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Why trust holds the key to understanding what your teenager is aching to tell you

Being a parent is never easy, but giving your young adult a little more independence can go a very long way, says Lisa Salmon

It's hard looking after a new baby - but many parents believe it just gets tougher as they get older. Research has found that more than half of parents (52%) find looking after a teenager harder than a newborn, and 60% worry more about their teenager than they did when the child was a baby.

The survey of 1,000 parents by the National Citizen Service (NCS), suggests part of what makes parenting a teenager so hard is the stark contrast between a baby's dependence on them and a teen's independence. Indeed, 58% of the parents questioned admitted they were worried their teenagers' future was out of their hands, and 45% felt they had no influence over their teen's decisions.

Teenage parenting expert Sarah Newton, a mother of two teenage girls, suggests that when children are young the hard part is physically always having to be there, but when they're teenagers, while parents don't always have to be physically present any more, their children need support, which can be mentally exhausting.

"They don't need you around so much, but mentally they become more difficult," she says.

"You worry about them more - have they done their homework, how will they do in their GCSEs, what university will they go to? It's the amount of head space they take up which is different."

Newton, who has written books about teenagers and coaches them, points out that with younger children there are milestones that parents can measure their children's development against, but as kids get older, there's nothing to measure them by, except perhaps exam results, which are far from the whole picture.

"Parents don't tend to talk about the challenges they're facing with teenagers, because they feel like they're failing, but there's nobody to guide you and tell you your child's fine."

Newton suggests that while parents teach younger children, and manage pre-teens, they need to lead teenagers.

"Parents panic and they try to micro-manage their child instead of leading them.

"Ask questions rather than giving them advice - it's a really subtle shift, and very difficult to do."

Such a shift can include parents letting their children make mistakes, and Newton says she even had to let her daughter fail a maths exam for her to figure out that she needed to try harder.

"It's difficult," she says. "Many parents are stepping in and doing too much for their teenagers, and they're not resilient enough. But it's very hard to get the right balance.

"Parents and teenagers need to understand that failure and making mistakes is simply part of what life is about."

More than a third of parents (40%) questioned in the NCS survey admitted they've wrapped their teenager in cotton wool, possibly in an attempt to protect them from making mistakes and failure.

But Newton suggests that rather than stepping in to deal with situations teens get themselves into, parents should ask them what they want to do.

"I think we're not very good at trusting," she says.

"A lot of the things we hear about young people are so bad, and we're led to believe our teenagers are going to do something bad, yet all the evidence shows that's not true at all."

The NCS research showed that 52% of parents think their teenager is growing up too fast. However, Newton says evidence shows today's teens are having sex later, not drinking as much or taking as many drugs as previous generations.

"I don't think they are growing up any faster than in previous generations, it's just something we're led to believe," she says.

"Research shows that 70% of teenagers listen to their parents, and certainly with the teenagers I work with, it's actually more than that.

"Parents are hugely influential on their children.

"They're listening when you think they're not, and what we say and think is massively important to them, particularly when it comes to the opportunities they take."

Those growing pains ...

So, what was life actually like for some of our well-known faces when they were teens? Maureen Coleman asks a few to share their memories

Musician Jordan O’Keefe (20) from Londonderry shot to fame in 2013 as a finalist on ITV show Britain’s Got Talent. He says:

when I was younger I didn’t actually go out that much. I started going out when I was about 16/17, so I suppose I was a bit more rebellious then. My parents, Paul and Deborah, weren’t too strict, but they did have rules, like having to be in by 10.30pm. I did rebel a wee bit then, sneaking out of the house, that type of thing.

I didn’t drink until I was 17 because I used to play football, so I wasn’t really one for coming in drunk.

I’ve always been able to talk to my parents and I’d like to think that I do take their advice. I have a good relationship with them and I do listen to them. They’ve been massively supportive and have always been a big help.

I remember going to them when I’d made a silly mistake and was worried about the consequences. But my parents were great and told me how to handle the situation.

Now that I’m 20, I still go to them for advice. The best thing my dad ever told me was ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff and the big stuff will happen’.”

Rebecca McKinney (28) from Belfast, is co-host of Cool FM’s breakfast show. She says:

I’ve always had a great relationship with my parents, Valerie and John, and count myself lucky as I came through my teenage years relatively unscathed. I’m sure I had the odd moment, like every teen, though. Living under their roof, myself and my younger brother always abided by their rules and had respect for them. I wasn’t a rebellious teenager at all.

I wouldn’t say my parents were over-protective, they were firm but fair and I can’t recall ever throwing a teenage tantrum or anything like that. On the whole I think I was pretty well behaved. Mum and dad were okay with us, as long as they knew where we were. We always had our friends over, so they knew all of them and were pretty cool about things like that.

I still go to my parents for advice on things like my career. Growing up, I would’ve talked to them about friends, work and the odd lovelife drama.

They’ve always encouraged us to work hard. The best advice dad gave me was to give everything my all, while mum told me that honesty was always the best policy.”

Greg Cowan (54) comes from Belfast, and  is bass player and singer in local punk band The Outcasts. He says:

I was one of five kids growing up, so my poor parents had their hands full with us. When I was 16 I formed the punk band The Outcasts with my two older brothers, Martin and Colin. Being the middle child meant that the older boys had done all the fighting with my folks before me, so I think I got away with more. My dad Marshall, who passed away around 15 years ago, and my mum Minnie came from the same street in the Donegall Pass but dad worked hard as a painter and decorator and we moved to the Malone Road. He always made sure we stayed grounded, though, as he didn’t want us to turn out spoilt little rich kids. I can remember coming back from Paris, after we’d just played four shows, and dad had me painting railings the next day at Ormeau Park. That brought me back down to earth again.

Being in a punk band back then was a pretty big deal — with all the spitting on stage and swearing obviously we looked rebellious — but my parents were supportive. They’d never been over-protective but a few things happened that changed things. I was in car crash and was in hospital for nine months; dad came to see me every day and we became very good friends. Then my brother Colin died in an accident. Mum and dad became more protective after that.

I never really took their advice at the time, but a few months later I’d always think ‘I wish I’d listened to them at the time’.”

Playwright Leesa Harker (37) lives in Belfast and is the author of hit book and play Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue. She says:

I was a complete rebel. Before my teens I was an angel, reading books and writing poetry, then when I hit my teens I thought I knew everything. I was convinced my parents, Sandra and Gordon, were out to ruin my life, as you do at that age. I knew best and didn’t listen to them.

I remember telling my parents that I was staying at a friend’s and my friend in turn told her parents she was staying with me. Instead, we caught the train down to Portrush and sneaked in to Kelly’s nightclub. I must have been about 14 or 15.

My parents still go on about it. Dad calls me the Portrush Flyer.

I was always getting caught and landing in trouble. It was all pretty innocent, though, nothing to do with boys. And I was very cheeky, really mouthy.

I left school at 16 because I hated it. In fact I hated any kind of authority. I think I grew out of it when I got my first proper job at Charles Hurst. But it never really kicked in just how awful I was as a teen until I had my two girls, Lola (6) and Lexi (4).

I’ll be 100 times more strict with them than my parents were with me!”

The struggles of youth...

When it comes to capturing the essence of teenage angst, these movies have more than stood the test of time ...

  • Rebel Without A Cause - the granddaddy of them all, so to speak, the classic Fifties drama starred the late James Dean as suburban teenager Jim Stark, who falls foul of both the law and his own parents
  • The Breakfast Club - director John Hughes managed to capture the agonies and ecstasies of teenage life in the space of just one afternoon in a school detention in this landmark Eighties Brat Pack drama
  • Donnie Darko - sombre and sinister in look and tone, the 2001 film made a star of Jake Gyllenhaal as the introspective teenager struggling to comprehend the bizarre occurrences which befall him, including a jet engine crashing into his suburban home and a mysterious man dressed as a rabbit
  • Harry Potter - just as prevalent as the magic and sorcery are in the blockbusting series of films is the central story of the titular hero and his efforts to cope with the usual trials and tribulations of teenage life - homework, making friends and meeting girls

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