Smells like teen spirit


The teenage years are notorious for trouble. Seemingly overnight, an affectionate, biddable child can turn into a surly, cantankerous and wilful young adult. Add in that maddeningly self-righteous manner many teenagers assume, and you have a recipe for rows, door-slamming and all manner of inter-family ding-dongs. Parents, understandably, often feel at a loss as to how to deal with this challenging new situation. The old ways of keeping order – the withholding of treats, sending the child to his or her room – simply won’t work any more.

That’s where a groundbreaking programme, Parenting UR Teen, comes in. Developed by Northern-based voluntary organisation Parenting NI, the course is designed to give parents more understanding of how to manage their relationship with their teenager. Sessions cover issues such as parenting styles, teen development, self- esteem, rules and consequences, conflict and problem solving.

Feedback from participants has been enthusiastic, and has been underscored by independent research, which has shown that the programme gives a significant boost to parents’ mental health and reduces stress in the parent/adolescent relationship.

The research project – conducted over two and a half years – was carried out by the Institute of Child Care Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, and overseen by an independent expert advisory committee that included Unesco chairman Pat Dolan from NUI. Prof Dolan was warm in his praise: “I see the Parenting UR Teen programme as one of the most innovative, parent-friendly and effective support programmes currently available, not just in Northern Ireland but internationally.”

Laying down the law

So what’s the secret to interacting positively with your stroppy adolescent?

The emphasis of the course is on authoritative parenting. In these more permissive times, it may sound old-fashioned, but it seems that firmly establishing the rules – not in a high-handed manner, but in a nurturing, supportive way – works. The research shows that teenagers who have authoritative parents do better at school, have fewer behavioural problems and are better adjusted emotionally.

Pip Jaffa, chief executive of Parenting NI, says “an authoritative parenting style centres on open communication, provides structure, sets out the rules for behaviour and gives appropriate autonomy to teenagers while supporting them. This provides a secure environment for teenagers and encourages them to take responsibility for their actions.”

Bredagh Jameson, who took part in one of the eight-week courses, said a great benefit was the reassurance it gave her.

“My son is 16 now, and we’ve been dealing with difficult issues with him since he was 12,” she said. “He’s our first-born child, and he’s always had so much praise and affection and love; he’s never wanted for anything. But then he became withdrawn; he wouldn’t talk to us. The course made us feel we were not on our own, we were not the only parents dealing with this kind of thing.

“We realised that it wasn’t our fault. And a lot of the behaviour we’ve been experiencing is normal for a teenager of that age.”

It’s okay to rock the boat

The course gave her the confidence to be tougher with her son.

“It’s important for kids to have boundaries, and it’s okay to set them. Some of us are afraid to rock the boat, and that makes us too lenient. But when I put some of the suggestions into practice, I was surprised by the co-operation I got from my son.”

It’s not simply about laying down the law though. “You have to give them respect,” says Jameson. “Kids act out when they don’t feel listened to. And you need to give them a picture of your feelings too, not just orders and rules.”

Martin Harbison, another participant, found comfort in the support of other parents on the course. “My daughter was 13 when I began the programme,” he said. “I separated from her mum a number of years ago, and it’s hard when you’re on your own, because you don’t have another person to bounce ideas off. Am I being too strict or too lenient? It was nice to discover I wasn’t alone in feeling this way.”

Harbison says he now knows a lot more about the development of the teenage mind. “I always wondered why teenagers engaged in risky behaviour. But if you think about it, adults base their choices on life experience, but teenagers don’t have that back catalogue. Everything is new for them. So rather than jumping down their throats, sit down and explain to them where they’re going wrong.”

The old parenting phrase “because I say so” isn’t going to be enough. “You have a semi-adult standing there in front of you, and they just won’t accept that. They’ll try to pull all your reasons apart. So you have to be firm in what you do, and stick with it. If they can get you to change your mind, it’s going to be so much harder next time.”

Pip Jaffa is proud of what Parenting NI has achieved. “Many programmes are aimed at helping parents of younger children, which is why we specifically chose to focus on parents of teenagers, as the stresses and strains associated with parenting adolescents can be particularly difficult.

“We see tremendous opportunity for this programme to be rolled out across the island of Ireland and beyond.”

Parents’ names have been changed