Saturday 21 September 2019

How parents can teach their teens to be independent and safe

Parents worry more when their kids hit their teens and twenties than any other time

Josefa Hannon Flood with her daughter Nicola
Josefa Hannon Flood with her daughter Nicola
Josefa Hannon Flood's picture of her children. From left Sandra, David, Fiona and Nicola
Family and relationships counsellor Michael Fitzgerald
Parentline CEO Rita O'Reilly

Celine Naughton

New research in the UK* shows that parents worry more about their children as teenagers than they did as newborn babies - and Irish parents understand that all too well.

You can protect a baby, hold her close, give her everything she needs... You feed, bathe and clothe her, lay her down to sleep, play with her, teach her, praise her, delight in her, mop her brow when she runs a fever… and wham! Suddenly, your baby is five foot six and pored into a tight-fitting dress up to here, all fake tan and painted nails and platform shoes she could do herself a serious injury with.

And as the squeals coming from her room where her friends have gathered turn to the sound of a herd of elephants clod-hopping downstairs followed by the front door slamming shut and then silence, a lump forms in your throat. Will she be okay? It's not like your day, when the last bus was at eleven and you'd be on your way home by the time today's kids are even heading out.

There were no mobile-phone cameras back then to capture you making an eejit of yourself and that moment going viral for the whole world to see. God, you hope she doesn't make an eejit of herself. You hope she doesn't drink too much. You hope she remembers not to let her drink out of her sight in case it's spiked and she ends up getting raped or worse.

"You have to stop worrying - she's a sensible girl," he tells you. "She'll be fine." But you're thinking, Karen Buckley was as sensible and streetwise as it's possible to be and look what happened to her. Bad things happen to good people.

You distract yourself by watching a bit of television or a film and you go to bed and try to sleep, but you can't, not really, not until you hear the door open at ridiculous o'clock and the merciful sound of muffled laughter as shoes are removed at the foot of the stairs, your baby and her pal tiptoe up to her room and, finally, you close your eyes.

Josefa Hannon Flood's picture of her children. From left Sandra, David, Fiona and Nicola
Josefa Hannon Flood's picture of her children. From left Sandra, David, Fiona and Nicola
Josefa Hannon Flood with her daughter Nicola
Family and relationships counsellor Michael Fitzgerald
Parentline CEO Rita O'Reilly

One mother says she lay awake every night her daughter went out until at the age of 19, she got a J1 visa and went to America for three months. "Only then I slept," she says. "She'd proved she could look after herself. Now my son has turned 18 and I toss and turn worrying about him instead."

She's not alone. Another UK study conducted by Ergoflex revealed that a quarter of parents worry more about their children aged 12-17, losing seven nights sleep a month, while over a third (35 pc) worry more when their child is 18-30 years old, with mothers and fathers missing, on average, 1,872 sleepless nights throughout this period of their child's life.

Some troubled mums and dads turn to Parentline for advice. According to CEO Rita O'Reilly, of the 3,000 calls made to the national helpline each year, many are from parents asking how to keep their teenagers safe.

"Most parents call about fairly routine things like, 'My 14-year-old wants to go to a disco - should I let her?'" she says. "The thing is, children are very protected these days - they're driven to school and ferried to various events and by the time they start going out on their own as teens, mums and dads are scared, the child is scared, everybody's scared!

"And while parents lose sleep over their daughters' safety, they also worry about their sons, particularly about getting caught up in street fights.

"But we can empower all our teenagers to be aware, not afraid. Gradually build up trust while making them streetwise so that they can go out confidently.

"Always ask the basic questions: Where are you going, who are you going with and what time will you be home? No matter what happens, tell your teenager to ring you if she feels unsafe. Warn her not to separate from her friends or leave by herself, and leave taxi money on the hall table so she can always get home.

"If you find it hard to settle, leave the landing light on and agree that she turns it off when she's home, or you might ask her to check in with you on her return."

But way before the landing light goes on or off, years in fact before your daughter has learned to perfect a smoky eye or mix a Mojito, that is the time to begin the empowerment process. With almost 20 years' experience as a family and relationships counsellor, Dungarvan-based Michael Fitzgerald says the early years of a child's life are crucial to building independence in the teens and on into adulthood.

"I recently spoke to a woman who couldn't understand why all her attempts at instilling a sense of responsibility into her 16-year-old daughter failed, even down to the simple task of emptying the dishwasher," he says.

"I guessed the girl probably wanted this responsibility when she was four, but, afraid of broken plates, she was told to go out and play.

"We take responsibility away from children when they're young. They may develop a lack of faith in their own abilities and then we wonder why all they want to do is play through their teens.

"We wrap children up in cotton wool right the way up to sixth year and it doesn't serve them well. Bullying, depression, suicide, date rape… These are real challenges facing teenagers today and the best way to empower them is to lead by example, giving them boundaries but allowing them to engage in positive risk-taking to build their self-esteem to the point where they have the courage to say no to dangers and yes to positive choices."

* Coventry University study, published by the NCS UK.

For further information: Parentline: 1890 927 277, www.counselling

'My top tip for other parents? Remember,  you give your children life, but you can't  live it for them...'

With the youngest of her four children now aged 21, Josefa Hannon Flood  has sage advice to share with both teenagers and parents. 

"Like any Irish mother, I'm aware of the problems we face with underage drinking and the rate of accidents and crimes that are either drink or drug-related," she says, "and don't get me started on the cheap booze available in supermarkets… However, you give your children life, but you can't live it for them.

"All you can do is equip them as best you can to deal with the big, bad world out there. That's what I did with my kids. I had certain rules I tried to drum into them, particularly through their teens and, from what I hear back from my youngest daughter's friends, it seems some of what I preach has actually sunk in.

1 Don't lie. No matter what happens, if you tell the truth I'll stand by you. If you lie, you take the consequences.

2 On a night out, don't let your glass out of your hand.

3 If something happens to a friend, never leave that person alone.

4 Respect yourself, because if you don't, nobody else will.

5 Don't steal. It's wrong.

"And I have a few tips for parents too. First, even though there may be times when your teenage son or daughter is being so sullen you can barely utter his or her name through gritted teeth, always keep the lines of communication open.

"Be consistent - even when it's much easier to give in - and, above all, remember that teenagers are good. All of my daughter's friends and the teenagers on the estate where we live are good kids. There isn't a bad apple in the whole bunch."

Irish Independent

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