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Stuck in the middle with you: Eileen Gormley with her daughters Eris (14) and  Brianna (18). Photo:Mark Condren

Stuck in the middle with you: Eileen Gormley with her daughters Eris (14) and Brianna (18). Photo:Mark Condren

Frances McCarthy and her teenage son

Frances McCarthy and her teenage son

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Stuck in the middle with you: Eileen Gormley with her daughters Eris (14) and Brianna (18). Photo:Mark Condren

Spend six hours a week with your average non-communicative, disinterested and self-absorbed teenager?

The mere suggestion that this may be what's required to stop an adolescent going off the rails is enough to send most normal parents - and their teenagers - into a spin of shock and awe.

Research published yesterday found that the total amount of time adolescents spent with their mothers and fathers has an impact on the well-being of the teenager.

However, the findings also emphasised that this includes time merely spent in the same room, or sharing the same space.

The study of 1,600 children by researchers from the University of Toronto, and Bowling Green State University in Ohio, found six hours a week of "family time" made a significant difference to a teenager's well-being and achievement.

Time spent with parents was associated with lower rates of delinquent behaviour and drug and alcohol abuse, and stronger academic grades.

Measurements, however, looked at the total amount of time spent together, regardless of whether parents were "actively engaged" with their children or just in the same room. And they found that an average of 50 minutes a day of simply sharing the same space makes that crucial difference.

There's a logic to this, says Dr Michael Drumm, principal clinical psychology manager with the North Dublin Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service.

"Intimacy cannot be forced and cannot be scheduled, but provision can be made to allow it to happen," he says.

The findings do not say parents should schedule six hours' worth of excruciating heart-to-hearts with their teens every week, he explains; it's simply about opening up opportunities for communication with them.

"You allow for incidental communication to happen.If you're available for that six hours a week minimum, then at least you have the opportunity to talk or comment."

All that this requires is that you be involved in your child's life, he explains, watching films or playing video games together, prioritising family meal-times, dropping kids to or collecting them from sports or social events, being available - and most of all, simply being around.

"There's nothing ground-breaking about that. If you allow an adolescent to be completely independent without any contact or incidental scheduled time, you may drift apart.

"I think what it does is, it keeps a channel of communication open and allows for you to be aware of what is going on for them."

Mother-of-two Trish Keogh agrees. She says she easily spends six hours a week "around" her teenagers, informally interacting with Eimear (14) and Jack (16) at the family home in Gurranbraher, Cork.

"They might be having their dinner. You could be watching TV with them. I don't think it's about a face-to-face with them because what teenager wants to sit down face to face with their mother for 50 minutes?"

Spending time with teenagers is important, but it has to be seen by them as very much "by accident," she says. "I think if you were to say to any teenager that they had to sit down and talk to you they'd run a mile!

"It's more of an incidental thing. Maybe you're driving them somewhere and you get the opportunity to talk, or sometimes they'll root you out to bounce something off you. I think what's important is that you're available when they need you.

"You make the time to be with them without making a big deal of it; you could say it's about making time to be with them without them actually thinking you're doing it."

Having more direct time together as a family has a stronger impact on teenagers than the negative impact of parents being out of the home, says Louise Gallagher, Professor in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin.

"What is offered is the opportunity for communication between children and parents.

"A total absence of parents doesn't present opportunities for communication, but when you are all in the house at the same time, it gives the child an opportunity to engage with you."

Dr Drumm agrees. "It's better for them to be in the same room half-watching a film with the family while texting friends, than being up in their bedroom on their own," he says. "It means they can engage a bit.

"You're really making space for incidental interaction, whether it happens or not."

Simply being there can give your children a sense of stability and reassurance, he believes .

"It's about 'building in stuff;' being around to allow some of the conversation to happen. That's the message from the research: schedule time together with an eye to creating an opportunity for interaction, but not pushing it."

Then if anything does go wrong in their lives, the adolescent can come to you because he or she is used to you being around, and you may already have informally 'picked up' elements of the back story.

However, you need to do more than simply "share space" with an adolescent, believes child and adolescent psychologist Kate Byrne.

Byrne, herself a mother of seven sons, three of whom are teenagers, says that parents need to do more than just be physically present in the same room as their kids.

"You have to open channels and non-judgemental communication," she says.

"You have to be the 'go to' person they can talk to in a non-judgemental way. It's about being a person they can look up to, a person they want to associate with; a person whom they can respect and like.

"If they think you're an idiot, they may share space but they won't interact with you!"

Eileen Gormley, mum to daughters Brianna (18), Isolde (16) and Eris (14), also questions the value of simply 'sharing of space' with a teenager.

"We spend a lot of evenings with me on my laptop and another daughter on the computer. I wouldn't say that simply being in the same room is interacting with them. I'd have assumed that six hours of quality time would mean sitting at the table and talking, for example. If you're in the same room together, at least you'd need to be in the same room and making comments.

"The research seems to imply that just occupying the same space is enough even if you're doing different things and not interacting.

"I would think that interaction should be about sitting around the dinner table and talking. We try to do that. We make an effort to have a family dinner as much as possible.

"Sometimes there's very good conversation and sometimes it's a case of just eat and get away - they may want to study or watch TV or text their friends.

"Certainly, we'd spend more than six hours in the same space. It's very important for parents to be around their children, she believes.

"I think that when children are teenagers they don't necessarily want to interact with you. They come in, they eat and they want to do their own thing and if you try to interact they give you this look!

"It's much easier to talk to them about their school lunch than their views on what they want to do with their lives."

'It's very important that we eat together because we chat'

Meal-times are where it's at for the McCarthy family. Mum Frances and her husband Jonathan use the dinner table as a way of catching up, planning ahead and having fun with their teenage sons Niall (17) and Brendan (19).

Family meals at their home in Glenbrook, Co Cork are about excellent food - but they also revolve around good conversation, discussions about the week ahead, and even brain-teasers.

"I insist on family meals. If anyone in the family; me, Dad or either son has something on, then we delay dinner until we can all be together," says Frances.

"Every Sunday I ask everyone about what's coming up and who's doing what.

"We go through the week in advance to sort out when we'll eat together. It's very important that we eat together as family because we chat and we play stupid games at the dinner table.

"We're a typical nerdy family and we'll play word games or joke games - we started that when the boys were younger."

The McCarthys also enjoy playing board games together.

"Our dining-room table is currently completely taken over by a new game, Unconditional Surrender in Europe, which is a war game.

"We play board games around once a week or so - we schedule them in."

Frances reckons the family spends about 12 hours a week together, between everyone helping to cook and to clean up after the evening meal, chatting, playing board games, watching sports on TV, playing soccer with Dad and being transported by parents to and from social activities and sports events. But it's not all about structured activities, she adds.

"It's really about being present with your children. I recently watched the Ireland soccer match with my younger son. We like our soccer.

"My children know they're not alone. They know there's back-up there in the form of their parents and their other sibling, who likes them and wants to be with them."

Having a solid sense of place in the family helps counteract the normal adolescent feeling of 'where do I fit in,' she believes.

Having this solid sense of family helps produce well-rounded individuals, she adds, and she says she's satisfied with the way her two boys are turning out.

"The boys are independent thinkers. Peer pressure has never really been an issue.

"Neither of my boys drink - they're not interested in alcohol - and academically they're doing grand."

Irish Independent