Bernard Trafford: Avoiding the parental guilt trap

Sunday Times, 15.11.15, many teens dabble in drugs. For most, it’s a passing phase. The best thing parents can do is talk, listen and love, says former HMC Chairman Bernard Trafford, headmaster of the leading independent Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School.

“They phoned to say she was involved with drugs? And you had no idea?”

The first reaction of a parent in this situation is generally outrage. They’ve done all they can to bring up their child sensibly, to make sure they know right from wrong, to keep safe – and then the encounter with drugs occurs, maybe at a party, or when the kids have gone out alone and have all told lies so every parent thinks they are at someone else’s house.

Parents take it to heart. They should never have bought him that phone; let her to go to that party; turned a blind eye to him hanging around with that group. It’s the natural reaction for us parents when it all goes wrong. We blame ourselves.

The average teenager’s brush with drugs is rarely the start of serious addiction. The average parent (yes, I know they don’t exist) more often learns about it because a little gang has plucked up courage to try a spliff in the park, or someone has brought something along to a party.

“We always talk about everything,” wail the parents. But kids won’t tell us: not when they’re starting to walk on the wild side, learning to deceive us. Besides, they don’t want to hurt or worry us. And so a series of deceits begins. Some would say it’s part of growing up, though it’s a phase we wish our children wouldn’t go through – and through which, to be fair, plenty don’t.

So what sort of parent allows “this kind of thing” to happen?

Any sort. Let’s not be too quick to find fault. All teenagers rebel at times, set out to challenge authority, so a child who chooses to walk on the wild side for a while is not necessarily the product of bad parenting. Even the most wholesome family might see their normally well-adjusted child succumb to temptation or peer pressure.

It’s easy for parents to fail to keep a close enough eye on a child. Some can be blind to the dangers; others may lack the courage to conduct those necessary but difficult confrontations with their teenager. Some couples might be too busy pursuing their own hedonistic lifestyles or keeping up with a demanding job. In these straitened times, many dads work away from home.

I’m sometimes surprised at parents’ astonishment that so much “stuff” happens at night, notwithstanding newspaper statistics that suggest one child in five is checking their phone for messages at 2am: it doesn’t occur to them that the bullying, the daring, the sexting, the assignations they deplore, are being communicated digitally under their very roof.

If it’s hard enough with two parents, how does a single one struggle to hold things together? Their teenager might resent the marital break-up that left them alone. The parent can’t fight all the time, and instead ducks the confrontations. Who can blame them?

Then there are parents who share the care but don’t live together any more. One may be very keen to keep a tight rein on evening and weekend activities, to limit phone and internet use, to keep the teenager close; the other, seeing the boy or girl just at the weekends, may take a more relaxed view – and may be pursuing their own social life, so that the child accompanies them to places or events that aren’t suitable.

Some parents cannot cope with teenage challenges because their own lives are so difficult. Maybe work is terrible; perhaps the pain of that divorce or bereavement is unbearable. There may be some mental illness, depression, alcohol or drug dependence among the adults in the home.

If parents’ behaviour is less than ideal, don’t assume that children will necessarily copy it. They frequently don’t. Indeed, too often they feel a burden of responsibility for their parents. They will try to be the carer, to shoulder the troubles – but then, at times, they may break out, just because they can no longer handle being so utterly depended on.

Don’t panic just yet! The vast majority of children survive their vexed and vexatious teenage years unscathed. Those who experience even disastrous episodes generally get through, learn, and move on to happy and successful adult lives.

They’re children. We adults need to help them not by avoiding the difficult conversations but by laying down and enforcing rules, by talking, listening, and always offering non-judgmental, unconditional love.

It’s not easy, but if parents hang in there and do their best, they will go on to see their children thrive.

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