Now don’t get me wrong, my nine-year-old stepdaughter is a fantastic child. She’s kind, polite, loving and caring. But every now and then the Teen That She Will One Day Become rears its frightening head in the shape of An Attitude. She’s in that difficult transtion stage called Tweenage, which reminded me of an article my Successful Other Half wrote on the subject when she was a magazine columnist before we swapped roles.
This week’s theme: THE CURSE OF THE TWEENAGER
The kitchen door burst open and I looked up from my cornflakes to see a figure standing there. It was my eight-year-old daughter and there was something different about her.
‘What’s the matter?’ I asked.
She rolled her eyes to the ceiling and said: ‘Everything.’
She said: ‘I’ve got no clothes to wear and nothing to do and no friends and my hair’s horrible and everyone hates me and it’s all your fault!’
‘What?’ I spluttered. ‘What did I do?’
The eight-year-old folded her arms and scowled. Then she took a deep breath and, over the next ten minutes, she told exactly what I’d done to ruin her life.
All her clothes were disgusting – which was my fault. Her school shoes were vile – my fault again. Her hair wouldn’t go right – my fault once more. Her friends weren’t talking to her – yes, that was my fault too. And her homework wasn’t finished – and, you guessed it, that was also my fault.
‘And I’m not wearing a coat today,’ she said.
‘But it’s raining,’ I told her.
‘So?’ she replied.
By the time we made it to school I felt as though I’d gone ten rounds with Muhammad Ali in his prime. And then, just as we were about to reach the gate, the eight-year-old said to me: ‘Don’t come in, Mum. You’ll only embarrass me.’
I stood there open-mouthed. I wanted to say to her: Who are you? And what have you done with my child?
But I reckoned I knew the answer.
I went across the road to the café where my best friend Sue was waiting for our weekly coffee-and-natter and I said to her: ‘My eight-year-old has turned into a teenager.’
‘Oh thank goodness for that!’ she said. ‘I thought I was the only one living with the child from hell!’
It turned out that about the same time my eight-year-old transformed from sweet child into moody, belligerent she-devil, Sue’s eight-year-old had been going through the same metamorphosis.
‘It happened overnight,’ Sue said. ‘One day she was happily playing Sylvanian Families and My Little Pony and the next…wham!…she was dressing in black and screaming abuse.’
‘And blaming me for everything,’ I said.
‘And telling lies,’ said Sue.
‘And moping in the bedroom.’
‘And forgetting to do homework.’
‘And arguing all the time.’
‘And refusing to do what she’s told.’
‘And looking so miserable.’
‘And keeping secrets.’
‘How has this happened?’ I asked. ‘How have they aged five years in a day? What have we done wrong?’
We shook our heads. We simply didn’t know.
On the way home I tried to remember what I was like aged eight. I was sure I was nothing like my daughter. But then, times had changed. When I was eight there weren’t mobile phones and computer games. No one had ipods or laptops or Nintendos. Was modern life to blame? Had it speeded-up the growing process? Were our kids now so spoilt that they had become jaded mini-adults before their time?
As I thought about the eight-year-old I found myself longing for the cuddly little girl she had been just a week ago instead of the prickly hedgehog she was now. And, all of a sudden, I felt a stab inside my chest. It was so sharp it I had to stop to catch my breath.
And that’s when I saw it.
In the window of the bookshop was a book entitled: How to Hug a Porcupine
And I thought: ‘That’s it. That is what I need to know.’
I went inside.
The book’s full title was: Negotiating the prickly points of the tween years and it was one of several books on the same subject. According to these books, kids no longer simply turned into teenagers at the age of 13 but went through another stage of development between the ages of eight and 12. This stage, known as the tween years, was clearly where my daughter was at. And I knew nothing about it.
So I bought a handful of books and headed home.
I made myself a cup of tea and got stuck in. Each book told the same story – adorable child turns into raging monster in space of five minutes. It was reassuring to know that at least my daughter’s behaviour was perfectly normal.
Less reassuring was the advice. There was lots of it. In fact, there was so much advice I couldn’t take it all in. And it was incredibly complicated.
There were things I could say and things I could not, times when I had to ask questions and times when I had to shut up. I had to stop being bossy while still being the boss, and I had to allow my child to make mistakes but only the right sort of mistakes.
And I tried. I really did.
For three whole days I ignored the tantrums, the strops, the sulks and the backchat. But then, one evening, The Partner Who Is Not My Husband arrived home to find World War III going off in the kitchen.
‘What’s going on?’ he said. ‘I can hear you shouting down the street.’
‘It’s her,’ I said. ‘She won’t do her homework and she’s just scraped her tea into the bin!’
‘And she,’ said the eight-year-old, ‘never listens to anything I say and she never helps me!’
The Partner shook his head.
‘Stop!’ he said. ‘You’re acting like a teenager.’
‘Exactly,’ I said.
‘I don’t mean her,’ he said. ‘I mean you.’
I stared at him.
‘Listen to yourself, Rebecca,’ he said. ‘You are supposed to be the adult but you’re acting like a child.’
‘Well, you deal with her,’ I huffed, ‘and then you’ll see what I mean.’
He did deal with her. Brilliantly. He managed to get her to do all her homework and eat something. She even tidied her bedroom. And all without so much as a cross word.
Later he handed me a mug of tea and said: ‘I know it’s difficult. But she’s not a little girl any more.’
Ouch! There was the stab in my chest again.
‘I feel like I’m losing her,’ I told him. ‘Before I know it, it’ll be spots and boyfriends and Facebook and then she’ll be leaving home. Why does nothing last? Why can’t things stay the same forever?’
‘If they did,’ he said, ‘there would be no first smile, no first step, no first word. All these changes are part of life and they’re wonderful.’
He gave me a hug.
‘It’ll be all right,’ he said, ‘so long as you both remember how much you love each other.’
I wondered if the eight-year-old did remember.
I set off upstairs to find out. And I thought about what The Partner had said. He was right. This was just another stage of life, another part of the journey from child to adult, caterpillar to butterfly.
And we’d get through it the same way we’d got through all the others. With love.
I peered around the kids’ bedroom door expecting to see the eight-year-old on her bed, sulking. But she wasn’t there. Instead she was sitting on the floor with her brother. They were so busy they didn’t notice me standing there, watching them dressing their teddy bears ready for a game of schools.
‘One day soon,’ I thought, ‘she’ll be too grown-up for games like this.’
But not yet. Not today.