With my daughter’s recent birthday, I now find myself with two mercurial teenagers in the house, both in the early stages. There are doors being slammed and sudden fiery outbursts, mood swings that take them from ecstasy to agony in a nanosecond, but also wildly witty, creative brilliance that never fails to impress teachers, family, and friends. It isn’t just their blossoming, but the speed at which it is happening, that’s remarkable.
Any parent with a teen or two under their rooves will have dealt with this accelerated development — this transformation of their tender tots into fully-formed individuals in the blink of a bleary, parental eye. With the resultant feeling, that the wheel we’ve so tightly clutched all these years, to provide steer and stability to our offspring, has been wrenched from our hands, into the grip of forces as elemental and as unpredictable as our teenagers’ hormones.
The fallout, felt keenly in our pounding parental breasts, is an odd mix of terror at losing control, excited anticipation at what comes next, and even relief(that we’ve managed to get them this far on the road to independence). No longer chief carer, teacher, chef, cleaner, chauffeur, entertainer, shaman, and friend (and the many other roles parents to young ’uns play), there is both a sense of loss and deliverance to a less frenetic, less exhausted life-stage.
Not everything in their lives depend on us anymore — our Godlike status is dead. It is human nature not to want to relinquish our foothold on that pedestal, but also pleasure in its end.
I have a son and a daughter, their teen-agi-ness (or edginess) is very different in each case, making their support and supervision harder to navigate, but more interesting as well.
My husband and I have always joked that we spawned Jack Spratt and his wife, for how their tastes and personalities bifurcated sharply at an early age, heightened further in recent months by their hormonal differences. Literally bristling from the sprouting of body hair, as well as metaphorically from strong attitudinal changes, disagreements between them spring out of nowhere at this volatile age. Consequently, we not only have to hit the right note with each, but strike a balance between their unique needs, on a daily basis.
Yet, when they’re laughing together and contented, regaling us with their combined brilliance, which is still, fortunately, very often, there’s nothing in the world as satisfying to a loving parent.
But if that’s the best of this experience, then the worst is that we no longer know how to protect them. To encourage them to explore our world’s magnificence, whilst keeping them safe from its manifold problems, is a new challenge to our parenting talents.
Sitting on a BBC parenting panel last year, I fielded ceaseless questions about keeping children safe from the harmful sway of smartphones and the internet, with particular emphasis on its hold over older children.
Handed smartphones, tablets and laptops, at a tender young age, addiction to social media and videogaming is worryingly high amongst adolescents, leading to a reality-disconnect that leaves them out-of-touch and exposed to evils such as bullying and harassment, influencer-encouraged eating illnesses, and grooming, abduction, and violence against them by all sorts of predatory malcontent.
Like a hydra-headed monster, endlessly scary and seemingly unstoppable, the shadowy world of online dangers faced by their children have parents wound-up and wondering how to combat them.
At a recent British inquest into the tragic fate of 14-year-old Molly Russell, found dead in her bedroom after repeated viewings of suicidal internet material, the coroner declared her death the result of “an act of self-harm while suffering from… the negative effects of online content". Addressing senior executives from Meta and Pinterest, compelled by the law to attend, he established how Molly’s exposure to toxic virtual matter had led to her developing “a serious depressive illness”, concluding that governments and social media platforms must get their act together to protect millions of vulnerable children.
But what can parents do, I’ve been asked again and again, and have no answers beyond common sense dictates. Nor are cyber pitfalls the only kind on the young person’s journey to adult life.
Every child, especially teenagers, are individuals, as are the ways in which they need to be nurtured. Like hothouse plants, too much attention or too little could ruin them, and so their care, more psychologically complex than that of younger children, requires a heightened sensitivity, a seventh-sense, that none of us possess at the start of their teenage voyage.
The cocktail of bodily chemicals affecting them, combined with factors like health, learning abilities, and personality types, should decide how we each guide our teen through their tortuous growing process. There is no handling technique with our nervous yet headstrong thoroughbreds that works in every case!
We could, for example, call on the expertise of others; friends and family with experience, and if required, doctors and experts who specialize in teenage problems. We could also read up on the science of this life-stage (but do steer clear of Doctor Google — what applies to your teen, applies equally to you).
Most of all, having taught them well, as CSNY advocated, it feels like time to play it by ear and LISTEN. If we listened hard to our growing children, to all that they did and didn’t say, wouldn’t a harmonious way-forward emerge?