Making those lazy days work out for all


Three months of freedom stretch ahead for teenagers, but how can you ensure they and you make the most of their summer holidays?

IT IS uncharted territory for this household: three whole months off school for the eldest boy who is just finishing his first year at secondary school.

“The teenager” has been taunting his younger brother about the prospect of having the whole month of June off for at least the past year. How he will relish those mornings in bed, knowing that a certain someone else has to continue to put on his uniform and head out the door with a bag on his back.

I don’t begrudge him the sweet taste of freedom that is forever associated with June in all our memories, but I do have that nagging feeling as a parent I should be more prepared.

What is the best way to make the most of the next 12 weeks, so that it is an enriching and enjoyable experience for all of us, rather than mere survival until September? Keeping in mind that some of us have to work . . .

Maintaining a positive parent-teenager relationship is key, according to psychologist Niamh Hannan.

For every interaction that a teenager discerns as negative, ie nagging, you need five positives, she says, to maintain “the emotional bank balance in a happy state”.

That could be a tall order during prolonged proximity – what teenagers “discern” as negative may be just a parent making conversation.

A smile, a lift somewhere, taking time for a casual chat over coffee together all count as positives – although funding a shopping trip is, surprise, surprise, one of the “more heavily weighted positives”.

“You have to use a positive tone of voice five times as much as you use a negative tone of voice,” explains Hannan of MindWorks, who leads personal development workshops for teenagers in conjunction with Help Me to Parent.

“The trouble is we get stuck in a negative mood and then we are at each other all day – so parents should be watchful of that.”

The secondary school holidays are definitely too long, says Rita O’Reilly, manager of Parentline. But parents have to cope as best they can, juggling work responsibilities and caring for younger children, while keeping an eye on teenagers.

At 13, they are too old to be minded but too young to stay home alone all day. “There is a lot going on with them but they have nothing to do – the structure has gone out of their life,” she points out.

It is all very well if you live on a farm or run a family business – then a mutually satisfying arrangement for some gainful employment can probably be reached. Or if your teenager is passionate about a time-consuming, outdoors hobby, such as sailing, horse-riding, golf or tennis, then the course of the summer is probably well plotted – time and finances permitting.

Youth organisations, such as the scouts and guides, Foróige, etc run excellent summer activities – but mainly for those already involved year-round.

For the majority of teenagers who just want to “hang”, it is a delicate balance between letting them chill and keeping them out of trouble – or, more positively, using the time to develop themselves or even find a part-time job.

Unanimous advice from other parents, experts and even teenagers themselves is “have a plan”.

Sit down and ask the teenager what he or she is hoping to get out of the summer and share your expectations as a parent.

Although that great staple of the Irish teenage summer – three weeks in the Gaeltacht – would generally be well booked at this stage, there is no harm making late inquiries to colleges, and other courses and camps, as there may be spaces or last-minute cancellations.

Adventure sports, drama and foreign languages are all popular themes for camps aimed at teenagers but more experienced parents say don’t rush to sign them up to too many, even if you can afford to.

If your teenager has few outside interests and would like to be on the internet all the time, you need to agree some sort of routine or structure, says Hannan.

“It is not good for them to have three months open-ended with nothing to do – there is no reason for them to get up in the morning and they could be playing on the computer late at night.”

Maybe what is allowed at weekends during term time could be allowed during the week at holiday time – “but you still need to have limits and all of these things need to be negotiated”.

She advises getting teenagers involved in as much physical activity as possible.

“Whatever is in the locality, whether it be tennis, golf, swimming or whatever they are in to – get them out there and then they are going to bed tired.”

She warns parents not to let their guard down and make sure they know who their teenagers are with, what they are up to and how they are getting home.

“Parents of older teenagers need to be watchful because it can be during the summer that previously well-behaved teens can go a bit mad on drink.”

She believes parents tend to be a bit more relaxed because they don’t have the pressure of making sure their teenagers get up to perform for school, as a result, “they can sometimes drop the ball a little”.

As a working mother of two teenagers, now aged 15 and 17, Jackie Lohan knows all about the difficulties of the long summer holidays. “They are too young for one thing and too old for another.”

Her own experience of teenagers led to a change of career; she trained in neuro linguistic programming, became a teen coach and therapist and founded Teenacity in 2010.

This summer she has teamed up with David Greaney of Refit Yourself to offer an “empowering boot camp” for people aged 16-18.

The aim is to help teenagers to get physical, think positively and eat healthily – and to understand the link between physical and mental wellbeing.

It starts with a three-day residential camp on June 18th-21st in a Co Wicklow hotel, during which the teenagers will identify their passions and set measurable goals for this summer.

They go away with a personalised action plan to achieve before reconvening 28 days later for a progress report and “graduation”.

“We will have a mix of kids – those who come on their own volition and those who are being pushed to do it. We have got that covered,” she says.

“The idea is that they will all be leaving in a very different frame of mind to the one in which they arrived.”

This is a pilot programme and Lohan says they hope to open it up to younger teenagers in the future.

Sheila O’Malley of Practical Parenting encourages parents to be a bit imaginative when looking at ways their teenagers might spend the summer.

“It is not about booking wall-to-wall camps” – think about how your child might want to develop.

“Run with your child’s interests and give them opportunities.”

They may be reluctant to participate in a particular activity but, with a little encouragement and soft handling, she suggests, they may just “click in” with it, and “a whole new area opens up in their lives, which is wonderful”.

In latter summers, her teenage daughters used the time to acquire skills that could lead to paid casual work in the future, which in turn would embellish their CVs.

They trained to be lifeguards, learnt to operate powerboats for sailing events and went on cookery courses.

It is also a good time, says O’Malley, to get the theory part of the driving test out of the way – from the age of 15, as it must not be completed more than two years before applying for a provisional driving licence (at age 17 for a car, 16 for some motorcycles) – or working towards a Gaisce award (from the age of 15).

Recalling fond memories of her own teenage summers, and how she spent a “lot of time sitting talking in other girls’ houses”, O’Malley stresses the importance of having this opportunity to “gel with the pals and learn a lot of social skills”.

Teenagers are so over-scheduled the rest of the year, she points out, they need this time, “figuring out who they are while sitting on the couch”.

'It is about letting them away but knowing what they are up to'

Jacqui Hogan tries to get the right balance between keeping her two teenagers active during the holidays and giving them time to do nothing. But she has the challenge of keeping two younger children entertained as well.

“I sat back after one of the summers and said we are in danger of becoming two families, where we would always be doing something for teenagers or something for younger ones but not together.”

So now she has a deal with Liam (16) and Emily (13) that at least once a week during the holidays, when her husband Niall is at work, “they give me a day”. They all go off together and do something that has to be more tailored to Jack (10) and Ciara (five).

“In return they get a bit more flexibility from me” – being allowed to stay out a bit later one night or being accommodated to do something on a day it doesn’t suit, “or it might be something as simple as bribery”, says Hogan.

While there are plenty of summer activities to choose from for younger children, there is not enough for teenagers to do, she says.

Liam, who spent his first long summer just hanging around and it was gone before he knew it, told his mother that he now knows you need to plan to do one or two things each week.

“The difference between a third year and a first year is I can let him off for the day, I wouldn’t let my daughter off for the day.” At 13 years of age, “you want to trust them and you don’t want to trust them”.

They are blessed living in Bray, Co Wicklow, because not only is there the beach when the weather’s good, but also the excellent Hi Res youth centre, which she describes as a supervised “home from home” for younger teenagers – a facility that every town badly needs.

It will be Emily’s “hanging out” space during this her first long summer. “They are at an age where they don’t want to be sitting at home with friends when there is a parent around,” says Hogan. “It is about letting them away but knowing what they are up to.”

In her experience, girls are more social and just want to be with friends, whereas boys have smaller groups and go out to do something specific, such as, in Liam’s case, walk up Bray Head or take the Dart to Howth.

Over the few years she has had a teenager in the house, she has learnt “just to leave them be in the mornings”.

“There is an awful lot you have to roll with when you have teenagers – as long as they are operating within the boundaries you have set for them and trust them to be reasonably responsible.”

With the younger two continuing to go to school, she feels the holidays don’t officially start until the end of June. They will get away to France for two weeks, where the same rules will apply to the older two.

“They still have to do family stuff and can’t just go off on their own and be grumpy and moody all day,” says Hogan. “They do stuff during the day in return for going out in the evening. It seems to be working for us – fingers crossed.”

Tips for a happy summer

School’s out this Friday so it is time to establish ground rules with your teenager for the next three months:

PLANS: At the outset, ask your teenager to write down some things he/she would like to accomplish during the summer and add in a few suggestions of your own.

BED: Don’t get too hung up about the lie-ins but rising before lunchtime is to be encouraged if you don’t want them up half the night.

CHORES: If you expect them to help out more when they have all this time on their hands, make that clear. While daily routine tasks should not be paid for, monetary rewards can motivate them to take on projects such as cleaning out the garage, clearing the overgrown patch of garden, doing the weekly ironing or painting garden furniture.

SCREEN TIME: Negotiate “fair” limits if you think this is likely to accumulate to serious excess during the holidays. Try to ensure they break up time spent staring at a screen of any sort.

SOCIALISING: “Friends are really, really important for teenagers and they need to see them constantly,” says psychologist Niamh Hannan. If you have a teenager who is moping around the house all day, encourage and facilitate social activity. Encourage them to have friends home but insist they treat the house with respect.

CHECKING IN: Returning home every couple of hours is recommended for younger teenagers who are socialising in the neighbourhood; otherwise location updates via mobile phone are to be at least encouraged, if not demanded.