Private Lives: The silent years

Most of the mistakes we make with our teenage children are inherited from our own parents. Parenting skills are learned, not instinctive. By Suzie Hayman.
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Forget the terrible twos, it's the terrible teens that really have the power to upset and confuse parents. And an unrelieved six weeks over the summer can really bring into focus the conflicts and difficulties so many of us have with them.

When my stepson was 18, for a period of around six months we hardly spoke. The relationship between him, his father and myself had been a bit sticky for some time, but it blew up into a major breach over (so we persuaded ourselves) his foolish behaviour and bad attitude. The argument was about his gap year. We had expected him to grasp this opportunity - the only time in his life when he would have 15 uncommitted months - to travel, as he had always said he would do.

He spent a few weeks in France picking grapes, then mooched around at home before finally, after six months, letting his grandfather get him a job in an office. An office, for God's sake! One day we were, as usual, bitching about him, when I heard my own voice, and it was my mother's, all those years ago, sounding off about me: the disappointment, the impatience, the insistence on doing it her way.

I wrote him a letter, immediately, saying I was sorry. I said I was sure he had a good reason for his decisions and perhaps he would have managed to explain if only we had listened. He, bless him, had more guts than me, and rang as soon as he read it. Of course, he had a reason for wanting to stay at home: his first important relationship, a far more significant exploration than going trekking to Kathmandu. We had thought he was taciturn, evasive and lazy. In retrospect, the failure to communicate was entirely ours.

We would like to be seen by our children, family and friends as loving and capable, knowledgeable and authoritative. We would like to think that our children trust us and talk to us. The reality is often very different. The vast majority of parents flounder around in a morass of self-recrimination and confusion, feeling left out and ignored. We feel incompetent, inadequate and uniquely bad at the job. It's either that, or that we have singularly evil children who are set on humiliating us and breaking our hearts.

Teens are always saying to parents that they "just don't listen"; parents say the same thing to teens. And, much of the time, they're right. Both groups do find it difficult to explain what they want, what they need and what they are thinking. But the myth that underpins this difficulty is that parenting and communicating are arts with which we are all instinctively endowed. You bear the kids, you get the skills - they come with the package.

But they don't. We learn parenting from our parents, just as they learned it from theirs - and so on. What if somewhere along this line there was an adult whose legacy in the art of parenting was destructive?

When I talked to parents in preparation for writing my book, what emerged strongly was that it isn't just lack of information or good role models that prevents us from parenting in the way we would wish. There are other, more subtle, more effective and more dangerous barriers. Parents who grew up in homes where sex was a taboo subject often say that they are determined to be honest with their own children and pass on positive messages. Those who have parents who are distant and uninvolved are often intent on making theirs a warm and loving family.

In the event, it's harder than we expect to break with the pattern our own parents set. One reason is that whatever they did to you, you still love your parents. Even when, or rather especially when, your parents' behaviour caused you pain or confusion, you often find yourself following the parental script.

I saw Shelley and her husband Mark because of problems with their marriage and with their two children, 11-year-old Matt and 16-year-old Steven. Shelley particularly felt that she was no good as a mother, and said that as long as she could remember she knew she was "no good at most things". Both she and Mark felt so overwhelmed by their own problems that they had little energy left to cope with their children. Shelley's self-esteem was at rock bottom. When asked about her own upbringing she insisted that she had had a happy childhood with loving parents. She spoke particularly warmly about her father, who she said had a good sense of humour.

After several weeks of discussion she started talking about teasing, and it emerged that her father made heavy use of sarcasm with all his children and was particularly prone to putting Shelley in her place. "You know, he used to put me down when he thought I was getting too big for my boots." Getting too big for her boots seemed to mean, whenever Shelley ventured an opinion or made a request. Shelley at first claimed that sarcasm was a form of humour that everybody used and that, as her father had said, her sense of humour got her used to "the rough and tumble of real life".

She and Mark used it frequently with their children. But the more she talked, the more the tears flowed. Gradually Shelley was able to admit to herself that this "humour" had been immensely hurtful. But it was the only way she knew to relate between parent and child, and using it herself finally made her feel as if she were in control. Although she could see the devastating effect it had on her own kids, she was drawn to use the same methods her father used to make himself feel on top.

Shelley hadn't wanted to communicate with her children for one very good reason. When she listened to them, she heard herself: a confused, bullied, miserable child who felt unvalued and unheeded. To stop herself from being overwhelmed by such memories, she replayed the events of her childhood, with herself in the position of strength.

It's so easy to fall back into all the tricks and techniques you watched your parents use on you when you were young. Sometimes the legacy you pass on is the way to tell a particular fairy story or to get out of explaining where babies come from. Sadly, the bequest is often how to belittle, how to ignore, how to abuse.

Teenagers aren't the easiest creatures, but their disinclination to talk can be an integral part of the task of adolescence - to learn to make their own decisions, become their own people and be independent. We may not like it, because we fear becoming redundant and being abandoned.

As I discovered with my stepson, if we want it to improve, simply complaining may not achieve anything. How can we demand that they listen to us until we listen to them? How can we insist on respect unless we first offer it? We need to offer respect, unconditional love and willingness to negotiate in order to give them a model of how to behave.

Shelley found that once she understood what drove her to behave in certain ways, and why she had such a poor opinion of herself and her parenting skills, she could make changes. A positive self-image led eventually to her being able to be far more positive in her parenting - praising when she was pleased rather than blaming when she was not. She listened to her sons and made a startling discovery. Not only did they begin to open up and confide far more in her, but she also began to enjoy them, and being a mum.

One spin-off of communicating with teenagers is that it makes being a parent an easier job. But the jackpot is that it makes it fun.

Suzie Hayman

The writer is agony aunt of `Woman's Own' and author of `You Just Don't Listen, a parent's guide to improving communication with young people' (Vermilion, pounds 8.99)