Managing those terrible teens

Little did mother-of-three Siobhan Byrne realise that when she signed up for a parenting course, she would set out on the path of a new career as a therapist.

"What I know now is that children need boundaries. Without structure and routine my daughter especially couldn't cope."

Drawing the line: Naomi Shipley (left) and therapist Siobhan Byrne have found their relationships with their children have grown stronger as a result of positive parenting. Photo: Ronan Lang

thumbnail: "What I know now is that children need boundaries. Without structure and routine my daughter especially couldn't cope."
thumbnail: Drawing the line: Naomi Shipley (left) and therapist Siobhan Byrne have found their relationships with their children have grown stronger as a result of positive parenting. Photo: Ronan Lang
Emer O'Reilly-Hyland

SO YOUR teenager is all the Ss: sullen, silent, sarcastic, stomping upstairs and visibly suffering. You, on the other hand, are all the Ps: patient, placating, provoked, panic-ing and permanently trying to keep the peace.

Aha, you think, I'll do a parenting course, that will sort her out. Wrong. You may well do a course, but you're the one who needs sorting, not her, because when it comes to the daily grind of battling teenage angst – it's all about you!

Before you run for cover, this isn't about blame. It's not your fault that your teen is dealing with problems at school, with the awful jostling for position among peers, meanness and bullying online and off.

Equally, you are not the cause of their confusion and anxiety about sex and their changing bodies. And none of these come close to the big issues like self-harm, boozing and/or drug-taking, dodgy online surfing or an eating disorder. It's the daily nightmare of small hurts, the things that in isolation aren't worth "making a big deal of" (sigh, eye-toss!), that can create deep unhappiness in a teenager.

If ignored, these wounds can become open sores. And you, the parent who feels all their hurts and spends countless sleepless nights worrying, praying, hoping, well, you try to fix the child, don't you?

You're desperately trying to communicate, but they're not talking and as weeks of conflict turn into months, the distance between you, the chasm of silence, grows ever greater.

"What I know now is that children need boundaries. Without structure and routine my daughter especially couldn't cope."

Mum-of-three Siobhan Byrne found herself in that silent wilderness when her children hit their teens and she decided to get help before things got out of hand. What started with signing up for a parenting course turned into a new career, as she then decided to follow her passion to become a therapist.

Years later, her children now grown up, Siobhan runs her own private therapy practice and has designed courses for parents of teens and young adults.

"What I want to do is to help parents who feel they are no longer in control," she said. "As mothers especially, we are very good at giving but not good at receiving. We don't ask for help and support. We think we can do it all and we can't."

Siobhan says that it's because we bring our "untrained selves" to every aspect of parenthood that sometimes we need help to step back and look at things objectively. She was clearly influenced by the fact that her mother had died when she was 14, and without sisters, she had grown up a tomboy in a male-oriented family.

With her older children, her two boys, she managed relatively well. But when her youngest, her daughter, also a bit of a tomboy, moved from the safe, mixed, local national school to an all-girls' secondary, things began to go wrong.

Her daughter was struggling at her new school, clearly very unhappy and insecure, but it was Siobhan who couldn't deal with it, as she admits. "I glossed over problems, swept issues under the carpet to keep things shiny, glossy, happy. I simply didn't do conflict," she says.

The result was that her daughter didn't open up, or felt that she couldn't. This normally direct, outspoken, free-spirited daughter became silent in the presence of her passive, people-pleasing, conformist mother.

The extent to which Siobhan avoided conflict was extreme, bordering on the comical, as she describes. She says: "I used to go out into the utility room and pull down the Sleepy Susie with all the washing hanging off it, just so she couldn't get near me.

"She would be pursuing me for an answer about going on a sleepover or whatever, and I'd hide behind the laundry! I'd feel overwhelmed to give her an answer immediately." And of course, like all teenagers, she'd push for that answer, 'NOW', and the people-pleaser in Siobhan would give in, allow her to go on the sleepover, knowing deep down that she wasn't happy about it.

"We laugh about it now, but she was very determined. All the qualities that are in her, that are her best traits, are the things that I struggled with."

Siobhan eventually got out from under the Sleepy Susie and in facing her daughter without the barrier of Daz whites, she began to get control of her life, and the relationship with her daughter began to flourish. The perfect mother became the good-enough mother when she learned that getting right about 70pc of the time is perfectly ok.

The self-critic, as hard on everyone else as she was on herself, started to lighten up. She began to delegate and to pursue her own interests, and in so doing, that shiny, glossy façade got a bit tarnished. But that was ok, because Siobhan now realised that it is safe to be real.

Her children responded well. Now young adults, they laugh about the Sleepy Susie days, but it took Siobhan a lot of work on herself, over a number of years, to calmly see beyond the teenage door-slamming, to get to what was really going on in their lives, and then to overcome the fear of addressing it.

She says: "As I stepped back and looked after my own wellbeing, automatically things calmed down. I became more secure, and like a mirror image, my children, especially my daughter, did too. I know that whatever challenge comes through the door now, is fine, I can deal with it. I'm ok, so they are ok."

But apart from the normal challenges of being a parent, in particular of teenagers, Siobhan feels that women put immense pressure on each other as mothers. She says: "There's almost a conspiracy among mothers to be perfect. I call it the Busy Competition. Everywhere you go, women will ask, 'How are you?' and before you can answer, they'll sigh and say, 'I'm SO busy'. 'Oh me too,' says another, 'I've never been busier.'"

And so a big part of her course-work is that women, in particular, learn to take time out for themselves.

One busy former banker and mum-of-two, Naomi Shipley, has experienced the profound effect of the self-nurturing Siobhan teaches on her courses. "I was a martyr," she admits, "I felt that everyone else was getting away with blue murder, but I'd still fix things for everyone, not just my children. Sky tv needs connecting? I'll bring my toolbox; elderly parent needs attention and it's always me that's called upon? Of course, I'll help; marriage breaking up? Let me drop everything to listen, advise, wipe tears.

Drawing the line: Naomi Shipley (left) and therapist Siobhan Byrne have found their relationships with their children have grown stronger as a result of positive parenting. Photo: Ronan Lang

"Very often you're not helping or you're letting people walk all over you, or you're not where your attention is really needed, such as being with your family, and you should say no.

"Now I say I'm not free to do this today. It works, people say, ok. It's incredibly liberating."

Naomi describes herself as a highly intense, anxious perfectionist, the upside of which is that if she takes something on she does it really well.

But the downside is that she can get to such a high level of anxiety about doing something that it can paralyse her into not attempting it at all. At a basic level, she admits: "I'd rather let the house go dirty than not do it from top to bottom and have it perfect."

Naomi's approach to motherhood was similar to how she was brought up – without boundaries. She says: "I was a free spirit, I let the kids make their own choices. If they were baking and threw flour all over the kitchen, that was fine, I wouldn't even clean it up, because I'd say, 'sure they'll just do it again tomorrow'. I wanted to please them.

"What I know now is that children need boundaries. Without structure and routine my daughter especially couldn't cope. Sure she loved throwing flour but she couldn't cope with the mess afterwards, so she'd take it out on me. I didn't understand that, so I'd say 'scream, shout, throw flour, whatever,' and I'd never show my anger at her lack of respect."

When she was dampening down her anger and quelling all her negative emotions, this of course led to constant conflict bubbling under the surface in daily family life. When you are an extreme personality type like Naomi, you see all negative feelings as bad, to be eschewed at all costs, and positive ones as good, to be actively pursued.

"If one of the kids ranted over something silly like the fact that there was fish instead of chicken for dinner, my response would be to seethe inside, and through gritted teeth tell them not to speak to me like that.

"My rage was mirrored by them, so they'd stomp off, I'd go for a walk to cool off and we mightn't speak for a week. Now I realise this isn't about them. Now I will say something respectful like, 'I had a busy day and didn't get to the shops'. I no longer blame the kids or my husband or my siblings for their non-perfect reactions. I'm in control."

And as the children, now young adults, learned that it was ok to express negative feelings, her relationship with them improved greatly. "When my daughter comes home complaining about her day, I listen," says Naomi, "I let her say all her feelings without trying to get her to think positively, mind over mood, which used to drive her mad. I've shown her that negative feelings can be our best friend because they tell us we need to take some action."

It's clear to see that Naomi is less anxious since doing the parenting courses. Her children have noticed the difference in her and have responded accordingly. She no longer personalises every comment made to her, which has helped her to teach her children not to worry too much about what people think or how their hair or clothes look. Her daughter recently told her that it was great to see her looking after herself. It has also helped her to be a bit detached in her relationships, which she admits were too enmeshed, especially with her daughter. "If she had a pain, I did too. That's not healthy. You can be loving and empathetic without experiencing their pain."

For both therapist and client, learning about parenting has brought one distinct element to their lives – calmness. Armed with their advice, I decided to give it a go myself and I got my opportunity that evening when my own daughter went into a tailspin because I wouldn't let her have some of the chocolate cake we'd just made before her dinner. Rather than removing myself to another room until the tantrum passed, I decided to act positively. I took her for a walk. After a trot around the park and a heart-to-heart, it turns out that her BFF was breaking up with her, a more than legitimate problem for an eight-year-old. So we talked it over and decided that a playdate might just be the best thing to sort it all out. Then we strolled home hand-in-hand and had that slice of cake. So yes, there seems to be something in all of this! A bit of calm communication and boundary-setting beats a strop, on both our parts, any day.