All Change - Parenting Teenagers

Clive Price reports on how parents of teenagers are supporting each other in the sometimes challenging role of raising their changing children

It happens almost overnight. One day you wake up and realise your offspring have changed. Their speech is different. Their shape is different. Even their smell is different. Your little darlings have become something else – teenagers... One minute you’re putting them in the bath and then tucking them into bed, the next you’re waiting up till 3am to make sure they return home safely from a long night’s clubbing. How do you tackle this transformation?

Eight years ago, Paul and Christine Perkin responded to a number of parents in their congregation at St Mark’s, Battersea Rise, South London. They all had teenagers. They all asked similar questions. So instead of talking individually, the Perkins ran three evening meetings looking at different areas of family life. More than 50 people turned up! The need was obvious. The evenings offered a place to share anxieties and problems.

‘It was all about getting them together and making them feel they weren’t alone,’ said Christine whose husband is the vicar there. ‘We tried to give them “tools for the job” – and reassurance that there was always hope.’

The course was humble and homegrown, using photocopied worksheets. ‘We shared our own journey,’ she added, ‘talking openly about raising our own three children Emily, Julia and Max. We knew from the start we needed to be honest about mistakes and failings – as well as successes.’ And it worked.

The local success of the Perkins’ programme drew the attention of Mark and Lindsay Melluish, who’d already developed the Family Time course for parents of young children. They encouraged the Perkins to share their insights with a wider audience. So what started life as a little forum for struggling parents became a book and DVD package that’s since attracted international attention.

Don’t take your eye off the ball

Designed as a six-session course, Parenting Teenagers: Making The Most Of The Years has been run in churches, homes and community centres. The material has been presented to parents from Northern Ireland to New Zealand. It means the Perkins can get on with running their busy parish, while other churches can be running the parenting programme themselves. The couple are ‘pleasantly surprised’ at how the material has crossed cultural barriers from England to Egypt and Germany to Ghana.

 ‘The essence of what we’re talking about is good relationships,’ said Christine. Endorsed by leaders like CARE chairman Lyndon Bowring and his wife Celia and popular evangelist J John and wife Killy, the course covers a wide range of topics from love and sex to alcohol and drugs.

‘Regarding drugs and alcohol – and even eating disorders – these concerns are felt right across the board,’ said Christine. ‘We’re basically talking about self esteem and self worth.’ The material is punctuated with personal experience.

When their youngest daughter Julia was studying in Italy, they sent her a card saying how proud they were of her. On visiting her, the couple found Julia had stuck the card up beside her bed, boosting her confidence. ‘We’ve found many parents lose confidence in the teenage years,’ said Christine. ‘And one of the dangers is that they take their eye off the ball.’ The course helps correct that, offering little tasks to undertake after each session. Follow-up activities suggested are, for instance, having a regular family meal together once a week, praising your teenager every day, and undertaking a review of the year for each child. Communication is a key area. Parenting Teenagers devotes an entire chapter to that area alone. The material looks at how mums and dads can get on the right wavelength, pick up the signals and tune in together.

The teenage time zone

 ‘Unlike little children who will demand attention and make you listen,’ Christine explained, ‘older children may shut themselves in their room. You won’t realise immediately something is going wrong. It’s a complex time.’ Teenagers operate in a different time zone to the rest of us, they warn. The Perkins relate one incident involving their daughter Julia when she was playing cello in a band. They woke up at 3am and she still wasn’t home from a gig. Paul and Christine discovered she was waiting for a bus at Oxford Circus! Paul went to pick her up, and to Julia’s amazement he wasn’t cross. Understandably relieved, she talked animatedly all the way home. He learned more about her in one car ride than he had the previous six months.

 ‘We say from the start we’ve got to move into a different sort of parenting – it’s not hands-on, organising their lives,’ said Christine. ‘One of the mottos we use is “being available” – and that encompasses a whole lot of things.’ She adds, ‘Often teenagers will choose the most inconvenient times to offload. That means keeping our antennae out.’ The Perkins share one such incident. It occurred in the wee small hours en route to a channel ferry. They’d got their disgruntled teens out of bed, packed the car and were halfway to Dover when one child said, ‘Dad, what is homophobia?’

Of course, many parents have to raise teenagers on their own, without a partner. The Perkins are sensitive to this, too. A social worker recently brought a single mum to one of their courses. ‘She did find some of the written exercises quite demanding,’ Christine recalled. ‘But as soon as we got into discussion groups and people showed they weren’t judgemental but were all in it together, that made the difference. ‘She was just bowled over. What we created for her was a place to come and realise she wasn’t alone.’

The Perkins recommend mixing parents of different backgrounds in discussion groups so they can learn from one another. They have also welcomed parents of other faiths. Two practising Hindus attended one of the programmes at St Mark’s. They weren’t offended by the gentle references to God in the material. But what do the Perkins wish they’d been warned about, when it comes to parenting teenagers?

‘I remember how tired I was, and how demanding little children can be. They just take over life,’ said Christine. ‘But it surprised me how deeply emotional the teenage years have been – and just how exhausting that is. ‘The problems and the decisions are just so much bigger.’ Thankfully, the Perkins have created something that helps to lighten the load.

Don’t panic!

  • don’t live in denial – your child is growing up into an adult world and you must recognise and accept that transition
  • don’t draw too much attention to the changes – comments like ‘is that a moustache appearing on your upper lip?’ are not entirely helpful
  • don’t show anxiety or foreboding – it’s important they feel you’re looking forward to the changes happening
  • don’t deny their feelings – if they feel you only want the ‘happy child’, they may only connect with you when they’re happy
  • don’t leave them to work out their own sexual standards and goals
  • don’t be taken unawares

 

Teenagers: Making The Most Of The Years book and DVD are published by David C Cook. The course can be run with simply a DVD (price £24.99) and some course manuals (£2.99 each). For more details, visit www.new-wine.org/events/family-time.