Dealing with Pre-Teens: Where did my child go?

The parable of the dog-cat

Imagine you bring home a puppy.  The puppy is so cute, but it’s also a lot of work: it chews on everything; it uses the bathroom inappropriately; it makes a mess; it cries a lot.  But it’s so cute that you forgive it almost immediately and go through the time-consuming process of training it.

Then, one day, your puppy graduates from puppy-hood to dog-hood: it no longer chews on your shoes; it’s house broken; it even starts to obey some commands.  It still requires work and attention, but you notice that you’ve trained a really cool dog.  Even when it makes a mistake, like knocking over the trash, your dog has the good sense to look ashamed and apologetic.  Best of all, it likes being with you.  I mean, it really, really likes being with you.  Nothing could make it happier than to spend the day licking your face, as you rub its belly.  Pure love and loyalty!

Years pass, and then, one day, you come home and are shocked to discover that your loyal, loving, trainable dog has suddenly transformed into a cat.   And not just any cat.  Your dog has changed into the most temperamental and obnoxious cat you’ve ever known!  It looks at you like you’re an idiot.  It spends all day sleeping and grooming itself.  The only time it’s pleasant is when it wants a treat or toy.  (You’re actually surprised and pleased when it purrs against your leg, only to be disappointed later when you realize you had a carton of milk in your hand.)  It suddenly seems to go through intense love-hate relationships with any other dog or cat you’re unfortunate enough to have in your home: one minute, it plays with them like they’re best friends; the next minute, it rages with jealousy and demands its own space.  Speaking of space, it takes off for hours and days at a time and goes… well… you don’t really know where it goes, do you?  Furthermore, you’re not all that certain you want to know.  In fact, sometimes the only reason you know it’s still technically part of your family is when you see its crap laying around the house and all the damage it does to your belongings.

More time passes, and soon it goes into heat.  Now it’s hissing at you for no reason!  Still, you allow your dog-cat some freedom.  For example, you allow it to go out with some of its cat friends.  These other cats look sketchy and you’re not entirely sure where they came from (your cat reportedly met them at school).  But you’re exhausted, and, frankly, you need a break.  One night, you find yourself awake in bed, and you hear the worst cat-in-heat howls coming from outside.  You can’t stop yourself from thinking two thoughts:

  1. “Please, please, please let that not be my dog-cat! Let that be someone else’s dog-cat.  I hope my dog-cat is making good choices.”
  2. “Why, why, why didn’t I have my dog-cat spayed or neutered when I had the chance?”

 

Once again, years pass.  Surprisingly, justifiable homicide does not occur, despite your earlier predictions.  Eventually, your dog-cat leaves home.  It saunters off self-righteously, assuring you with a roll of its eyes that it will be fine.  You have contact every once-and-a-while, typically when the dog-cat visits for Christmas or wants to use your laundry facilities.  On the whole, things seem better in the relationship, if for no other reason than there is less mutual hissing.  Yet, the dog-cat seems a little different somehow.

More time passes, and one day the dog-cat shows up on your door; however, now it has its own puppy in tow.  Then – right before your eyes – your dog-cat transforms, one more time, into a born-again dog!  Suddenly, you’re smart again.  Suddenly, you’re needed again.  Suddenly, you’re valuable again – and not just for what you can provide.    Your born-again dog is wiser now: it still has the independence of a cat, but it’s now more willing to take direction, like a dog.  You wisely suppress an “I-told-you-so” grin, as you welcome the born-again dog back.

But one more transformation takes place.  You look in the mirror and realize that you’ve changed too.  Specifically, you’ve transformed into someone who is more fully human.  You leave behind some of the handwringing.  You seem better able to accept others, regardless of what phase they’re in – be it puppy, dog, cat, or born-again dog.  You may not like all the choices that your born-again dog makes, of course.  You still worry (and sometimes with good reason) that your born-again dog may backslide into cathood, but you’re wise enough to not personalize his or her decisions.  You are more-fully human because you have the emotional flexibility to realize – in a way you always knew but had forgotten – that it isn’t about you … and maybe it never really was.  Offended pride and parental anxiety decrease.  And, in their place, a more mutual relationship can form.  Such is grandparenthood.

But what can I do until then?

While this parable may provide some insight and hope, you may still find yourself knee-deep in cathood.  How are you and your family supposed to survive?  You still have a cat to raise, and you’re probably resentful of it no longer acting like the dog that you (deep, deep down) know it to be.  So, what can be done?  In no particular order, here are a few cat tips that may be helpful to keep in mind:

  1. Don’t personalize that look of disgust. Remember it isn’t about you.  This can be difficult because the attack (i.e., eye rolling, deep sighing, isolation, door slamming) seems directed squarely at you, but it isn’t … even when your dog-cat says it is.  Being a dog-cat surrounded by other insecure, hissing dog-cats is horrible.  Some of that horrible feeling is going to transfer to you… no matter what you do or how great of a parent you otherwise may be.  If you personalize what the dog-cat says, you will only get into arguments you can’t win.  (See my blog Dealing with a Drunk Brain Child for more information.)

 

  1. Let it come to you. Forcing a cat to snuggle never works, but you do need to set up an environment of openness where the cat can approach.  Respond at a pace the dog-cat can tolerate.  In other words, balance emotional space and closeness.  Be attuned to your dog-cat.  Hopefully, you’ll know when you’ve gone into heavy-petting mode, which is when you drone on and on about whatever your anxiety is going on and on about that day.  Let it come to you first (i.e., listen) and then  pet.  In other words, after listening and before giving your opinion, make sure you: (1) ask the dog-cat what it thinks (“That sounds tough.  Have you thought about what you want to do?”); (2) ask permission before sharing (“Can I tell you what I think?”); and (3) keep your advice to no more than 30 seconds.  Nothing will prevent a dog-cat from coming to you in the future more than if the petting continues endlessly, regardless of all the signals the dog-cat may be giving you that it has had enough.

 

  1. When it coughs up a hairball (and it will), move on as soon as possible. Eventually, your dog-cat will make a mistake and, yes, some clean-up duty will be needed.  Consequences are good and healthy, but make sure you connect after you correct.  Don’t hold grudges.  If your correction (just like your petting) goes on for too long, kitty may start barfing up all kind of things out of spite.  Use that water spritzer sparingly, or your dog-cat will associate punishment – not with what it did wrong – but with you.  And then it will come to you even less.

 

  1. Focus on what you can control. This piece of advice works in a lot of areas of life, but it’s especially true with cats.  You can’t herd cats; you can only herd the food.  Withhold the food (access to the car, extra time with friends, time on the computer), until after your dog-cat has done what you’ve wanted him or her to do.  Don’t lecture kitty into compliance; hissing will be the only result.  Instead, let it know it can have the “food” once it takes care of business (does homework, does chores, etc…).  Then walk away.  Let the absence of “food” teach – not your lectures.  Teach or pet later when your dog-cat is more receptive.

 

  1. Know the pack. Dogs change personality when they are in a pack, and your dog-cat still has enough dog left in him or her to change based on who they are spending time with.  Therefore, get to know your dog-cat’s pack or friends.  Where possible, become an influence on the pack, rather than allowing the pack to influence your dog-cat when they get him or her alone.  Otherwise, pack mentalities are hard to break up after they’ve formed.

 

  1. Be willing to play when kitty wants to play. You can’t force love on a dog-cat; it will only run away and hide in its room.  But you can be receptive when it gives you an opening.  Be willing to be playful at times, while still setting some limits.  After all, you aren’t its friend; you’re its parent.  But you can still be playful in this role.  Just make sure the playing is mutual.

 

  1. Grant some independence. Cats, by nature, are independent creatures.  You may need to grieve the fact that your dog-cat isn’t as dependent on you as it was before.  But try not to take this personally.  Instead, within limits, grant your dog-cat some room to roam.  How much room?  That will depend on the temperament and history of your dog-cat, but some flexibility may be helpful – especially if your dog-cat is willing to do its part.  (See suggestion #4.)  You may need to start out with some small things and then build up to bigger things over time.  Love is free; trust is earned.

 

Now, at this point, you might be saying to yourself: “This is why I’m a dog person!”  But it’s relatively easy to get a puppy or dog to fall in love with you.  In contrast, cats take work, patience, and greater finesse.  Just remember that, as difficult as the transition into cathood may have been for you, it can be equally traumatizing for your dog-cat.

Some lucky parents seem to have kids who go through an extended dog phase, but, if you aren’t one of them, try not to let that comparison bother you.  In the long run, it is healthy and positive for a child to assert his or her independence.  As long as you foster some healthy limits and emotional attunement, your dog-cat may develop a more balanced way of being in the world.  And this larger goal can be worth all the time, effort and hairballs involved.

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