Monday, August 18, 2014

Teenagers: Stinky Little Extraterrestrials

Years ago, a skunk sprayed our yard during the night and the next   morning I trekked out to my car to drive to work and unknowingly stepped into the oily residue. I tracked skunk stink into my Jeep and onto the carpet in my office, a room I shared with a kind and forgiving co-worker. It took a week or two and several large cans of Lysol and air freshener to get rid of the smell.
Ever since my profound Close Encounter of a Second Kind (I never saw the skunk but it left evidence of its presence), I became a skunk expert. I learned the way of the skunk. My experience imprinted itself into my hippocampus and I acquired a heightened sense of smell.  I can detect a skunk several miles away, outperforming a normal human nose that can only start to do the same at one mile.
I have the same uncanny sense about adolescents.  After 30-plus years of teaching teenagers and having raised three of my own, you might say, I have reached the Close Encounter level of a Fifth Kind: I have actually communicated with these strange creatures and we have shared knowledge. It sort of makes me an expert, and I am willing to share what I have learned with the rest of you.
I have come to the conclusion that teenagers and skunks have a lot in common.
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Skunks are crepuscular and nocturnal; their active hours are from twilight to dusk. During certain times of the year, they are also semi dormant. They are scavengers, eating whatever gets in their way.
Skunks have poor vision and though they have an excellent sense of smell and hearing, they are selfish and selective in the use of these senses.
They are solitary creatures, responding only to the opposite sex.  
Skunks are smelly and offensive, repelling everyone around them for miles.  If anyone or anything happens to intrude into their space, they will hiss, stomp their feet, and posture in hopes of frightening them away. If that does not work, they are forced to fight tooth and nail. As a final recourse, they will let loose a caustic, oily spray that leaves its smell and stain on the intruder for several days, sometimes (like in my case) for longer periods of time.
Does any of this sound familiar?  Does it resemble an adolescent you might know?
Now for the good news.
Most skunks live for a maximum of seven years. The adolescent stage in a human ranges about the same amount of time, so get ready for several years of stinky behavior.
A skunk cannot be tamed without the use of radical surgery, an option not legally available for the parents of a teenager. A better solution for the parent of a surly and repellant adolescent is to adopt the ways of the Great Horned Owl, the only true predator of the skunk. The owl has a limited sense of smell, so it is not put off by the skunk’s aroma. The owl uses what it innately knows about the skunk for its own benefit.  We could learn a lot about the care and handling of these strange creatures from the wise old owl.
First, bear through their stinky behavior.  Don’t condone it or overlook it, but understand why the adolescent is acting out this way. 
Second, know that the teenager’s rebellious behavior is dependent on his innate need to grow apart from his parents and to stake his own identity, especially if his parents have strong identities of their own. Stand firm and parent well.  
Third, their minds and bodies are going through great bursts of chemical and psychological stops and starts. They are loveable kids one moment, strange aliens the next; lethargic one moment and prowling the house like caged animals the next; sweet one moment and venomous the next. Let go a little.  Give them some responsibility and pray for the best.
Fourth, the best time to communicate with them is during their cute, yellow Minion stage; the worst time to try to get through is when they break out in hairy purple. Remember to listen, listen hard.
Lastly, getting skunked is no fun.  It hurts and offends, but in the end, after the stink has worn off and Lysol and air fresheners have saved the day, both you and the adolescent will have learned from the experience.

Good luck.  

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