Monday 22 January 2018

Parenting: My 15-year-old son wants to fly to the USA - to meet a girl!

Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Illustration by Maisie McNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

The clinical psychologist gives advice on a cross-Atlantic teenage relationship and how to make your family life less frantic.

Question: My 15-year-old son just told me that he has been in regular touch with a 15-year-old girl for the last few months. The problem is she is in the USA.

She has asked him to travel over to see her and he has asked me to help arrange it.

I don't think that pursuing this relationship is realistic and I'm fearful that he will allow a few years of his life go by for the sake of something that maybe will never come to anything.

Should I be more definitive in dealing with this - tell him to end contact? Or should I let things take their course?

David replies: Before we look at the complications of this relationship, there are some positives for you to recognise. The first is that your son has come to you for help. Never underestimate how significant it is that our children trust us to help them.

The next positive is that your son cannot easily disappear to meet up with this girl and so you have a lot of opportunity to be involved in how the relationship does or doesn't develop.

A further positive is that your son is getting to learn a lot about relationships, even if it is still at the remove of the online world.

That said, the situation is very awkward. The distance involved is so great, and the expense associated with them meeting up is so great that it seems like a huge investment, for what is still, as you recognise, the very early days of a relationship.

However, even the practicalities of him visiting her are not so much the issue. The real issue is about your approval, or not, of this relationship and your willingness to support your son to develop it.

In the normal course of events, they would probably have been hanging out together and meeting up, clear of the potential scrutiny of you and his mum. They would probably be clearer if they have all the elements of a successful relationship in terms of both physical attraction and a strong emotional connection.

However, because they have been communicating online, they may have developed an intense emotional intimacy, but without any clear sense of whether the relationship will be rounded out in terms of a physical spark.

Even though they are only aged 15, don't be tempted to minimise the potential intensity of their experience. Most of us, world-weary, adults are quick to dismiss all teenage relationships as a flash in the pan with no potential longevity.

We assume that our teens' immaturities restrict them from making wise choices. That is not necessarily the case. What you need to do, however, is to take the opportunity, that your son has opened up, to have a proper grown up conversation about love, life, desire and pragmatism. Try to understand his choices.

Try to stay open in your own view and perspective of this relationship. Really listen to how your son talks about this girl, what he likes about her, how he does or doesn't respect her views, what his hopes and dreams are about her.

You may discover that he has a much more developed sense, himself, of what this particular relationship means to him. If his views seem naive or under-developed then you have a chance to give him other, more prudent and more rounded perspectives.

I think, given the distance involved, that it is fair for you to talk with him about the costs and risks involved in travelling to America and that you aren't prepared to let him take those risks, or bear the costs without much more information about her and her family.

You will want to reassure yourself that she is real, that her family is safe and, as best you can judge, normal. That might involve you speaking with her and her family via Skype and, over time, having the chance to get to know her parents and their views.

If your son objects to you becoming familiar with her and her family, then warning bells might ring for you and you may want to go with your first option of just preventing further contact.

But, if you get to know the family and you like them, then there is no reason why the relationship can't develop further, supported by you and her parents - even to the point of arranging a trip if you can afford it.

With two young children, our family life just feels frantic. How can we make more time?

Question: I have two young boys aged two and five and I work full-time, as does my husband. I am sure we are no different to many families but we seem to have no time. It is frantic in the evenings after we pick them up from the childminder. I no sooner have them fed than we are starting bedtimes and it could be nine o'clock before we are having our own dinner. Then we have to turn around into the clean up and the whole thing is just exhausting.

It feels like the whole thing is just one big treadmill and there are times I just want to get off! Can it get easier?

David replies: 'Frantic' is a good word to describe family life at times. Of course, if things remain frantic over long periods then stress builds up and the pace of life becomes unbearable.

Especially when children are small and require such an intense investment of our time and energy, it can seem like the care of them is relentless. Add that to two full-time jobs and it is no wonder that you are both exhausted.

Streamlining your evening routines might be a way to create more time. I notice that you eat separately to your children. That means that you are doing two lots of food preparation and two lots of tidying up.

If you and your husband can adjust your own routines, even slightly, could you manage to eat with your children? This has huge benefits for you and for them, aside from the extra time that will be available if you aren't trying to prepare two meals.

I have just been involved in a 'Home Truths' survey, with SuperValu, where we found that nearly half of those surveyed said that hectic family schedules is the biggest block to sitting down together. But also, six out of 10 families said that eating together is the "number one thing" that keeps their family together.

It is really good for children to see their parents eating and to learn, from the role-modelling we provide, about how to eat and even what to eat. If they see us eating a wide range of foods, it might spark greater interest for them in experimentation with new foods.

Most importantly for you, though, having a family mealtime in the evenings will give you a sense of family connectedness since mealtimes are such a social occasion. It might also take away the sense, that you suggest in your query, of feeding the children being a chore, just like the cleaning up.

In fact, in that SuperValu survey, the respondents also said that being able to relax, have a laugh and enjoy each one another's company are the best thing about coming together for dinner.

Even if you can't achieve this every night, increasing the number of family mealtimes you can have during the week will still give you a feel-good factor that might mitigate some of the franticness.

Family dinners might become a welcome pause in the busy-ness of the day. It is also a great habit to set up for your family as your children get older.

The other area that you might want to look at is how you divvy up the household chores. Your children are still young, and so, can't really take on the responsibility for helping out independently. So it will, still, fall mainly to you and your husband.

That is not to say you can't get the children to help, but you may end up with as much, or more, work as a consequence of their 'helping'.

I am interested to know if the cooking, cleaning and other chores are fairly distributed? The fact that you, as a mother, are writing, makes me wonder if you are amongst that majority of women who still shoulder the greater burden of household chores, even though both of you are working?

Some of the pressure you feel may be because you don't feel like you and your husband are equally and fairly taking on the household responsibilities. Research shows that the most successful couples discuss and agree the distribution of the "drudge" chores like laundry, food shopping, vacuuming and so on.

Sharing out who does what might give you both a chance to slow down or stop on occasion, feeling like, just for a little while, the work is done.

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