Why letting teens like Malia make mistakes is a good parenting tip
Published 13/08/2016 | 02:30
'Ah leave her alone,' was my first thought when I saw the blurry picture of Malia Obama taking a furtive drag from a joint. Malia isn't running for president, she's 18 years old.
Marijuana has been decriminalised in Illinois, where the concert was held and, most importantly, she is entitled to make some mistakes as she runs the gauntlet from the teen years to early adulthood.
If I think about my own behaviour when I was going through the storms and stresses of adolescence, I want to get down on my hands and knees and give thanks to the good Lord that in the 1980s and 1990s there was no social media ready to capture my every move. I was horrendous! Arrogant, self-absorbed and affected, I took myself verrry seriously (I've no doubt some would argue that I haven't changed one tiny bit). I can just imagine the self-conscious, hare-brained posts I would have written and they would have read like highly pretentious rubbish.
But then, in my defence, that's the whole big-thing point about the teenage years - adolescents are, by their very nature, an awkward mix of idealism, fakery and passion. We need to let them be free to make mistakes or they will never figure out who they are and where they fit.
It's scary being an adolescent. It's lonely and scary when you realise that Mum and Dad haven't a clue about your world. Yet being a teenager in the 21st century brings with it a whole new basket of tensions as the relentless scrutiny and judgement on social media means that teenagers are always performing. Many of us agree that our online persona is inevitably more polished, guarded, anxious and slightly paranoid, but teenagers haven't fully formed their personalities yet and so they can more easily lose their sense of self to this fake world.
Teenagers today can't really be a Goth this month and a hippie next because the photos make a mockery of any attempt at a dramatic new beginning. That's fine if you are middle-aged and you have little need for experimentation, but what about when you are 18 and you want to know what it would be like to be a femme fatale for a month or so?
I remember as a teenager feeling the first flush of the power of my sexuality and enjoying it for a while. After a few months, I soon learnt that it was important to keep a rein on it or I would get hurt. I can't imagine how a teenage girl would handle that nowadays, but it would undoubtedly involve dubious pictures on social media.
It's sad that teenagers have lost the freedom that once marked our emergence into adulthood. Remember that God-awful perm you got when you were 13? Remember the crazy piercings? Well, if you were a teenager today, this would be posted all over social media, with everyone adding to your confusion by telling you that "You look beautiful, babe."
In this virtual reality, everyone strokes each other's egos in a kind of massive pyramid scheme of compliments; teenagers tacitly agree "If you like my pic, then I'll like yours" and it's all "love you, hun" and "stay strong", with little interest in truth or reality.
Bizarrely, some parents seem to believe that if they track their children's every move, the mobile will act as some sort of force field and prevent anything bad happening to them.
In my work as a psychotherapist, I often meet parents who are horrified that their teenagers have become involved in a sexually compromising situation online. In truth, this has become such a common phenomenon that I seriously doubt it will impact these teenagers' lives in the future. These days, when a celebrity 'sex tape' is revealed, it's just another yawn.
I can't really imagine that in the future employers will trawl through their prospective employees' teenage social media accounts from 10 years earlier to find out if they were a 'goer' in their day; it seems like a creepy thing to do.
Teenagers who are constantly on social media are often searching for connection. So the most helpful thing a parent can do for their teenager is not to spy on them, nor to close the lines of communication, but instead, parents could try to help them connect better. If parents have any hook at all - a shared fondness for an Indian curry or a certain soccer team - it is essential to savour these opportunities to connect with their teenagers.
As Nietzsche said: "Invisible threads are the strongest ties." If we can provide even a tiny bit of connection, along with some gentle compassion for the awkward mistakes that teenagers are prone to making, then we are doing very well indeed.