Thursday 26 April 2018

It's back to the future - a holiday with teens is like getting into a cage with a tiger

After a recent weekend away, Emily Hourican is left wondering if the end of the family holiday is in sight

Emily Hourican
Emily Hourican

I know we are all supposed to be grateful these days - it's the Next Big Thing in pop psychology - but it seems to me that counting one's blessings is a dangerous business. So often, no sooner do you articulate a pleasant state of affairs, than the universe decides to spin the wheel and reverse the entire set-up. It must be barely six months ago that I made the (unwise) observation to my husband that, "These are the good times. No tiny babies, no teenagers. Let's enjoy it." Technically, there may still be no teenagers, but that is now a mere pedantry. Teenage behaviour, there is.

And of course, first to suffer is the family holiday. From what I remember of my own teenage years, setting off on holiday with teens is quite like getting into a cage with a tiger. It might not do anything immediate, it might sleep, or stare at you for a while, but, eventually, it is going to bite.

My poor parents didn't fully realise this until we were halfway to Portugal, back in 1980-something, driving from Belgium, with a car full of kids, of whom three had entered the dreadful state. By the time my parents copped that this was no ordinary 'kid in bad mood' scenario, it was far too late to change the plans. We had to simply suffer through. And suffer we did. The stories from that trip are still legion. "Until that holiday, I didn't believe in adolescence," my mother told me years later. "I thought it was something made up by the media."

This time round, as mother not teen, I got luckier. Light dawned during a recent two-day visit to Cork, when, somewhere on the M7, after yet another piece of unwarranted truculence, swiftly followed by tearful contrition, I realised, 'Hang on, I know what this is'. By then, all I had to do was get home in one piece, and consider what to do about family holidays in the future. What I recognised, there on the M7, was the terrible pain of ambiguity that besets the teenage mind. I remember it well; the hopeless attempts to reconcile two impossibles: the steady drumbeat of life ('I love my parents, I love being with them') with a sharp new realisation ('My parents are so annoying and I'm sick of them'). It is, as I recall, quite extraordinarily painful. In those early adolescent years, before a kind of grown-up accommodation is reached, the anguish of being forced forward in our psychological development is acute, and inevitably spills out, in narkiness.

After all, we still treat him like a child, when he obviously feels he's not. We tell him off about his behaviour, without yet realising how demeaning this now is. Crucially, we are not the friends with whom he can spend happy hours, discussing and doing the things that are important to them. These friends have replaced, in part anyway, of what we were to him, along with some of the affection previously reserved for us, and, if I remember accurately, to a sensitive, youthful mind, that feels like terrible betrayal. It's complex, this business of 'I hate you, I love you', and deserves our sympathy; difficult as that is when you have just intercepted yet another eye-roll that says 'what a moron this person is'.

But back to the family holidays, and what to do? After all, holidays, with their enforced proximity and weight of expectation, are ready-made flashpoints. There is a part of me that thinks 'it's all glue', by which I mean that even the terrible experiences are bonding ones, and that there is no substitute for being in each other's company, even when the being includes a whole lot of eye-rolling on one side and 'don't speak to me like that' on the other. And it's true that my siblings, mother and I can still all get a laugh out of the Portugal trip.

But, I also recall that, post-Portugal, my parents discovered Irish college. That, I suspect, was a hallelujah moment. Thereafter, they would book us three oldest children in for three weeks of the summer, then vanish off to Greece. By the time we joined them again, usually in Kerry, our weeks of Spartan regimes as Gaeilge had made us distinctly nicer beings. Result.

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