Wednesday 21 March 2018

Sarah studied too little, drank too much and had a boyfriend she slept with at 17

Dad Tom White on why love, dialogue and common sense were his main standbys when navigating a few rollercoaster years

Tom White

This is what it's like being the parent of a normal teenager. It's half two in the morning and you're in a deep, satisfying sleep. A well-deserved, replenishing and necessary one.

Then your mobile trills. You ignore it at first, because it seems far away, like it is someone else's.

But you eventually haul yourself out of the warmth and comfort of the duvet, grab the thing and stab a finger at the keys.

The glowing screen has thrown up a number you don't recognise.


It's Sarah. 18. First year college. All grown up. And crying. Well, whimpering. It's a long story, punctuated with sniffles, asides, more whimpering.

Aoife, her friend, is sick. Sarah's phone died. They missed the Nightlink. Not their fault. Then these guys were following them down Nassau Street. And not only is Aoife sick, but now she's actively throwing up . . .

Bottom line. Can I pick them up.

Them? Puking Aoife too? I'm cross. Furious actually, but I take a deep breath, make arrangements. Half an hour. Where? Don't move.

I'm not saying this happened every week, or even every other one, but it did happen – or variations of it. Some worse. I've been to A&E for instance.

Sarah (not her real name) is in her early 20s now and is a good deal more sensible. I'm sure she has her scrapes but, mostly, she doesn't ring me about them.

And while she took us on a rollercoaster, say, from the age of 16 to 20, it was nothing out of the norm, or at least nothing I haven't heard from fellow battle-fatigued veterans of the Teenage Wars.

She studied too little when it mattered most in sixth year and drank too much whenever she had the chance. She had a boyfriend she slept with at 17. We didn't approve, but we were realistic so arranged for her to go on the pill.

In a perfect world, a full sexual relationship – and all its emotional complexities – might have been better delayed a while, but the real world is a less forgiving one. We weren't willing to take any chances with her future. And I'm not the grandpa type. Not yet anyway.

Like most teenagers, she came across as carefree, confident and in love with life. She walked with that who-but-me bounce.

But to her parents, who knew her best, she was a different girl. On her good days, yes, she played to type. Often, though, she shut the bedroom door on the world and us.

She was plagued with self-doubt and suffered from low self-esteem and self-worth; she'd start panic diets to shed pounds that weren't there to shed; she'd parse Facebook comments and texts looking for slights and hints of rejection. She found them too.

Sarah fought with us, screamed at us and the house rattled when she swung the front door shut behind her. When she'd flounce back, her silences could be more cruel and damaging than her deftly aimed cruise missiles.

Then sometimes, out of the blue, she'd crumble and climb up on the couch with her mother, wrapped in a blanket, and gorge herself on TV soaps and reality pap for an evening. Mammy nights, we called them. A lot of the time too, of course, she was sunny, fun and in love with life. She was, more or less, a normal teenager.

You can't generalise too much. No two teenagers are alike if you drill deep enough. For instance, her younger sister (now 17) is so far not showing up on the Richter scale at all. Perhaps this is because, having witnessed the box-set of dramas that Sarah's teens inspired, she knows better.

But allowing for these variables, I have seven basic guidelines that help me GPS my way through the teenage years. They work, so far:

* First, there are no rules. Rules are for children. You might have some chance with guidelines though, because they imply a measure of buy-in by the teen.

* Start dialogue, offer compromise. Give a little to get a lot. Once you have engaged, keep dialogue open. That might be as simple as a chat while walking the dog, or a one-on-one over a slice of pizza at the local greasy spoon. It works, but has to be sustained and sustainable.

* Don't quiz, demand information. You'll be surprised what you will learn if you just listen. Trust them with information too; share bits of your world with them. It's a sign you respect them. They'll respond.

* Put a value on their privacy. You might want to reclaim their chaotic bedroom for civilisation, but resist. The same goes for their online world. This is why dialogue is so vital. What's preferable: your 16-year-old secretly prowling, or a healthy discussion about it?

* Don't shout; don't confront; don't lose it. All that leads to is slammed doors, walkouts and, ultimately, silence. And silence is the real enemy.

* When you've established a modus operandi that works for you – and which both parents have signed up to (teens know all about divide-and-conquer) – stick to it. Be firm, consistent and fair.

* Most of all, love them. To bits. Condemn, and disapprove of, bad behaviour, but never of them as individuals. They'll understand, by their mid-teens, that there are plenty out there who won't love them and they need to know you do. They need to know, as you do, that they can call you anytime.

Irish Independent

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