This past week I realised that there’s one major attribute that teenagers share with prison inmates. (Apart from the desire to escape the bars that are your home or their school).
It’s shed a bit of light on what’s going on inside my daughter’s head. Which is helpful because, to be honest, I am struggling to remember what it was like to be her age.
Why is it when you become a parent, you apparently have no idea what it’s like to be a teenager? Maybe parenting contains a component of post traumatic stress disorder in that we block out our worst experiences. I’ve noticed there are tonnes of books out there on How To Be the Best Parent Ever, surprise, surprise (to my teen) I have bought and even read a number of them. Infact I even was a teenager once myself (even though she said she doesn’t believe it). BUT where are the books for our kids on How To be the Best Child to Your Parent? It’s high time somebody wrote the one called How To Be a Teenager Who Never Rolls Their Eyes. The sequel could be How to Tell Adults About All The Stuff You Keep Secret.
Ouch, I didn’t tell my parents stuff, did you? Of course not!! And I told my teachers even less.
We’ve watched a few of those prison documentaries on Netflix and one of the worst possible crimes you could commit as an inmate, apparently, is to be a snitch. Ratting on your fellow inmate pushes you down the ladder until you are lower than the dung that lies underneath the feet of a cockroach. And teenagers I’ve realised, are just the same. They may not tell their parents, and even less so their teachers, about stuff their friends get up to because loyalty to their friends is paramount.
Yesterday I heard on the radio someone saying in the context of abusive relationships that women are much more likely to tell their friends than their family if they are being abused. There’s a parallel here to our teens, they are usually less willing to speak to adults than to their peers. Is it because they fear being judged or reprimanded by us? Or even worse, that telling the truth will cause them to lose valuable friendships, to not be accepted?
So, hypothetically, if your teen goes to an event (say one that is organised by a school) and witnesses or partakes in behaviour that makes them uncomfortable, you may never get to hear about it. And if they do happen to tell you, perhaps because you are understanding and your teenager trusts you, the WORST possible thing you could do as a parent (according to my teen) is to communicate with a teacher. (Of course, I suspect teachers do suspect what teenagers get up to, they may just be constantly frustrated in their efforts to acquire incriminating evidence). Because, if you do contact a teacher, there is a possibility your child may face questions in front of her class, or worse, in front of other staff members. Of course our instinct is to protect our kids.
And here we have a dilemma: we impress upon our children to be honest and to always tell the truth. But in some situations, telling the truth could lead them into getting in trouble with the authorities, and to cause them to lose friends. Since when has the truth become a crime? When popularity or reputation of the school is more important than doing the right thing? And what is the right thing, keeping quiet and keeping friends or telling the truth and being labeled as a snitch?
Just an observation, primary school children seem to be just the opposite! ‘Telling’ on each other, I think, must be the thing about younger kids that would irritate me the most if I was a primary school teacher. Ironically, at that age most of the things kids get up to is pretty harmless. Secondary school teachers would have more cause for concern as serious stuff really does happen, to the extent that tragically, teens can even resort to suicide as a consequence. You would want to know what is going on then, but you are less likely to be told.
It’s tricky knowing how best to parentally proceed as teenagers spend less time under our radar in their quest for
jailbreak independence. What’s more is that they have so much access to the whole world through social media than we ever had, we have no idea how big their circle of influence actually is. So I’ve realised these are the things I always need to be practicing:
- To keep communicating. To spend time talking to her each day, to ask gentle but pointed questions about her relationships with her friends and teachers as well as other significant adults. To try and avoid questions that she can easily answer with a yes or no but which tease out extra information.
- To not get upset if she refuses to talk but to be patient, to allow a bit of time and then come back later with a different approach.
- To be vigilant, to know the signs to look for. As her mother, I know my daughter better than anyone else and I know when her behaviour is out of character. If she becomes quieter than usual, more tearful or more anxious, there’s bound to be something on her mind.
- I have to keep reminding her and demonstrating to her that she is loved and we are here to listen, to guide and not to judge but support when things don’t turn out so well.
- And if she does find herself in a difficult situation it’s good for her to know that we have all made mistakes, even us, her parents (sure she doesn’t need reminding of that!) And the next thing is for her to understand that we will do our best to help her through. I like to help her in each situation to evaluate how she could have done what I term ‘the right thing’.
- And finally, it’s good to remember that we are not in this alone, that we have a circle of other adults and parents in our community who are there to love and support us and our children. Sometimes we may just need to call on them, and we needn’t feel we’ve failed when we can’t manage on our own.
Ultimately I would like to set her free in confidence to become a wise, caring and well-liked adult.
Maybe just as far as the prison yard and wearing an electronic leg tag.
(In the meanwhile I have the feeling our knees will be worn out in prayer.)