Learn to parent teenagers from the experts – teenagers
From discipline to drink, young people from Wicklow and Wexford say what works best
Shauna Kearney, Bunclody; Diane Wiley, Kilmuckridge; Caoimhe Hodgins, Carnew; Bill Nolan Coolattin; Patricia Moitie, Enniscorthy; and Becky Tobin, Enniscorthy at the Wicklow/Wexford Foróige youth conference in the Ashdown Park Hotel, Gorey, Co Wexford. Photograph: Garry O’Neill
When I returned to work after my first maternity leave, I used to have a shorter day on Fridays and my commute home on the Dart would sometimes coincide with secondary schools disgorging their teenagers.
As mouthy, spotty adolescents jostled each other onto the train, I reflected with incredulity and in trepidation how one day my cute baby boy would morph into one of these creatures.
Now he has. But, contrary to the horror stories and my early misconceptions, they don’t become aliens at the stroke of midnight on their 13th birthday, nor do they lose (all) their charm.
Every stage of parenting, with its own challenges and rewards, moves seamlessly to the next. It’s always difficult to judge the right pace of “letting go” and never more so than in the teenage years.
Now is also the time to face up to the fact it’s not a “mini you” you’re raising, but somebody with individual abilities, views, preferences and habits.
“It is during their teenage years that our offspring finally begin to resemble the adults that they will become,” writes Tony Wolf and Suzanne Franks in their guide to parenting teenagers, Get Out of My Life . . . But First Take Me and Alex into Town”. We might not like everything we see, “Nevertheless, parents must accept their adolescents for who they have in fact become, rather than ‘punish’ them for not having become someone else entirely.”
It’s a mistake to think parenting teenagers is all about the teenagers: their struggle to assert independence and cope with mental and physical changes (see panel). It is also about parents needing to deal with the internal and external dynamics of a changing relationship.
Yet, while there is no shortage of expert advice offered about the parenting of adolescents, teenagers are rarely asked for their views about the parenting of teenagers.
So, at a recent regional conference of the youth organisation Foróige, in Gorey, Co Wexford, The Irish Times invited six volunteers, aged 14-17, to give their perspectives.
The need for parents of teenagers to be “strict, but not too strict”, in the words of 15-year-old Becky Tobin, of Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, is a view shared by all. From what they see among their peers, over-controlling parenting inevitably backfires, while too much freedom is asking for trouble as well.
“The parents who tend to be over-strict with their kids; they are the kids who end up the sneakiest,” says 16-year-old Shauna Kearney from Bunclody, Co Wexford. “They would be the ones who end up getting into the bad things.” Whereas “parents who let them have their freedom but at the same time are strict on them as well, they are the ones who turn out okay”.
“If parents aren’t strict enough, and you can do whatever you want, that can cause havoc,” says Caoimhe Hodgins, who is 17, and from Carnew, Co Wicklow.
Patricia Moitie who is 15 and from Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, sees parental boundaries as essential for teenagers to learn to respect authority.
“If their parents are not strict enough, they may not respect their parents enough and that may lead them to not respecting the law and maybe committing crimes,” she suggests.
A common experience of parental disapproval is through “the silent treatment”, they say. “I prefer my parents to be angry with me than disappointed,” says Hodgins. “I hate when my parents are disappointed; it makes me feel so bad.”
As with discipline, “letting go” is a question of balance, they agree, but also a matter of showing trust.
Hodgins says if a group of them are planning a night out, some of her friends’ parents “would be really fussy about where they’re going and who they are with”.
While parents do need to know that to make sure they are safe, she acknowledges, often these friends are not allowed to go out at all because their parents are being over-protective. “They end up losing out on a social life.”
Diane Wiley who is 14 and from Kilmuckridge, Co Wexford, says she is let go places “as long as they know who I am with and that I am safe”.
Moitie does not think her parents are over-protective. “They wouldn’t let me go out too much and they know that studying is important. I want to do well but I still want to be able to socialise,” she says. “They know it is important to be able to socialise when you are a teenager.”
However, “there are a few people who wouldn’t be allowed to go out unless their parents are there,” she says.
“I can see it from the parents’ point of view as well,” says Tobin. “They are not doing it just to be mean. They are doing it only because they love their children – well, I hope they love their children!” she says, to laughter all round.
While two of them talk about being allowed to drink at home on special occasions with their parents, the others appear to have little interest in alcohol.
The consensus is that no matter what parents do, teenagers will decide themselves whether or not to drink,
Fifteen-year-old Bill Nolan from Coolattin, Co Wicklow, agrees that younger children should not be allowed to drink “but at the end of the day you’re going to be 18 and it is your choice. But I think parents should educate you to make the right choice.”
Kearney thinks if parents don’t buy the drink and teenagers want to drink, they will get it anyway. “It is better if they get it for them: not too much, obviously.”
Hodgins also believes there should be a bit of leeway. “If your parents are [saying] ‘No, you’re not touching any alcohol until you are 18,’ then it could get messy.
“Obviously the child wants to experiment. They could just go out and drink everything. They need to know their limits; they need to know the safety precautions when it comes to drinking alcohol.”
One of her friends is allowed to go only to house parties. “I think that’s a bit stupid because house parties can get way messier than a night out,” she says.
“He often gets really, really bad and that’s because he has strict parents. He always tells his parents he is staying in a friend’s house, and they don’t really know where he is so he just lets loose.”
Wiley says she has no interest in alcohol. “Maybe when I’m 18. I do not want to have a poisoned liver when I am older just because I was reckless and decided to start drinking.”
Pressure to succeed at school
None of them feels their own parents have unreasonable expectations, but it’s something they see with friends.
“When it comes to grades in schools, I don’t think parents should punish or limit teenagers’ freedom,” says Wiley. “Some people aren’t able academically to succeed as well as others.
“I study because I want to do well myself,” she continues, “and sometimes I don’t, but my parents don’t pressure me.”
If you don’t do well academically, there are other areas such as art, sport or writing, she points out, yet when parents punish teenagers about not achieving grades, “it is a stress and everything becomes about study”.
Parents need to be informed about how to handle teenagers, she adds, “because going on a full-blown insulting match with a teenager is not good and I know a few people who it has happened to. It lowers the teenager’s self-esteem and it is not the right way to go about it.”
Hodgins also believes that a parent getting angry about test results is more likely to discourage rather than encourage a child.
Kearney knows a girl who “if she doesn’t get two hours of study done every day then she is not allowed go soccer training, or let go do what she wants to do. If she doesn’t get all As and Bs in tests, her mammy would give out to her. And she has to eat really healthily as well.”
“Some parents think if they are smart, their children should be smart and should follow in their footsteps,” observes Moitie. “But that’s not true.”
Four of the six have smartphones; one has an ordinary mobile and the other is without a phone since her last one broke.
Common sense rather than parental diktats govern Hodgins’s use of her phone. “When doing homework, you can’t be stuck in your phone as you would get distracted,” she says. “At dinner time I am not allowed my phone at the table. In the sitting room with your family, obviously you can’t be stuck in your phone all the time; you have to interact.”
Wiley recalls how her parents tried to take the phone from her during the exam period before Christmas, “and I just told them it wasn’t going to make any difference, it was just going to annoy me. They never did it with my [older] sisters, so I said it was unfair. They didn’t take it from me.”
Nolan says he has no restrictions on his phone use, “and with all my friends it’s the same story”.
Moitie is not allowed a smartphone because “they say I would get addicted to it”. Nor is she allowed on social media sites “because of stalkers and everything”.
Several of them point out that parents can be as bad, or worse, than teenagers at being stuck in their phones.
They all say they don’t smoke, with Wiley denouncing the habit as “awful and it’s not fair on other people because of passive smoking. I am disgusted by it.”
“A few of my friends smoke and their parents would buy them the fags,” says Kearney.
“I don’t think the parents should be buying them fags but obviously if they are going to do it, they are going to do it anyway.”
Money and chores
None of them gets pocket money. “That’s an old thing,” remarks Nolan.
Kearney explains the ritual for extracting money for special events to nods of agreement: “You give hints. ‘There’s a disco on in a few weeks.’ You don’t say any more until about two days beforehand: ‘Can I have money for the disco?’ and they say ‘What disco?’, ‘Remember, I told you two weeks ago?’ And they say ‘Okay, where is it?’ and it’s usually all right then.”
A couple of them earn money babysitting and Tobin says that if she wants something, she will get it if she helps around the house or with the dogs. Not that she is slow to help around the house generally. She lives with her father and “it’s not fair on him to do all the work, cooking and so on”, she says.
Most of them are expected to help around the house. “Every Saturday I have to clean my room, the upstairs landing and the bathroom,” says Wiley.
“I don’t have any set work but I usually clean up the sitting room and do the washing up and clean my room obviously,” says Hodgins.
Tobin also keeps her own room clean without being asked. “It’s my choice. I don’t like living in dirt.”
Moitie says that she and her two sisters help with the dinners nearly every day, setting the table, clearing and washing up between them.
Embarrassing things parents do
Dancing and singing top the list, closely followed by engaging teenagers’ friends in conversation when they call around.
Grievances include being compared with other people, unequal treatment of siblings and parents harping on about “When I was your age . . .”