Sarah Goldman's 16-year-old son texted her from upstairs. "He had told me to go downstairs 10 minutes before and keep my phone on. I thought he was going to tell me a joke or something, and was slightly irritated. He then texted me and told me he was gay, and he hoped I could be happy for him.
"I texted him back and told him I thought I could be. Five minutes later I went into his room and we both cried and sat on the end of his bed and talked for about two hours. Texting worked as an icebreaker for him and he says that he might have taken months to pluck up the courage to say those initial words."
A few years ago, no one had anything good to say about the rampant enthusiasm with which teenagers took up mobile phone texting. Radio 4's John Humphrys feared that the language of the young would "end up as a series of ridiculous emoticons and ever-changing abbreviations". There were dozens of articles about late-night texting, the corrupting moral influence of "sexting", and fears that it would stop teenagers being able to communicate face to face. However, Sarah Goldman is not the only parent to have discovered that texting can be a useful way for teenagers to open up about very difficult subjects – subjects that may have gone unspoken if it had not been for the distance and necessary directness of the text.
When Hannah Wilson's 14-year-old daughter became depressed and moody, she found that the more she tried to find out what was wrong, the more her daughter seemed to withdraw. "It got to the point where she found me so irritating that I completely lost confidence when I spoke to her, and would back away out of her room." But when Hannah's daughter went to stay with her aunt, Hannah noticed that her daughter's text replies to "How are you feeling?" were more responsive. When Hannah texted to ask if something had happened in the last couple of months to make her feel down, she was shocked to discover her daughter had been videoed when she was drunk. The clip had been sent around her school and beyond, and her daughter was despairing and at one point had considered suicide.
"She was not only humiliated, but thought I would be angry that she had got drunk. When she came back, we talked about drink, getting out of control and vulnerable, how even though she was still upset about it everyone else had moved on, and above all that she shouldn't assume that my first reaction would be anger."
In my family, we often use texting as a way of cooling things down after an argument. As the pro-text linguistics professor David Crystal has said, "short lines have an individual force'', and sometimes after tempers have been lost, and everyone has said things they don't mean, a text has a magic way of being able to get a point across clearly and calming the storm. For teenagers, who are notoriously bad at apologising, and for some parents too, texting is also a way of saying sorry without losing face. Psychologist Ruth Peters agrees: "If emotion surrounds an issue, parents can write things out before actually saying them to their kids to help edit their thoughts." Texting can also be useful for your teens in extricating themselves from difficult situations without their friends knowing. Joanne Woodley says her 15-year-old daughter has texted her two or three times in the last six months saying "I'm tired, can you pick me up?", when she was in situations that made her feel unsafe or out of her depth.
"It is really helpful because I then text 'address?' and go and pick her up – though round the corner of course, so her friends won't see. I'm not sure she would have been able to find a way to ring me. Because she communicates by text, it also helped me understand that I shouldn't make a big deal of it by immediately asking loads of questions in the car. It's as if the brevity of the text means that my normal anxious probing is not allowed. It came out a week or so later that she felt both times that she was going to be pressured into taking mephedrone."
Roslie Ajzensztejn, a team manager at Parentline Plus, agrees that texting can be a neutral way of asking this age group for information, and a good way of keeping in touch. However, as she points out, "If the parents and teenager are having real difficulties talking to each other, an over-reliance on texting might make the problem worse and create further distance. If a text leads to face-to-face discussion with all the nuances, warmth and possible challenges of a real conversation, then that's great. But I would worry if it became the main form of communication and a way of avoiding real contact."
Of course, texting can't replace talking to your teenager, and your nearly adult offspring will soon notice if you take the coward's way out and use text for all the most awkward subjects.
When teenagers are making and receiving more than 100 texts a day (according to last month's CNN report) a couple of those should be from you, just to remind them that you still exist. Texting is also a great way to show them that you are thinking of them, by wishing them luck for their French test, or asking if the boy that your son has been having trouble with at school is behaving, or simply by making them laugh by bad use of teen-speak: "hope u havin a bare peng day. Jokes, Mum lol x".
Some names have been changed