What your teen won’t tell you

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There was a girl in my class in school that I was pretty tight with. She wasn’t my bestest-in-the-world friend but I liked her and spent a good deal of time in her house at weekends and such. Especially when I started smoking.  I know, I know…

Her mother would allow me to smoke in their house which was great. Sort of. I knew it wasn’t really OK, at (a verrry immature) 14/15 years of age, to be allowed to smoke by an adult. I thought it was a little odd that her mother would give me a light, and smoke with me, and we’d all chat about boys and stuff. It was a weird situation for me at the time. I just wasn’t sure why.

As we got a little older I realised that it was also OK to drink alcohol in this house. I was conflicted. I mean, it’s cool right? What teenager doesn’t want to ‘get away’ with underage drinking. Right?? But I suppose, if you’re ‘allowed’ , then you’re not ‘getting away’ with it…

Hmmm.. Confusing …

Then things got more tricky for me. As her parents’ reputation for being ‘cool’ spread, I started feeling pressure to be more sophisticated than I was, or wanted to be. I had become one of those kids, lingering on the edge of darkness, bereaved of a father, grades slipping a little, ripe for making a mess of everything. I needed a different set of role models and I knew it. But how to ditch these ones?

I figured that perhaps if I told my mother some of what was allowed in this house (but not that I was participating of course) then maybe I wouldn’t be allowed go there so often. This was a risk, I feared her disappointment and disapproval, and I feared that she’d confront my friend’s parents.

My mother wasn’t a cat but this is not unlike her displeased expression…

#cringe #morto etc

But I did it. And it worked. I was banned from going to this girl’s house. And when the ban was lifted, I pretended to my friends that it wasn’t, so that I’d feel safe. I now had the perfect excuse. For everything! It was my mother’s fault. What a witch she is. (What a great role model she was!!)

Fast forward a few (ahem) years:

A teenage client is sitting in front of me asking me if there is such a thing as “Parent Pressure”. We’ve all heard of peer pressure, we know what that is, most of us know how it feels. But Parent Pressure? This one’s great at teaching me new phrases…

She had a birthday gift of a slab of beer presented to her for her (pre-COVID) birthday, by her parents, so that she and her friends could celebrate and go prinking before going out (to adult venues). These girls, children legally, young women physically, met up, binge drank, got into arguments with each other, danced as much as they could in their 49 inch heels, some of them vomited and then they all went home – some with not entirely accurate recollections of what happened the night before. All got home safe, no one was assaulted, arrested or hospitalised. This time.

I’ve heard worse…

Anyway, the thing is, this lovely wise young girl was bitterly disappointed by her parents. Did they know that at the time? Absolutely not, she didn’t even really know herself. She figured it out in the therapy room. Because her parents facilitated and normalised her drinking she felt pressurised to drink. She heard the (unintended) message loud and clear:

Drink = celebrate. Drink = fun. Parents= OK with it. Me = not entirely safe.

Her own plan was to have a couple of beers, or not, outdoors somewhere secretly before heading to an indoor venue. But having her night mapped out for her by her parents, drink included, she felt foolish and faulty somehow that it wasn’t what she wanted. She would have preferred to get a lecture, some stern warnings and then break the rules herself and feel liberated and bold in doing so. Then, she figured, her friends would think she was cool, not her mom.

What she got instead felt a little dull, yes,  but worse: unsafe. Definitely not cool.

Discussing this with her parents I learned that her mother had come from a super strict background. Dad’s family had addiction issues and so both parents naturally felt they wanted to be more open and level with their daughter. They wanted to be better parents than their own. Makes sense right? Mom wanted her daughter to be able to talk with her about alcohol, drugs, sex.  She didn’t want to alienate her by not allowing her to have ‘fun’ and by being strict and ‘boring’. Her behaviour had context and was understandable. (It always does!)

They are not bad parents.

Many parents are utterly at a loss as to how to deal with the binge drinking culture. Particularly if there are addiction issues in their own family of origin.

And please, don’t get me wrong –  I applaud parents wanting to be able to talk to their children. Most of my working week is concerned with parent-teen communication, one way or another. And we will all make mistakes along this journey.

Getting the balance right is extremely difficult and a struggle that millions of parents face every day – especially now when we are competing with the entire internet for our childrens’ attention.

We all like to be liked and to feel we have a connection with our kids. But how much of that is from our own old need to feel popular?  To feel approved of and liked? Our own old need to not be overpowered by overkill rules?

Teenagers haven’t changed since you and I were 14.

They’ll push and push and push and you’ll feel like you’re going crazy and OMG if they slam that door ONE. MORE. TIME!! But here’s the thing they hide so well and will not tell you:

They want you to push back.

Firmly, with certainty and confidence. They want their parents to have limits, to impose those limits and to not waver. Because then they know they are safe, and they can use you as shields. They want parents, they already have friends. And if they don’t have friends, you’re not a suitable candidate, no matter how lovely and entertaining and up to date you are. But you can support, mind, care for, laugh with, cry with, be angry with, be irritated with and love – all at the same time. It’s all good.

And mother and daughter laughing together. Sally O'Reilly, psyschologist
Mother and Daughter

Boundary setting does not have to be done sternly or crossly – calm and consistent is good enough, better actually. And it’s never too late to start making new rules. Expect resistance, it’s normal, a sign that you are doing the right thing.

Resistance is your teenager’s job!

Fast Forward again!!

Not too long after that, that client had a party coming up that she had been anticipating for months. The other invitees were a couple of years older than her, there would be drink, drugs, boys and fancy dress (i.e. stripper outfits). Her mother intervened and told her she wasn’t allowed go.

She was disappointed, but also relieved. She begged me not to tell her mother about the relief bit. For that session though she was far more interested in telling me about her latest crush and how she was going to win him – exciting stuff! The mood was good.

Her mother came to the door of my office when our time was up. She asked how the session went – “good I suppoooooose” said the teen. I marvel at how quickly she transformed into a hunched fed-up looking kid. I try not to giggle and say “I guess it’s a big deal she’s been grounded for the party…”  Teen looks dolefully at me and shoots a well practiced fierce look at Mom.

Mom is in her new role as steadfast, she’s doing her best and she’s doing great. Do I see a flash of amusement in her eyes? I think so yes! I certainly see warmth and compassion. No shock, no taking it personally. They turn to leave, teen puts up hoodie, she sighs wearily and walks slowly to the car.

Just before she gets in she turns to me, smiles, and winks.

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