Tuesday 21 January 2020

It's a journey, but one of the most enriching ever - mother of two Aine O'Connor

If there's anything more undermining than parenting, it's parenting teenagers. Difficult, challenging, exasperating, it's also full of love and fun, and is a great opportunity to learn, writes mother of two Aine O'Connor

Aine and her son Louis, now 20
Aine and her son Louis, now 20

Aine O'Connor

Parenting is a devolution of power. When children are somewhere around eight or nine, and their world has grown, they realise there are things they might quite like to do without you, and without telling you. It usually involves forbidden trips to the shop or playing a video game that you've banned. They usually get busted because they're not yet too good at being bold and also because not all of them reach the 'Indiscretion Omerta' stage at the same time and one of the kids will tell.

There's a nasty video called Two Girls and a Cup that I had not heard of until my daughter was in fifth class. A group of them watched it and in a fit of remorse one told her mother who told the school and a big old fuss ensued. I was shocked because my little girl, my baby, had always been so good. More reserved than her brother, who will try anything, for good and bad, she has never liked to risk wrath, and her assumption when she transgresses is that she will get caught. Her brother does not like to risk wrath either, but explains that he a) doesn't do as full a situation assessment as his sister seems to, and b) thinks he is going to get away with it.

The child herself was sorry to have been caught, to have done wrong, disgusted but not traumatised by the video, and mostly annoyed at who got the blame. Primary schools can be a bit prone to over-reacting, and when someone thinks something is major it's hard not to get sucked into the drama. The first time that sort of misbehaviour happens, especially with a first child, you get a shock, you get scared and wonder what you have done wrong. The panic and the new territory make it very difficult to know how to react and how not to over-react. There's also the embarrassment factor when your delusions of Perfect Parent get dented. From the heights of the video hysteria I asked the elder child had he ever heard of this new evil corrupting kids, "Oh yeah, that's been around ages, it's a rite of passage."

In my experience, a heady rush of hormones, new bodies, new schools, new friends, and with that a reinvention if they so wish, is the guiding force of the teenager. And it's a whole new and terrifying phase in the power devolution between a parent and child.

Because of my history of depression and anxiety, some of which my children lived through, I have always had real fear that they would suffer their own demons. But doesn't everyone? They have known anxiety, at times I have been quite concerned and I haven't always known how to help. All any of us can do is try to keep the conversation open, explaining what works, what doesn't and that there is always a way forward and out. They need to know that they can talk about anything in the certainty that I won't freak, crumble or stop loving them. My teenagers have known of too many suicides. People who were there, apparently fine one day and gone forever the next. The one thing age bestows is the knowledge that this too will pass. Young people just don't have that perspective. Nor can they fully know the utter devastation they leave behind, I feel sure that if they did they wouldn't do it. Drink and drugs warp everyone's perspective and both of my kids have noted how so many people cry when they are drunk. It possibly contravenes standard teaching but I have said to my children, straight up and without euphemisms that suicide is never, ever an option.

There is also a tendency among some, girls in particular, to glamorise self harm. The need to be special possibly peaks in the teen years. Suffering is a trump card. Self-harm is a serious issue, but there is also a trend for bandwagon self-harm. Showing your scars on social media is something that a professional only can analyse, but it is worth knowing that your teenager is being subjected to other people's suffering, both real and concocted. Other people's confidences, especially when they are secret rather than broadcast, are flattering. The Indiscretion Omerta has kicked in big time by the teenage years, they feel they cannot betray a secret, but they are then left alone sometimes with a problem that is too big. What do they do when sworn to secrecy by a self-harming 13-year-old? Or when a 14-year-old tells them she has been assaulted by some guy who cyber-groomed her for months?

There are perverts out there. And although the kids are wise to the possible threats, they do still fall for the flattery, and sometimes, even when bad things happen as a result, there is a reluctance to tell, because "he's my friend." And again, the secrecy factor becomes an issue.

Social media definitely fuel issues around body image and so too does pornography. We would all prefer to think that our children are different. But most of them aren't. Even if it's just for a bit of devilment, though that possibly is not the most common reason, they have easy access to porn. And hideous though the concept is, it is important to talk to them about it. There's a letter in a men's health magazine this month from a mother wondering what to do because she caught her teenage son watching porn. They recommend that he watch ethical porn, ie porn where none of the performers was coerced, all are overage and where they get most of the financial reward. It's a pity that they see porn before they become sexually active, it was the other way round for virtually every other generation, so you knew that reality was quite different. It is also so graphic now and competition pushes boundaries ever further so the line between extreme practices and reasonable expectation is blurred, which is dangerous for the impressionable and inexperienced.

Sex and teenagers is a big family political issue. As a teenager in a French boyfriend's house, I nearly choked on my croissant when over breakfast his parents had a laugh saying, "You didn't get much sleep last night!" Few of us currently fielding teenagers grew up in such an environment, although very few of us would have arrived a virgin to marriage beds. I knew people who lived with lovers for years without telling their parents, but sex before marriage wasn't a taboo. It was an ambition. I don't think (m)any of us even consider no sex before marriage desirable for our own children. But beyond that the conversation tends to stall.

A debate ensued when the eldest child asked if his girlfriend could sleep over. There is the very basic consent issue, for boys the age of consent is 16, for girls it is 17. Assuming that is all above board the issue is still rarely simple. That formative time in France meant I had no problem with girlfriends staying over, my only rule was no randomers. His father, on the other hand, said no way. The only reason he could offer was that it would warp the younger child's mind. The younger child rolled her eyes and announced that the notion of any family members "doing it" was disgusting but that was no reason to be in denial. It was the source of some good conversations with other parents and it was shocking how many, none of them Little Bo Peep in their day, were utterly opposed to the notion of ever allowing a child to have a partner sleep over. Indeed there were even a few mutterings of "Not under my roof" and "My house, my rules." However, when asked to explain those rules they were at a loss. If you're religious and have an accordant moral objection to pre-marital sex, fair enough. But if it is dog in the manger, "I wasn't allowed so I'm not letting them", is that actually a reason? And if it's a sexual hang-up, you possibly need to address that. Everyone is interested in sex, no-one more so than teenagers. It's a topic worth thinking about properly, rather than reacting to or denying. I believe it promotes much healthier sexual practices too.

Teenage birth rates are down over 60pc since 2001. It's because teenagers are far better educated, the RSE programme in schools is very good, and also many teenage girls go on the Pill early. Nominally often to help with period issues, but the side effect of preventing pregnancy is hardly unnoticed. And while statistics are hard to find, often when parents find a teenager is pregnant they bring her for an abortion. Condoms remain criminally expensive and there is a high rate of STIs. There is, however, little stigma attached, they think it's just something you get sorted.

So it's parents who have to learn when dealing with teenagers, as much as teenagers have to learn. But growing with your children can be one of the most enriching journeys ever.

Sunday Independent

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