How to keep tabs on your teenager
Q I am the mother of a 13-year-old girl. We’ve always had a good relationship, but I’ve been really struggling with her for the first time since she finished school for the summer.
She stays up half the night on her phone (I’ve tried confiscating it) and doesn’t get up till midday. She doesn’t offer to help in the house and her room is a mess. She has no routine to her day and won’t do any camps. I work and so does her Dad, but there’s always an adult in the house.
We’re finding it hard to keep tabs on her and if I ring she might be with people I’ve never heard of: “Katie, you met her, she’s a friend of Chloe’s cousin . . .”. Most of the time I just end up letting it go to avoid a row or a huff, but I’m anxious what they’re getting up to and if she’s safe. I know these are exciting times for her and a lot of this is ‘typical teen’ behaviour, but I’m worried that I’m not being strict enough. Should I be asking more questions about what she’s up to?
A There are probably a lot of other parents of teenagers facing the same issues as you over the summer months without the structure and routine of school. Am I being too strict? Am I being strict enough? Should I be asking more questions? How do I get the balance between allowing them to enjoy themselves and keeping them safe?
Adolescence involves moving from being a dependent child to an independent adult, and as a parent you play a vital role in that process.
It can be tempting to leave them to their own devices, either to avoid a row or to get them out from under your feet, but it’s important to stay involved both for their wellbeing and to ease your own anxiety. While you may see less of them, and your role as a parent is changing, parenting a teen involves as much time and work as when they were toddlers.
You say your daughter is up half the night, and this is one of the areas where you should be involved. A good sleep routine is especially important during adolescence, even when they’re not in school, because many hormones are released during sleep.
Teens need about 9.5 hours, and if they get too little or have an erratic sleep pattern, they can develop a type of jet-lag which can affect concentration, attention, and mood. Phones and screens at night are a big problem, and it’s completely reasonable to take a phone from a 13-year-old at 9pm or 10pm and return it in the morning.
Depending on the child, you might be waiting a long time before they offer to help in the house, and this is another area where you can take the lead. One of biggest irritants is when they promise to clean up, put out the washing, or sweep the floor “later” but never do. By making pocket money, going out, or getting the phone back conditional on these jobs being done within a certain time-frame, you’re helping to teach them life skills around the relationship between work and reward.
Hanging out with friends is an important and enjoyable part of a teen’s development and it’s good for children of all ages to have some unstructured time, but only at a level of responsibility they can handle.
A good starting point is to negotiate with your daughter a list of places and houses she can go to without asking your permission, curfew times, and arrangements about contacting you during the day. This gives her some responsibility, but keeps you in the picture. Agree on sanctions if the rules are broken, and enforce them; if she has come up with them, she is more likely to abide by them.
Take the time each evening to go over her plans for the following day so that you and your husband, and whoever is minding her, all know what has been agreed.
You should know where your 13-year-old is at all times and, while there are many downsides to the ‘constant-on’ of phones, they also play a useful role as teen tracking devices.
The greatest worry for parents is usually safety, and a big problem with 13-year-olds is that they tend to see the fun and excitement of situations, but don’t weigh up the risks. Part of this is lack of experience, but it’s also down to brain development. The ‘thrill seeking’ centre of their brain is firing on all cylinders, but the area which helps them think through consequences and put the ‘brakes’ on behaviour is still under construction.
There’s also a strong drive for teens to fit in with their friends, and group mentality can sometimes lead them to do something completely out of character. While you can’t be there all the time, if you know their plans in advance, at least you can talk through the dangers.
At the core of all this is that you want your child to eventually develop a sense of internalised responsibility and rules that they can apply whatever situation they find themselves in.
At 13, they’re only at the start of the process of gaining independence and finding out who they are. They need you there at a physical, emotional and practical level to oversee their routine and safety as you gradually hand them over more and more responsibility for managing their own lives.
Dr Sarah O’Doherty is a clinical psychologist. John Sharry will return on August 13th