There’s no such thing as a trouble-free teen

Sunday Times, 29.11.15, former HMC Chairman and headmaster of RGS Newcastle, Dr Bernard Trafford shares his advice on something that all families will eventually face: a rebellious youngster.

Bringing up children is a joy, but it’s also a responsibility and it will never be trouble-free. We all know the most difficult years are the teenage ones: at that age they are programmed to rebel, to kick against all the limits you set, even to seek to hurt you. Their rage knows no bounds.

There’s so much pressure to try things, to experiment, to be one of the gang. The moment they succumb, that lovely relationship you had, when they told you everything, may start to change. They won’t tell you the bits you’d rather not hear – partly, in fairness to them, to protect you; mostly because, if you knew the half of what they’re getting up to, you’d try to put a stop to it. The wiles that teenagers will employ once they start down the track of deceiving their parents are endless.

There are real dangers for your children, so you need to know that they’re home and safe at night, not drunk or experimenting with sex or drugs. On the edge of even the most innocent, jolliest friendship group, some less savoury elements may lurk. And remember that groomers and drug dealers alike use younger contacts to bring them into contact with children.

It’s a nightmare, isn’t it?

Well, up to a point. There are strategies that parents can adopt to get families through most of the risky times.

I can’t tell you whether it’s right to let your child have a drink with you at the age of 14. There’s an argument that, denied the experience at home, they’ll go and get it somewhere far less safe. But I’ve also come across research that suggests it’s the kids who have been allowed to drink at home who later develop a less responsible attitude to alcohol.

When your teenager absolutely forbids you to contact the parents of the friend whose birthday party they’re going to, ignore them. Parents need to stick together, just as their kids do! The hosts will be delighted to know that their guests’ parents are onside. It’s even more important when it’s not a formal party but unstructured social activity. If you suspect it’s all being arranged on the hoof, you really do need to phone the other parents.

How do you know how much to trust your teenager, and how far to intrude? School can help. We work very hard to educate students about the dangers facing them. Our experience is generally that they are sensible and thoughtful in response to such lessons, but temptation can strike when they’re away from the classroom. That’s when lines are crossed, boundaries blurred, and all those resolutions to keep safe are too easily forgotten.

Schools commonly run sessions for parents, sometimes showing them the hair-raising videos they use with students. Not only can parents talk to teachers about the school’s approach, they can also share their worries with others and find (comfortingly) that they’re not alone. Indeed, all are living with the same worries.

This act of sharing can help parents to find the courage to check up, confront and step in when necessary. How many parents check their kids’ phones, in the face of the inevitable outraged reaction? They might need to see (although they’d undoubtedly rather not) those intimate selfies that circulate, too.

It won’t solve all the problems. Messages sent via apps such as Snapchat delete themselves once read, so parents won’t ever see them. Nonetheless, perhaps parents working together could take their childrens’ phones off them at night. They can set an example, saying that no-one (including grown-ups) takes a phone or tablet up to the bedroom.

How this works out depends on you, on the way the family dynamic works, how you all react to one another. There isn’t a single answer for any family when dealing with a teenage crisis. But you will cut down on the sleepless nights if you are realistic, set limits, avoid appearing shocked and angry when your children breaks them – and always let them know that it is, above all, their safety that you are trying to ensure.

No-one ever said parenting was easy. You have to do all these difficult things because you love your children absolutely and unconditionally, and want to keep them safe and free from harm. You will get through this challenging phase, and so will your kids.

Believe this: the bad times will be swiftly forgotten, but the joys and pleasures will furnish a lifetime of happy memories.

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