So much has been written about teenagers; how to develop their independence, how to protect them from drugs, gang involvement, food disorders and online bullying along with dealing with revision, exam stress, body image… and these are just a few things I worry about!
I’ve recently read Blame My Brain: The Amazing Teenage Brain Revealed by Nicola Morgan and it has helped me to evolve my thinking about how the brain physically develops throughout your life, but particularly during the teenage years.
It’s written in an insightful and often humorous way, and not only is it a great tool for anyone with or looking after teenagers, but it’s ideal for teenagers to read themselves. This was recommended to me by my Supervising Social Worker who knew I was struggling with M’s increasingly testing behaviour.
Being a teenager is all about challenging the safety nets and breaking out into the big real world. Ideally they would do this from the security and protection of a stable home, where they can make mistakes and the not have drastic consequences to deal with. Teenage years are also a time in your life when you are just beginning to find out who you are and learn key independence skills. Due to M’s background, she had to learn to be self reliant from an early age, and found the change of living with a family with boundaries hard to adjust to at first.
We found a way to allow M to let go of some of the reins, but she’s has always been fiercely independent and very secretive. I’ve tried to explain that telling me where she is going is not about me judging her choice, or being nosy, but about keeping her safe.
Her stock answer is always ‘I know how to keep myself safe’ and, to a degree, she is streetwise and savvy but is also easily lead and flummoxed at the first hurdle.
M is 17 in a few months and some of her new college friends already have no boundaries or curfews which worries me, and she is constantly challenging the rules she has been happy to live by in the past. Where will she be? Who will she be with? What time is curfew to return home?
It’s not just about her (very active) social life but also rules at home. M has been doing her own laundry for over a year and after a lot of initial defiance, now accepts this as the norm but struggles with any other kind of household chore.
J has chores and he’s at an age where he is happy to whizz through them and enjoys the praise for a job well done. It has taught him to think things through, to plan ahead and begin to take some responsibility.
M accused me of treating her like a modern slave when I asked her to tidy up the mess she left when she and Claire made themselves a snack. She challenges me or Hubby at every request to put a plate away or turn a light off and she has become the master of the ‘long suffering put upon’ sigh.
I persist, though, and do ask her to help as she won’t always live with us and a flatmate or dorm partner at university won’t necessarily be as willing to walk behind her clearing up the debris and mess.
I take the approach of softly-softly and constantly remind myself to enhance my inner calm as it does seem to be M’s mission to get a rise out of me. I have learnt a new coping tool which I’ve had to employ many times in the past month: I turn my mobile phone off for a few minutes.
This works because M’s preferred mode of communication is by text. We try to encourage direct communication wherever possible but when she wants to discuss something important she retreats to the security of texting from a distance. She also uses this mode to pick an argument or to show me how cleverly insulting or passive aggressive she can be.
From an outsider point of view, it is easy to say ‘just don’t put up with it’ or ‘simply take her phone away’ but it’s not that simple. M doesn’t come from a secure background and although she’s been with us for years now, she still views herself as little more than a lodger.
I take the therapeutic approach and don’t respond to her digs to get a rise out of me, and I will admit it has been getting tougher. I have very nearly responded in anger or worse, in cutting sarcasm, but I’ve stopped myself and to prevent any texting in anger, I’ve taken to actually switching my phone off completely.
Only for a few minutes and this is not to stop communication but the fact that it takes 30 seconds to switch it back on gives me valuable time to get my therapeutic head on.
In gaining independence skills, M is making huge leaps but learning to control your anger and how to get your message across are valuable lessons we are still working on… both of us.