ONE mother tells how she discovered her 13-year-old son emailing a drug dealer.
A friend said recently that teenagers are such lemmings: couldn't they have come up with a new, more original way to rebel than drink and drugs by now?
Her remark was prompted by an incident when my children and I were staying with her a few months ago. My then 13-year-old lemming persuaded her 17-year-old daughter to "get hold of" some cans of beer. Surprise, surprise, he drank too many and was throwing up everywhere at 2am. I am glad to say he was as mortified as I was. Our hostess is one of my closest friends, but I still found it embarrassing.
It was the final straw. Things had begun to go wrong in James's final year at primary school. He was caught bringing in contraband tuck and not selling it, but auctioning it to the boarders and making a packet. During his first three terms at secondary school, he upped his game. Every week I was receiving a call or email about some latest transgression, and I was in tears – a lot.
Mother's famous last words: James [now 14] is not a bad boy. He is funny, charming and kind but naive. His behaviour last year began as that of any teenager who is naturally mischievous, but grew progressively worse.
A bit of drinking, then a bit of weed. Some lying to his mum about his whereabouts, quite a lot of swearing at her and his siblings, and plenty of contemptuous huffing and puffing and self-centred posturing.
At that stage, we believed it was simply what every parent had to cope with. The question was, how best to manage it?
My ex-husband Tom's great mantra is, "Look, we have to be intelligent about this, not knee-jerk, and whatever happens we have to keep open the line of communication."
I have been, in some ways, a strict mother, especially about manners, bed times, kindness and obeying the law. My automatic response at times over the past year was, "Confiscate his phone!"; "Ground him!"; "No pocket money!" It was also the response of many of my friends.
But while Tom believes in boundaries and rules, he did ask me to calm down, think straight and gently question what good I was hoping punishment might do.
Some years ago I interviewed numerous teenagers who didn't take drugs about how they managed to buck the trend. Every one of them told me that they admired their parents because instead of being hysterically draconian, they had all been more relaxed and that attitude had had a constructive effect. This knowledge had stuck with me. Tom felt it was important not to alienate James or to drive the behaviour underground.
We talked to James in an adult way, and each time he gave the impression that he "got it" and I would relax. But with each new transgression, I began to question if our attempt at an open-minded approach was completely useless, and that what he needed was a good lynching. I so hoped not.
But the worst was still to come.
I do not read our son's emails and texts, but I noticed some months ago that he was being particularly secretive. I broke my own rule and looked at his BlackBerry. My maternal instinct was right. It turned out he was communicating with a dealer, providing the dealer with the names and numbers of his friends who were up for buying drugs. He wrote that he didn't want any himself, but a girl he knew (aged 13) wanted LSD, MDMA and "shrooms".
Although James never handled drugs for sale, just passing on names and numbers is aiding dealing, and serious.
Tom suggested the three of us meet in a formal setting. He downloaded information from a website about criminal records, and we sat around the table, each with stapled copies in front of us as in a boardroom. Our aim was not to hit the roof but to convey to James how serious his actions would be viewed had he been caught by the police. He was not only entirely ignorant of this, but also entirely ignorant of the ramifications of expulsion from school or a criminal record.
After much moral debate, Tom and I decided not to inform the school on that occasion. We were convinced that the lesson was learnt. That crisis passed. But there was soon another.
Out of the blue I received a letter from his head teacher with a transcript of abusive texts my son had sent to another boy, who had physically hurt one of his friends. I swear like a trooper myself, but the content shocked even me.
His teenage-naive justification was that he was sticking up for a wronged friend. He was, quite rightly, suspended for it. I wrote an impassioned email to James's head teacher saying I fully supported the decision to suspend him, and received a remarkably tolerant, understanding and supportive one in return. I was made to believe I was not alone, that James would work through this phase and come out okay. The school believed in him. I remain more than grateful to it for such an imaginative reaction.
Still, it was time for me to act.
Perhaps, I thought, James needed to see a psychiatrist? But I knew he didn't, really.
In the absence of time and money, I looked to any other resources I might have, in the shape of family members and friends with varying experiences of life. It occurred to me that perhaps none of them would mind spending an hour or so with James. I knew, if the situation were reversed, I would be flattered and delighted to be asked to talk to a friend's child and help in any way I could.
I first rang my impressive cousin Sarah, a mother and former barrister who now does voluntary work with young offenders in London and helps them with how to manage peer pressure. She was brilliant with James, who loves and admires her. Her angle was mainly legal.
She told him the outcomes of a criminal record, the clincher being that those with one to their name are never, ever allowed into the United States. She also spoke about peer pressure and acknowledged how difficult it is to dodge.
"It's easier," she told James, "just not to hang out with those [who are pressurising]. It is one of the few situations in which lying has a place. Use ruses. We live in a weird world where you're a bore if you don't drink or do drugs – pretending to do more drugs than you are doing has become a life skill."
Sarah said James was polite, respectful, and because it wasn't a parental lecture, fully engaged. Since that talk, James's line with his friends has been that he has "given up" weed/alcohol/cigarettes.
The medical angle, I felt, might be my friend Catherine's realm. She is a psychiatrist at a large hospital and specialises in managing drink and drug-induced psychosis. I asked her if she might give James some hard-hitting medically based stories about the effects of skunk on the developing brain. She did not hold back – told him one story, among others, about a psychotic patient who tortured a baby – and answered questions that he wouldn't have dared ask at a school drugs lecture.
Finally, I prevailed upon a younger friend of mine, Richard, to take him out for a cup of coffee one morning. An actor, Richard is funny, handsome and cool and something of a hero to James. James promised he wasn't going to drink or smoke weed any more.
"It's all very well saying that to me here, now," Richard told him, "but when you're at the party tonight, how do you intend to turn it down?"
Together, they worked out a strategy and even did an enactment. Richard later said that even if James didn't act on it, that enactment would at some level remain on his conscience.
He also told him about a friend at his school who had been expelled, and who had never really recovered. He made the point that the machinery of school, exams, university, life, grinds on regardless of those who fall by the wayside and so often those who are expelled become mere footnotes in their former friends' lives.
Since then my three supporters have told a lot of others about how I've handled the problem. Everyone says it makes complete sense.
Certainly, a year on, James is a changed child. Who knows if this is because of the conversations, or if he's just grown up a bit.
What I do know is that we haven't had a row for months. He is eating healthily, has given up drink and weed, even coffee, and goes to the gym to work on his six-pack.
Of course there is no scope for complacency. I am only ever a Rizla paper away from the next disaster. I am not so naive as to suppose it can't all turn negative again. But I hope it won't and, for this moment at least, I feel inordinately blessed to have a teenager who is sensible, happy and safe.
The names in this piece have been changed.