to think about you and the fact that their parent is dating. OR they may care about it a LOT depending on how long it’s been since their parents were last together. Your job is to not take things personally.
You’re there because you love their parent, and they will see that eventually. It just may take some time. You can earn that by remaining friendly and upbeat and supporting the parent however they need, and you may end up dealing with some flak in the meantime. If the child really said something not nice, let your partner know, but try to let it roll off your back as much as you can.
4. Let your partner take the lead.
Whether your partner grabs your hand or keeps their distance, follow their lead. PDA can be messy territory if the child is still hurting or struggling after the break-up of their parents, so be respectful of whatever terms your partner sets.
Whether your partner suggests you hang out with them once a week or every two weeks, follow their lead. You care about your partner and of course you want to see them, but there may need to be an adjustment period before you’re included regularly. Again, be mindful, and take care of yourself, so you don’t get needy and clingy. Remember, cats are chill.
I remember the considerable ache of being a thirteen year old girl. Of my dissatisfaction with my own body or brand of clothes or circumstances. My attempts at connecting with boys or the pain of female friendships. I also remember how difficult my relationship was with my parents, who were married, how everyday I felt powerless over my own emotions and reactions.
I want to project what it was like for me onto my partner’s daughter, but I’m jogged out of that thinking whenever I see her scroll through her friends’ stories or snaps or when I remember she’s juggling a mother, a father, a step-father, and step- and half-siblings along with me: dad’s girlfriend.
She still switches between calling her father “daddy” or “dad.” She’s making the slow-quick transition between being his little girl and a woman.
I’m not sure where I’ll factor into her life as she gallops toward adulthood, but for now, I hang back, I watch, I wait, I follow behind them as they hold hands in the mall or sit across from them in the restaurant booth. I allow them to keep their relationship, to not threaten the solidarity they’ve had for so long. I practice showing love for her from a distance, of letting her be who she is while I am who I am.
I practice being self-possessed and okay. I practice being a cat.
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