Loving Porcupines (teenagers) and other salty people

Mom and her boys by the creek

I was talking to a friend the other day who shared that her high school son told her he was sad because she did not text him in the middle of the school days, just to tell him how much she loved him, that she was praying for him, thinking of him, or excited for him, etc … complete with all the emojis and exclamation points! Say what!?!  Of course, she did not realize he was wanting her to text him.  But apparently, he said, “All the other moms text their sons in the middle of the day just to check on them and tell them they love them.” 

Okaayyyy . . .

To me, this was the epitome of what it’s like to parent a teenager.  One minute they want more love and the next, they want you to back off.  Back WAY off, you’re just so embarrassing and you don’t get it.  As if raising kids (especially teenagers) isn’t hard enough, adding the pressure of what “all the other moms” do better than you is just the icing on the ever-loving cake!


You’re already questioning every single move. Sweating it out like a game of chess, hoping you remember all the different players, their specific roles, and most importantly see in advance all the possible consequences of each specific play.  It’s a constant dance with ever-changing rules and there is so much pressure to get it all right.

And most of the time, it feels like it’s never right.

My mom recently said something about trying to love someone who is acting like a porcupine and that visual instantly connected in my head. YES! My kids are like porcupines! They look so cute and cuddly, but sometimes if you get close enough at the wrong time, that beautiful, feathery-looking coat, perks up and becomes a shield of razor-sharp quills! If you move one-millimeter closer, you’re going to feel the pain.  So I’ve been tossing that thought around in my head.

How do you love a porcupine?

Porcupines need love too.  Right? Yes. Yes, they do.  Porcupines probably need love most of all.  And loving them is very challenging.  It’s something I’ve been working SO very hard to do, especially this year.  So I thought I would share a few of my learnings with you:

It starts with understanding that their quills are meant to defend them, not to hurt you.

As Laurie Isop so beautifully illustrates in her children’s book, How do you hug a porcupine?, “A porcupine uses quills to defend him from his foes, but if we’re his friend, surely he knows?” That pretty much sums it up. Teenagers forget that we’re their biggest fans, we’re there to do battle beside them, not against them. I honestly think their brains completely draw a blank on this.


They’re doing exactly what their bodies are meant to do, prioritizing their own “safety” to protect them from perceived threats.  We can love them by intentionally believing that they’re doing the best they can and not taking their words and actions personally.  I know this is SO much easier said than done, AND it brings so much freedom when we can seek with our whole hearts to believe it’s true.  When we can let go of our natural tendency to take their sharp behavior personally, we are free to love them.


The only way to love a porcupine is very carefully. 


But not the kind of “careful” that has self-protection as the primary goal.  It’s the kind of “careful” that is full of care.  Paying close attention. It’s a conscious decision to give intentional and painstaking attention to what’s going on beneath the surface.  Looking at them and intentionally seeing a precious human who somehow believes they need protection at this moment and proceeding with that truth at the center of our thoughts.

Loving a porcupine must be visible.

No matter how much we naturally want to retreat, they need to know we are present.  They have to see it in our eyes, that we see them beyond this spiky defense and we are not afraid. That takes intentional eye contact that says, “I see you. You’re important to me. I am here with you.”  

For me, it looks like some of these things:

A hug that won’t let go, even when they pretend they don’t want or need it.  It might be placing a gentle hand on their arm.  Sometimes it’s rubbing some STINKY, sore teenage feet at the end of a long, hard day because it says, “I’m here and I love you” without any words.  Often, it’s just sitting nearby, holding space.  At times it’s simply saying, “I can tell you’re having a tough time.  It hurts my heart.  I’m here to listen if you want to talk.”  VERY often, it’s fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies.  Enough said.


For the times when all the love you have to give doesn’t soften their quills, don’t defend yourself, love yourself.


Even when the porcupines in our lives can’t accept our love, they are still watching. They need to know that loving yourself isn’t dependent on anyone else’s response.  I cannot tell you the number of times over the last year that I’ve had to say to one or both of my boys, “I don’t deserve to be treated this way. I love you and I’m here for you. I’ll be available again when you’re ready to be kind.”  And then I walk away, audibly breathing deeply, to care for myself. (queue the huge explosion in the background)


This is something that takes so much practice and intention, but it’s so important, for both of you.  At the end of every day, only the woman in the mirror can take care of you.  They need to see that and believe it’s true.

Whoever your porcupines are this week, whether it’s your teenagers, your toddlers, your spouse, your extended family, or your in-laws, the principles are the same.

  1. Seek to understand.
  2. Be FULL of care.
  3. Be present
  4. Don’t defend yourself, love yourself.

I wanted to write this post about “How to love a porcupine, without getting hurt.”

But it’s become pretty clear that in this life, we probably won’t ever love anyone without getting hurt. It’s the price of love. We can armor up, and shore up our defenses to protect ourselves from their sharp stings. We can stay a safe distance away and try to tickle them with a telescoping pole from behind a fence or wall. But what I’ve learned, and am still learning, is that protecting myself from discomfort isn’t really loving myself or anyone else.

Truly loving yourself is doing the HARD work of staying soft, open, and free to love, especially when it’s uncomfortable.

That kind of self-love also sets you free to let go of unhealthy relationships with other “salty” people without bitterness, resentment, or righteous indignation.  It frees you from feeling the need to defend yourself.

Loving porcupines, teenagers, and other salty people is hard work, but it’s part of becoming all you’re meant to be.

And we need you.  We’re counting on you.  Don’t defend yourself.

Stay present and open to love.

to more love,




Photo credit: Brittany Villegas Photography


P.S. This kind of staying open to love without defending yourself is NOT intended to include ANY relationship where physical or emotional abuse is present.


  1. Thank you for this post. It was extremely helpful to know I am not alone and also some tips in dealing with my teenage son. Excited to read more of your posts.

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