Saturday mornings I get sodas with my 13-year-son, and then drive around our small Oregon town playing Pokémon Go. He’s disinterested in almost everything I suggest at this age, but this one thing gets him to sprint down the stairs and hop in the car at 7 a.m. And I know, a lot of you reading this are like 7 A.M.? Why so early? But I’m an early riser, and most of the family sleeps late. So this time on Saturday mornings really is just for Tristan and me. There’s no competition from his younger sisters, and usually we are back before anyone is up.
I don’t know exactly how it started. Just one morning he was up and I was up, and I asked if he wanted to do something. And now his excitement each Saturday morning is the highlight of my week. But more importantly, it’s given me this time to just talk to him one-on-one about life, and the pandemic, and it’s created a connection for us that is so critical right now.
Two weeks ago we were driving to some Pokémon raid, hoping to find a shiny Pokémon. He was, as usual, using a bunch of words I didn’t understand, so I just nodded, and went where he told me to go, which was pretty typical for our outings. I’ll be honest, I don’t 100% understand everything we do with that game, but I am learning. But while Tristan is in it for the Pokémon, I am in it for the conversation. In between all that Pokémon stuff, he told me about Zoom school, and how much he missed his friends. In late October, we almost lost my wife to sepsis, and he admitted how scared he was when his mom was in the hospital, and how strange it was to celebrate a Halloween without her around. And just like I do with the Pokémon hunting, I just nodded, and let him talk. Sometimes I asked questions, and I always reaffirmed his struggles with the last year.
By the time we were heading home, I remember thinking it was a pretty uneventful morning, same as so many we’d had hunting Pokémon. That was, until Tristan looked up at me and said, “Thanks for listening.”
It was still a little dark outside. The sun was coming, but in the flash of a street light, I could tell that his eyes were wet, not quite crying, but close. I didn’t comment, but it seemed so clear in that moment that last year had been much harder on him than I’d realized. Between moving school online, almost losing his mother to sepsis, and the stress of living through a pandemic, he’d had a rough few months. And that drive to hunt Pokémon, well … it was a great opportunity for him to just chat with his father, alone.
Once we made it to the house, I parked the van and gave him a long heartfelt hug. “Anytime you need to talk, I’m here.”
He nodded, gave me half a smile, rubbed his face with the sleeve of his blue hoodie, and went into the house. I sat in the van for a bit, realizing that this was one of those moments when it was so important for me to just be there for him.
Of course, not every time we go out for sodas and to hunt Pokémon is this impactful. Sometimes we just drive around and hardly say a word. But the important part is that we are together, and he has the opportunity to talk to me. These mornings have given him a place to open up and talk about a hard and stressful year. He’s a teenager living through a pandemic, and the reality is, that’s pretty difficult.
So if I have a suggestion to all of you parents out there raising a teenager now, during this very difficult time, it would be to try and find a way to just be with them. Take them out for ice cream, or for a walk, or on a drive to listen to music once a week. I know — with teenagers, this can be a tall order. I got really lucky with this whole Pokémon Go thing. But if you can find some way for the two of you to just be together, where you can casually talk, you might just find out that your child needs you now more than ever.
They may not open up like my son did, but they also might, and giving them the opportunity to do so in a casual setting is pretty important right now. Because this has been a hard year on all of us, and our teenagers are no different.
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