CHILDREN / The trouble with parents: Difficult adolescents may not always be the problem. What about difficult mothers and fathers? Teenagers tell their stories to Celia Dodd

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The Independent Culture
'EVERY single teenager I know has a problem with their parents, whether it's trivial or big. It's just a question of scale,' says 15-year-old Sebastian Finley.

Parents talk a great deal about teenage problems - the moods, the unrealistic demands for freedom, the bolshy behaviour. But it cuts both ways: teenagers have parent problems too, with adults who are too strict, over-protective, and think they know best. And some parents are more difficult than others.

Liz Thomson left home three years ago, fed up with the endless rows which began when she was 13. At 15, she was given much less freedom than her friends. 'At the time it seemed like my parents were really cruel. My friends' parents were very different. Mine were much too strict. They expected me not to go out at all. They controlled the way I dressed, because they always came with me when I went to buy clothes. We had a lot of arguments and differences of opinion.'

Liz's parents were difficult in the way that parents have been difficult for generations. At the other extreme is a new breed of parent who unwittingly creates problems by trying too hard to understand.

Sebastian Finley is the envy of his friends: his mother is sympathetic and understanding. But in Sebastian's eyes, that's where some of his problems start.

'I know I've got a really nice mum. In a sense, she's the image of the perfect mother. But she's too understanding, she's over-kind. On the surface we seem to have a great relationship, but really there's a distance. I can't tell her things because I feel she would understand too much. It's very important for me to have things that she doesn't understand. I need to be recognised as an individual and I need to be misunderstood.'

Hugh Jenkins, director of the Institute for Family Therapy, says there are problems with both extremes: 'With parents who are totally liberal, completely accepting, it's a question of what does the child have to do to be taken notice of - how extreme does it have to be? If the parent is always saying 'Yes, dear', where are the limits? At the other extreme, with a parent who is constantly screwing down the sanctions, the child either buckles under or fights fire with fire.'

Conflict, says Jenkins, is an inevitable, healthy aspect of the relationship between parent and adolescent; families are really laboratories for testing the limits of acceptable behaviour. The trouble is that many parents may be experts at character assassination, but they're not much good at arguing constructively. A typical argument between a teenager and a parent often brings up a whole catalogue of past grievances as well as the current complaint. Nothing is ever forgotten, and conflicts are never resolved.

Louise, 16, has frequent arguments with her mother which invariably follow the same pattern. 'About once a month we have a massive row where we both end up crying. She tries to explain how she feels, and I do too, but we always end up contradicting each other. We never resolve anything really. My parents don't understand me and I don't understand them. The arguments go on for days. Mum can really make life hell, being rude to my friends, not letting me speak to them on the phone.'

Liz Thomson's rows with her father were equally frustrating. 'We had big arguments, but I couldn't win. They always ended with me getting really upset and just sitting there listening to my dad going on for an hour about when he was at school and then me going to my room and getting really angry. Then I would do something to get my own back, like play truant from school. Even though my dad didn't know about it, it made me feel really good.'

Three years on, the arguments continue. Liz, who now lives in a hostel, hasn't spoken to her father for six months because he doesn't approve of her boyfriend. She used to get upset, but she's learnt to shrug it off: 'My dad is very stubborn and he won't admit that I'm doing my own thing now. He won't admit that he's wrong.'

Sebastian, meanwhile, longs for a few more rows. 'There is no conflict in our relationship, and there should be. It would make me feel a hell of a lot better if I shouted at someone. My mother sometimes says as a joke, 'What am I doing wrong? You're not rebelling, you're not arguing with me.' She thinks that every teenager should shout at their parents and go through drugs and come back late.

'We haven't shouted at each other for years. If I do something bad she asks me what she should do. When I told her I smoked she said, 'I don't know what to do. I don't think stopping your allowance is wise, I don't think stopping you going out is wise, what do you think I should do?' That just puts me in an awkward position.'

But Sebastian has a much more honest relationship with his mother than most teenagers. Lying is a standard way of coping with unreasonable parental restrictions. Liz did it when she still lived at home, and Louise, who is 16, lies to her parents because she can't face a confrontation. She hates doing it, but their strict rules force her to: she is not allowed out on weekday evenings, or after 11pm at weekends, or to have a boyfriend.

'I don't tell them where I'm going because I'm scared they're going to stop me, and I want to do what my friends are doing. So I say I'm going off to the cinema or the theatre, which they approve of. My friends think it's quite strange that I can't tell my parents. But it seems like my mum has different opinions to everyone else's parents. She likes to keep an eye on me all the time; it's really bad.'

Most parents are strict not because they are killjoys but because they're fearful. The risks they themselves faced as adolescents pale in comparison with current dangers, like HIV and crack. And many difficult parents had a difficult adolescence themselves, according to Hugh Jenkins. Liz Thomson agrees: she thinks her father was strict because he was very strictly brought up himself.

But things can get out of hand when parents are too protective. Hugh Jenkins says: 'Adolescents should have their own space. Parents who become very anxious and over-intrusive - perhaps because of their experiences with their own parents when they were young - heighten their child's desire for privacy; that becomes part of a cycle. The young person feels they can't have any space and the only way to get it is to become more secretive. And then they start lying and they know that they shouldn't'

The need for privacy goes hand in hand with the need to be treated as an individual. No one would dream of dismissing a 30-year-old's worries with the universal panacea for teenage problems, 'It's only a phase' - and there's nothing more irritating to a teenager. Individuality is something that Sebastian feels very strongly about. 'My mum says, 'I know everyone says it, but it does get better when you grow up.' It should be nice to hear but it's actually awful because I don't care about the future, I want to feel better now.

'I don't want my depression dismissed as just a teenage depression. I know it's selfish, but if I am depressed I don't want to know all the statistics about teenage depression, or that someone else's son or daughter went through the same thing. Every teenager doesn't care about all the other teenagers going through the same thing.'

Being the parent of a teenager is never easy. Many people who are good at handling dependent and basically biddable young children have great difficulty coping with the sudden shift to greater independence when they become teenagers.

For Hugh Jenkins, the fundamental rule is for parents to admit they don't always get things right. He says: 'Parents have to be able to say to their kids, I'm sorry, I thought about that later and I was wrong - I should have let you go to that party, or whatever. That keeps the chance of communication open. If parents can acknowledge when they've made mistakes, that's a very good model for adolescents to be able to come back and acknowledge their mistakes. But to be able to say that, parents need to feel reasonably secure in themselves.'-

(Photograph omitted)

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