Parenting Adolescents

on Saturday, 05 July 2003. Posted in Issue 39 The Crisis in Parenting, 2001

Marie Murray

February, 2001


Adolescence is a wonderful time.  One is on the brink of life.  Childhood is a glimpse behind, adulthood a stretch ahead and in between is the agony and the ecstasy of negotiating the transition from one stage to the other.

Adolescence is a time of hope.  The possibilities and potentialities are at their greatest. Intellectual capacity peaks.  Energy, enthusiasm and sheer joy of living surge up in the wit, the humour, the idealism, energy and purpose of the young.  Never again will the brain and the body, the spirit and the self be so utterly able.  This should be the moment of which marvellous memories are made.  Not so, today, for far too many young people.


Not so, for far too many of their parents.  Indeed, many parents either dread the onset of their children’s adolescence, try to survive the teenage stage when it arrives, or look back with relief when those same children emerge into young adulthood.

One might wonder whether or not this is because teenagers today are different, whether or not their parents are different or whether both young people and their parents are of an entirely different order than before.  Whatever changes are occurring in the one, the other, or indeed in both, the question that persistently  seems  to  arise  is  whether  this difficulty in parent-teenager relationship represents a real crisis in parenting, or a realistic and appropriate response to the current difficulties facing adolescents because of the many changes in the socio-cultural world around them.

Of course there has always been a tendency for each generation to view the subsequent ones with horror and despair.  The ‘hint of stocking as something shocking’ is a far cry from the ‘expose all’ climate of current culture and each generation has grieved at the apparent demise of decorum and decency in its offspring.  Indeed, while parents in the 1960’s thought that they had the worst time because there was radical social and cultural change then, the parents of the rock and rollers and ‘teddy boys’ in the 50’s would have been equally alarmed.  In this sense worrying about teenagers is not new because each generation also rightly challenges the generation before it.

Disturbing Trends

But it would appear, that in the Ireland of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, enormous shifts have indeed taken place that are reflected in a series of alarming new trends and behaviours in young people, for instance:

A blatant challenge to authority in all its guises.  Whether the issue is adherence to age limits for drinking, the intake of illegal drugs or the flaunting of speed limits while driving, there is a deconstruction of the civil code in favour of personal choice.
An alarming increase in the age at which activities are begun that were previously the province of adulthood.  Having the first drink at the age of eighteen years or twenty-one with some ritual, celebration and excitement would be as foreign to most teenagers as going to the well for water.  The age of onset of alcohol consumption allied to the actual consumption itself is a cause for alarm.  Young people are starting to drink at younger and younger ages.
The purpose and intent in drinking. The purpose of drinking is to become as drunk as possible – this is very different to the secretive sip of ‘Dutch Courage’ of a time past.
The desensitisation through repetitive lyrics. The lyrics of the music favoured by many adolescents are insidiously inciting them negatively.  Of course music was always the medium through which a generation challenged its elders.  The strumming of the consciousness of a generation in the 1960’s was an imperative to embrace love and reject war, to discover personal identity and to deconstruct oppressive ideologies and practices from the past.  Sadly, the current challenge, if challenge is the correct term, is now often embodied in incitement to hate, to violence and to a disturbing incestuous misogyny, as, for example, typified by the ‘sounds’ of Eminem.  Many adult ears have never heard or imagined or known that these assaults on the sensibilities and sacredness of the young are taking place in their own homes.  Some have stumbled upon the lyrics unaware and have been stunned and shocked, either by the ‘musical’ choice of their children or by the extreme exploitation of the young, depending on their interpretation of the situation.
The desensitisation of the hearts and minds of a generation who have ingested violent screen images from the earliest ages, so that they can view the most nauseating of cruelties with a numbing nonchalance.  This mediaziation of reality has threatened the capacity of young people to distinguish between visual, virtual and vital realities.  As the capacity to be sensitive and to be shocked is eroded there is a requirement for increasingly more shocking, sensational and salacious viewing.  As one child of twelve once enthused, recounting an experience at the age of eight of watching the film Predator “it was massive, so it was, all gore and guts and he was gutted, just gutted, you should watch it so you should”. 
The soaring in rates of suicide amongst those for whom there should have been pride and a place for them in the Ireland of prosperity.

Protection Through Boundaries

Confronted by this litany of gloom, how are we to make sense of what is happening to many young people today?  More importantly, what are the protective factors for those who are engaging in and enjoying their adolescent years and who are not participating in the negative cultural invitations?  Parents who parent provide the most protective factor.

It is the easy option to blame the young for the problems they produce.  Ever since they were classified and categorised, named as a specific group in a precise period of life by G. Stanley Hall, the term adolescence has also come to conjure up a range of negative ascriptions that would weigh down even the most enthusiastic.  Terms such as rebellious, irresponsible, hostile, egocentric are foisted upon the young person.  Specific descriptions such as lazy, untidy, argumentative, oppositional, defiant, out of control have shadowed many adolescents’ self-esteem.  Pressures to perform, to achieve academically, to be competitive and competent, have invaded the value system of many young people.   This is not of their making.

It is tragic that youth, a time that should be filled with hope and learning, a time of anticipation, expectation and eventual fulfilment, should become one of anxiety, depression and despair for many young people today.  We are confronted by the stark statistics on suicide.  We are concerned at the anger and rage that expresses itself in crime and vandalism.  We dread to think that drugs provide the escape from the raw reality of life.  We reel before the sexual exploits, the exploitation of the young by the young, of the demise of decency and the descent into decadence.  But more sinister is the degree to which we have begun to believe that we can do nothing for them.

The drawing by parents of BOUNDARIES has never been more crucial than it is today in a society in which globalisation has already blurred the boundaries of countries and continents, of information and opinion, of news and views and of therapy and theology.  As we all struggle to relocate ourselves in a new world and in what could even be a better world, many young people are left without any maps to guide them through this particular passage in their lives.

This adult ‘helplessness’ seems to be a new and disturbing development.  Embedded in it is the belief that the adult world has not, and should not, have control over these young people.  Shades of an oppressive and punitive past prevent any glimmer of common sense entering the parenting picture today.  Current culture is consumed with the stories of how we sat in rows at school, were beaten for inability or insubordination, were psychologically damaged by our parents and secretly damaged by society.  Many of the other narratives of that time have faded or they are no longer permitted, such as the narratives of nurturance, of idealism and of commitment.

Of course one would not wish to return to any part of the past that was harsh and punitive.  Perhaps much of the reluctance that appears to be present in parents to draw clear boundaries, to make real rules and to shape the behaviour of young people, has stemmed from memories of that time when the regime was often too harsh, the boundaries too rigid and the tolerance too low.  But to ‘overcorrect’ from the past is to turn the steering wheel so far in the opposite direction that there is a careering and skidding and nobody guiding or driving.  This, is to deny a whole generation the help that it needs

Indeed, if many young people are depressed, this may be matched by the gloom that has descended upon their parents, a fog of uncertainty, a reign of resignation, of abdication and adjustment to the impossibility of parenting the current adolescent.

This reign of resignation appears to be particularly potent.  It stems from a series of fallacious views;

The belief that there is nothing that parents can do.
The suggestion that there is no point in creating rules in a world that does not subscribe to discipline.
The conviction that there is no purpose in demanding conformity in a world of diversity.
The idea that there is no pressure on study in an economy of plenty. 
Finally, the belief that there is no need for values, which might oppress and distress the young.

This is a brave new world indeed.  A world without boundaries, providing no guidelines to a whole generation.  Without boundaries young people do not know how to play the game of life.

If one can imagine playing a game without rules, then the confusion of young people must be apparent.  Indeed, without rules there can be no game, no safety in engagement, nothing to strive for if the goalposts always change, nothing to mark success if there are no milestones to mark the way.

How do you participate in the game if you do not know what team you are on, who is your friend or opponent, what is good or bad behaviour, fair or foul play and how to judge the behaviour of your team mates.  The chaos of a game without rules is the legacy of many young people growing up today.  It does not serve the adolescent purpose well.

What does serve the adolescent purpose?  What does an adolescent need to move successfully into adulthood?  The needs are simple and surprisingly the same from one generation to the next.  They need to be loved and affirmed.  They need respect and regard.  They need us to define, interpret and guide.  They need someone to know how the game is played and to teach them the rules.  Sometimes this includes the word ‘no’.

The team coach knows what the team needs, what food and drink are healthy and energising, what rest is required, what fitness, what training.  The coach knows that clear, fair rules are essential and the consequences of breaking them need to be discussed in advance.  Consequences may constitute a time on the sidelines, missing a game or not yet being trusted with the challenge of an away game.  The coach knows that unless you spend time with your team you will not know their strengths and weakness or how to help them to maximise the former and tackle the latter.  A coach knows where his team are and ensures that they are transported safely to and from events.  The team knows that the coach cares because of the degree to which they are minded and guided.

Young people still need minding throughout their adolescence while also needing to grow into safe and graduated independence. The tasks of adolescence are many and how adolescents cope with these tasks depend on factors such as the young person’s own disposition, the position of the young person in the family and the dynamics within the family itself.  They include the level of contact and support from the extended family, specific life events, medical events and the adolescent’s intellectual and social capacities.  The school context is crucial and how the young person relates to friends, teachers and the academic process itself is part of making and shaping the adolescent experience.

Sending the Right Message

Additionally, there are the many messages which a society conveys to its young about what is normal, what is acceptable, what is healthy and unhealthy and what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour.  If the societal messages are not age-appropriate and morally supportive they are nonetheless transmitted and absorbed unless that impact is cushioned by parental intervention and interpretation.

Finally, and most importantly, is the parental message itself.  This remains the most powerful message.  Indeed, many parents do not realise just how pivotal their opinions are in their children’s and adolescents’ lives.  The parental view is the counterbalance to other inappropriate messages when there is a warm relationship between parents and children.  The parental view is, or should be, the message that provides the prototype for responsible adult behaviour.

In truth, then, adolescents will behave as well, or as badly, as we do.  We cannot suggest that they do not take drugs while ourselves holding a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other.  We cannot demand sibling acceptance while we model marital conflict.  We cannot speak about truth and morality if they do not observe it in all of our own dealings.  We cannot speak about tolerance, if we ourselves hold prejudices.  By the age of three a child will have begun to acquire the prejudices of its parents and racial prejudice can appear in the behaviour of kindergarten children.  This is how powerful parental messages are to the young.

If we are not in control of our own lives we cannot ask adolescents to control their own transitional ones.  Most importantly, unless the message we give is a clear one, it is a further confusion at an already uncertain time.  If we tell teenagers not to have sex but that if they do so they should be ‘careful’, then we tell them what?  If we tell them ‘be safe’ and don’t know where they are so as to ensure their safety, then what  do  we  convey?    If we say ‘grow up’ and then treat them like children what  does  that  mean?    If  we  do  not  ourselves know that life can be richer, fuller and more meaningful than material success, how can they find true purpose in their own lives?

Practical Pointers

If there is one singular complaint that adolescents will voice it is, in paraphrase, that they do not know who they are, what they are meant to do, what they are meant to be and how to achieve it.  This awful ambivalence is easily addressed by the following:

Know where the adolescent is, whom they are with and how they are getting home. Collect young adolescents from activities.
Draw clear guidelines for behaviour – write them down if necessary.  As an example ‘must not be out after a certain time, must phone if there is any difficulty or change in agreed plans, must not drink alcohol etc’.  The interesting thing about boundaries is that once they are drawn, the adolescent then has safe parameters within which to argue with you.  This can even be healthy – their task is to achieve independence, loosening parent-child ties is a painful part of the process for everyone.  Therefore, if the rule is 10.00p.m. the young person can now argue for 10.15 p.m.  They can argue knowing that they are safe, having some reference point.
If the comment is ‘come home when you like’ then the message is that the parent doesn’t care.
Regard the mistakes young people make as opportunities for learning for them and for you and if too much freedom has been given with negative consequences, recalibrate the rules in relation to their capacity to be mature.
Let them know what values are important to you and model the benefits of holding those civil or spiritual beliefs.
Screen negative media messages and discuss those they have encountered in an open and friendly way.
Remind the young person that you trust them and believe in them, it is the wider world that makes the restrictions and their protection so necessary.
Ask them to reassure you about their safety in the plans they make.  Again, put the emphasis in discussion on your concern for them, not on your distrust of them. Young people have a way of living up or down to our expectations of them.
Catch them out being positive and ignore much of the irrational, slightly hysterical, sometimes offensive, frequently insensitive egocentric behaviour.  It is not easy to live in a body that is changing in a world that is changing at a time that is uncertain.
Convey your love by setting limits.

Remember that the adolescent process is time-limited and give the time the young person needs.

Just as the memories etched in childhood last a lifetime, the guidance provided in adolescence is central to later adult life.

*Marie Murray is a Clinical Psychologist for over  twenty-five years.  She is Director of Psychology at St Vincent’s Psychiatric Hospital and St Joseph’s Adolescent Services Fairview, Dublin.  She is Course Director of the new Master’s in Systemic Family Therapy at the University of Limerick.  Marie is a regular media contributor, best known for her weekly contribution to Today with Pat Kenny on RTE Radio 1.

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