03/06/2014 05:30 pm ET Updated May 06, 2014

The Phase of Raising Tough Kids

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My mother's lifelong friend, Mrs. Ryan -- and that's what we called her -- was like a second mother to my sister and me. She raised four kids of her own, three of whom were older than us. When my mother would lament some new challenge with her own children, the experienced Mrs. Ryan would respond lovingly, "It's just a phase."

I'm not sure if those four little words helped my mother through our comparatively benign childhood and adolescence. On paper, they're little solace for parents who are grappling with the trials of raising challenging kids. I personally consider myself an expert in grappling after raising three sons whose adolescent choices took at least five years off my life, proverbially speaking. To protect their privacy, I won't go into all the mishaps, heartbreaks (mine) and unrest they brought to our door. Needless to say, I'm sure there were a lot of folks in our town who wondered, understandably, just what the heck was going on in our house.

And I'm a good mom. Really. My friends, and family and kids will all tell you that. I was there for my boys in their crises -- and there was opportunity aplenty for that. Anton Chekhov wrote, "Any idiot can face a crisis; it's this day-to-day living that wears you out." Apparently, Mr. Chekhov never parented three crisis-prone teenage boys. Because the crises can and do wear you down -- right along with the daily worry of what's coming next.

But through grace and luck and what I'm going to hope was halfway decent parenting, my boys are launched and on their way to their definitions of success. And that makes me oh-so-happy but, more importantly, it's given me a lot of perspective. How? Because when my sons were (fill in whatever poor choices, within reason, spring to mind and I'm sure they will apply), I thought I'd never feel the end of the heartache, pain and, yes, embarrassment of whatever it was. Not only did I worry about the crisis du jour and what it meant for them in the next hour or week or year, but I was consumed with what the lasting effects of their antics would be. It was a time of uncertainty and endless anxiety.

And then.

My oldest son went to college. And then my middle. And then my baby. And despite the requisite growing pains, they're all evolving into the most amazing of young men. And all of the crazy of the past is relegated there. And sometimes we laugh about the old days. Really laugh. About things that were really, really not funny at the time. And when one son came home on his first college break and said, "I'm sorry for everything I put you through, Mom. It was a lot," I had my first inkling that everything -- to the extent that it can be for anyone -- was going to be OK.

Watching your children teeter on the threshold of adulthood is a thrilling and frightening thing. It's waiting to see whether the crops you planted -- of lessons imbued, forgiveness granted and love showered -- will yield a successful harvest. And whether the qualities you thought most important for them to be successful humans -- tolerance, gratitude and kindness, in my case -- were absorbed. Or whether their adult choices will be decent and thoughtful ones, even if they differ from yours.

A close friend of mine is helping her three children navigate some pretty serious family crises. And her children are all struggling mightily. And my friend is sad and pained and in that place -- the very same place I was -- where I just couldn't see that time would pass and the kids would grow up and that life would not be frozen in this particular moment of angst.

And isn't that one curse of parenting? That our children's turmoil is so overwhelming to us, we just can't envision that in a month or three or twenty, many of these struggles will be behind them. Or they will, at the very least, look and feel different in some way. I realize this isn't true for every child or every experience. Lord knows, I know that. But it is true for the parents trying to make sense of what it means to raise a child who refuses, in whatever current capacity, to toe the line.

I now know -- in the way of real knowing -- that what Mrs. Ryan said is true. That raising kids is a series of phases that can't and won't last. It's a truism for our kids, for us and for life. I only wish I could have believed it when I most needed it. Chekhov also wrote, "Wisdom... comes not from age, but from education and learning." And, when it comes to parenting, I can surely attest to that.