How Well Do You Know Your Teenager?

Published The Times September 27th 2003

A wise old psychiatrist once said to me that a parent’s place is in the wrong. Nowadays, I fear a parent’s place is in the dark. It doesn’t take too many Internet horror stories like that of 12-year-old Shevaun Pennington running off with 31-yearold ex-Marine Toby Studabaker to see why Microsoft is closing down its chat rooms.  But does de-coupling computers give parents more insight? What are your kids doing right now?

Therapists inevitably get a jaundiced picture. A son who sold his mother’s wedding ring. A girl taking her mother’s valium. The boy who blew £26,000 without his parents noticing. Another who added his crack dealer’s number to the family’s speed-dialler. The 13-year-old contemplating suicide because her best friend got killed. The boy who is reading his mother’s cybersex emails. The 14-year sleeping with her maths teacher. The girl who is three months pregnant and still mum doesn’t know. The sixth former who hasn’t been to college for five months. Worst of all, the girl who is being abused by the same uncle that abused her mother – “He follows me everywhere and even if my mum’s around, he gives me looks”. It was no fun breaking that news. And all this is in the respectable British middle classes.

These are extreme examples and hopefully don’t include you and yours. However, it is in the nature of parenthood that you cannot win. For example, you might tell me about your teenager’s personality and tastes with great conviction. “He is a quiet introvert who enjoys the more serious sort of pop music”. Say that to him and be prepared for scorn: “But, Mum, I haven’t listened to Radiohead for ages. I stopped downloading them last July!” Ruefully noticing it is now only September, you realise that you and your offspring operate in different time zones, like London and Tokyo. Perhaps you can reach him by phone at 4am? Sometimes it’s your best chance.

You cannot win as a parent and in many ways you shouldn’t try. The whole point of teenage is for a teenager to seek separation and differentiation from you. Your son or daughter has to establish a new identity which is not-you. This constrains your liberty but parenting always has. Don’t be tempted to compete. If you start going out with nubile girls or tousled-headed boys in a parody of mid-life crisis then you rob your child’s development of meaning: “So if that’s what 45-year-old’s are meant to do, er, what about me?” Or if you tap your feet to the latest garage beat, they have to embrace suicide-rock to know they exist. My advice is to stay tuned to Classic FM.

Teenagers need boundaries they can conform to or push against. In many ways, they require you to remain firmly old-fashioned. They are the actors; you are the theatrical set. They have all the changing to do – practically poisoned with hormones between the ages of 11 and 17 – and they need you as the stage scenery to remain securely in place – otherwise it is hard to deliver any lines with confidence and they start to lose the plot.

Too many parents make the mistake of trying to deliver the lines FOR their kids whereas – at best – we are prompts. Maintain your standards; respect your child’s feelings; always offer choices. You can no longer hand ready-made wisdom across unless you are willing to stop your child from learning. The worst is a mixed message: “Do as you are told” and “Stand on your own two feet” causes vertigo.

As you may have noticed, you cannot control them anyway. Teenagers are creatures of shifted allegiance. Up until the age of eight, your child psychologically ‘belongs’ to you. As the Jesuits might say, do your best work early. After that, in a Western world, your child belongs to her peers. The group will decide how much truth your child tells you. Yes, it is a bad thing to be generally untruthful but have you forgotten the deceptions and omissions of your own adolescent responses to parental enquiries? “No, mum, we haven’t touched the gin and we didn’t fill the bottle up with water afterwards”. By definition, teenagers do not come clean.

Learning also requires transgression. That also explains the new slovenliness of habits, rotting clothes’ mountains in the bedroom, foul bathroom practices and all-round stroppiness. It is not that your child has lost his or her way. Underneath, they still share our universal Benthamite values of “do as you would be done by”. It’s just that for the time being they cannot own up to it.

In part this is because an apparent mood of depression is almost the teenage norm. This is the biological imperative working its way to the mental surface. A physical and psychological identity crisis diverts energy. Your angelic infant who always woke cheery-eyed at seven am has become Harry Enfield’s comic Kevin unable to surface before noon on a good day and 2.30 at weekends. This is not only irritating and upsetting to family routines, it readily alarms any parent who imagines the depression could be clinical. One simple test is to see whether the offer of sixty quid makes any difference to your child’s overwhelmingly negative view of the universe or if they magically transform into an energetic junior consumer who cannot wait for you to get the car started on its journey to Top Shop or the nearest Virgin Megastore.

However, even this test is not infallible. There is such a condition as ‘masked depression’. Your child seems cheery – they are definitely not. All you can really do is keep offering, even in the face of rejection, to listen and be available. Remember that most kids flirt with the edge at some point – I don’t mean suicide itself – I mean highly risky personal behaviour. They may shoplift. They will encounter drugs. There could develop an Internet interest in cutting and scarification, piercing, tattoos, Gothic obsessions, even dominant/submissive roleplay. You cannot unfailingly control all this.

Which brings me to sex, where the British approach at least judged by teenage pregnancies and abortions has failed for decades. Our gravest fault is to address teenagers as if they were a public meeting or just a category in law. In truth they are simply people with feelings quite as profound as yours and mine. In its latest ‘protective’ legislation, the Home Office proposes to base all notion of teenage sexual freedom squarely on the age of consent (only raised from 13 to 16 in 1885 in an overnight moral panic). This again confuses legal status with emotional development. Do not make the same mistake.

Some 14 year olds are mature enough to run a household. Some aged 17 shouldn’t be let out of doors. It is absurd to think that children under the age of 16 will refrain from sexual contact. I see it as my parental duty to disapprove neither of sexual urges nor their loving fulfilment but only of conduct that is selfish and irresponsible. For the record, dear Home Office, the age of consent in Europe varies between 12 and 18. Sort that out. Trust in the protective juju of the age of consent did nothing for the parents of our recent runaways.

When a 12-year-old chat room junkie shrieks to her mum: “You don’t understand anything of how I feel, the whole world looks black”, perhaps the girl is right? Perhaps we need to respect this emotion even while expecting her to remain a virgin?


Tell your child they can express any opinion but you will not respond to abuse Say: “I hate it when you do X”, not “I hate you”. Think of some aspect of your child’s behaviour to praise. Don’t play God – give your teenager a range of options. Ask your child what they think is a reasonable time to come home – then negotiate Be consistent. Do not smoke yourself if you want them to stop. Never put your child down despite provocation. Don’t do things for your child that they can do for themselves. Encourage your child to remain confident in adversity. Remind yourself that even adolescence comes to an end – it’s just later than you all expect.


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