I was asked over the weekend how to bring a wayward teenager back onto the ropes. Not a truly wayward teen but one whose dress code doesn’t fit his parents expectations, one who’s giving a bit of lip to his mum. One who’s going through that sulky, baggy-panted, hoody phase. One who’s finding his feet and showing signs of disrespect. Anyone who’s had teenagers in that 13-16 age group probably knows what I mean. We used to call my niece a ‘teenage poo’ for her tantrums and arguments, her messiness and disrespectful chat but she’s all 'growed up' now, cleaning house, working hard, finished her degree and in a successful relationship – I think her being happy has a lot to do with her disposition these days and I can’t wait to see her at Christmas.
I don’t know what I did right. I didn’t have perfect teenagers but I didn’t have the moods or tantrums either. Good and responsible behaviour was rewarded with little freedoms and it seemed to work. Respect was engendered and most of all issues were and are, discussed in intimate detail and they have always had the opportunity to put their point forward whether I agreed or not. The phrase ‘never go to bed on an argument’ comes to mind. Most of all, I wasn’t afraid to tell them that I was new at all this too. I had never raised kids before and that I was also on a learning curve and didn’t have all the answers. Mind you, being a widow helped. Instead of blaming my situation, it was actually advantageous. There was one rule, one arbiter, one court of appeal and I was defender, prosecutor, judge and jury. Firm but benevolent.
Children are wonderful at finding the chinks in your armour and taking advantage. If mum and dad are arguing or separated, they’ll take advantage of that and use it for an excuse not to conform, to be rude, to assert themselves and to play one parent off another. If mum and dad are too authoritarian, they’ll use that as an excuse and sneak out the window when grounded. If mum and dad are set in their ways, inflexible and uncommunicative, their child will be the same an remain closed and uncommunicative about issues that may be of the highest importance or conflict with their parent’s beliefs.
Let’s face it, these betweeny years are difficult for kids. Too young to be treated as independent adults, too old to be treated as children. Little access to social networking beyond the playground, hanging round the mall, joining the local church group or spending hours in front of a computer. Can’t drive, can’t work beyond getting a few bob for washing dad’s car, mowing the neighbour’s lawn or babysitting the brats next door.
I was the eldest and therefore the most highly disciplined. My objections were tame and I was never too controversial, although I remember almighty rows with my parents. mainly over lack of freedom and being judgemental about boyfriends. Even at 20, my father used to stand and flick the outside light on and off when I was being dropped home, just to let me know that he knew where I was and probably what I was doing. I had a curfew and was often locked out of the house if I missed it, dragging a sleepy 11 year old out of bed to let me in.
My siblings were different. The hold over them diminished according to their age. In those days, the worst thing the boys did was grow long flowing locks and smoke behind the toilets at school. This for some reason didn’t cause anywhere near as much consternation as the long hair which irked my mother beyond reason. She then worked on my father and almighty arguments would arise over what? The length of their hair? It was clean, well-groomed just long. It’s just a way of showing parents that you’re fledging the nest. That you want to be different to their generation even though you might be conforming to another group. Emos don’t see their dress code as a uniform despite the fact that large groups of them huddle all dressed in black with half mast trousers, silver chains and black spikey hair. The surf culture don’t think they’re conforming but they wouldn’t be seen dead in Best and Less clothing, it has to be Billabong boardies or Mambo T-s. The surf is God and Beer comes close. The Hoodies emulate black American gangs with their oversized tracky daks and secret hand shakes. Even the language includes words like ‘dawg’ and ‘bounce’.
My point is, that the teen years are years of rebellion. It just happens in varying degrees. It’s not fair to expect your kids to be exactly like you, to want to conform to your ideals, politics and ideas of good behaviour. What’s important is good manners, values, principles and morals and you can have those no matter what you look like. And being able to cut free from the ties that bind – even just a little bit - is also good for a kid's self esteem. Of course if your kid’s right off the rails, it’s harder to bring them back on track by the time they've reached their teens, closeness needs to be cultivated while they’re young through love, conversation and non violent discipline.
If they’re doing drugs, underage drinking, breaking and entering or indulging in violent behaviour then that’s a whole different problem that needs more discussion than I’m capable of offering here
My advice. Keep your marital problems to yourselves, it’s not an issue for your children to deal with. Keep pillow talk where it belongs – in the bedroom. Show a united front with your children and discuss your differences in private. Be there when they need you and hang in the shadows when they don’t. Be understanding of their mistakes, not condemning. Show them love and physical affection. Don’t try to buy them off. If they’re just breaking the mould, dressing differently, listening to music you hate, being rowdy with mates - that’s normal. Encourage them to come home and make it easy for them to entertain friends without you prying. Drop them off and pick them up from parties and gatherings. Set a curfew but make it reasonable. These days things start late and end late. And you thought sleep deprevation ended with infants!
Respect is a two-way street. Don’t think for a minute that you haven’t been observed in your behaviour. Every disrespectful thing you do is burned into their psyche and will more likely than not be thrust back at you when the time is right.
For some, it’s an easy passage to adulthood. I was lucky. Mine have never used their home situation as an excuse for bad behaviour. I was a firm disciplinarian but also an understanding parent. There’s nothing they don’t know about me and little I don’t know about them. An open, honest relationship, plenty of trust and a little responsibility plus an ongoing dialogue in the teens probably helped. Most importantly, keep perspective. Don't sweat the small stuff, save the lectures for the really important issues. To be honest, my house has been filled with tatooed, pierced, dreadlocked alternative types over the years and the ones I've had to look out for are the clean cut straights. Butter might not melt in their mouth but they can be deviously deceptive.