REAL LIFE: How to grow up without parents

Children learn to handle independence. It's Mum and Dad who can't get over it, Anna Maxted finds
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"I FIND IT strange that I have these things called parents," says Mark Magurey, 25, who has lived 7,000 miles away from his mother and father since the age of nine. He was brought up in Hong Kong - his Dad emigrated because he couldn't stand the British weather - but was sent to public school in England shortly before his 10th birthday. "By 13 I was incredibly independent," he recalls. "I don't often think of my parents. I quite often forget that I have them. I think of myself as a completely independent entity that seems to have arisen from nowhere."

When young people are forced to separate from their parents, their excitement can soon degenerate into shock. One 18-year-old compares it to "someone chucking you in the deep end, because you have to survive." If the split is not their decision they are likely to feel helpless because they are not in control. But after the initial uncertainties they become resilient by necessity.

When the parents of Alex Eaton, now 24, and his sister Kate, 21, moved to Paris in 1989, he stayed in Britain and she accompanied them. Mr Eaton says: "Immediately there was no safety net to my life any more. The first thing I did was to get myself a credit card so I could get on a plane and see them.

"Before they went I'd completely relied on them. I was the typical teenager - I took all I could get. My parents had owned a house in Weybridge, Surrey, which they decided to rent out. I'd moved away to university and suddenly my home was gone and I had nowhere to return to. I felt homeless."

He had never acknowledged the extent of his dependency before. Nor had Kate. She loathed her school in Paris and decided to return home after a week. She says: "I phoned my friend in tears and she asked her parents if I could come and live with them. Her mother agreed straight away. I didn't think about the consequences."

The reality of being without her parents only sank in when she started sixth-form college. "I found it really difficult being so young. I had been pretty dependent on my Mum. I took my A-levels, but because I found those years so difficult emotionally, I concentrated more on the fact that my parents weren't there than on my studies. I didn't do very well."

Her brother, who had not found his first year of autonomy a breeze, says: "My sister needed more stability than I did. The lack of a Mum and Dad around to guide her and provide security meant that she often went off and did her own thing. She completely lost her enthusiasm for being in college and doing anything with her life."

Although the majority of those aged 16 and 17 cannot wait to escape the shackles of parental control, when their parents make the choice for them, involuntary freedom can be traumatic. By this time Kate's mother felt so guilty she returned to Britain for a year to give her daughter support while she worked towards re-sitting her A-levels. Yet the stresses caused by the family separation still rippled through their lives. Kate explains: "My Mum felt responsible for me, but she also found it extremely difficult being away from my Dad. She got very depressed and so did I. In the end I only re-sat one A-level."

Naturally, the effects of coping alone erupt when the pressure is on. The difficulties of the A-level years also brought Mark's parents hot- footing it back to their homeland. He had found this time particularly tough for similar reasons to Kate's, although as he was not close to his father, he had at first found the split easier to accept. "I hit a rough patch. I got in with a bunch of friends and we were ostracised not only by our peer group but by the teachers as well. I had a hard time because I didn't have parents there to support me. I had to retake my exams."

So Mr and Mrs Magurey returned to Britain to make sure their son worked at his studies. Where Kate Eaton felt sorry for her mother, Mark Magurey's relationship with his father reached a low ebb. "There was a time," he says, "when I thought, 'On leaving university I'm severing all ties.' " Only when his parents returned to Hong Kong did the relationship improve.

According to David Trent, a chartered clinical psychologist, if an adolescent has a close bond with his or her parents an enforced separation is unlikely to harm that relationship, although the lack of parental guidance means that the teenager may eschew the rules with more gusto than normal.

He says: "If I see you as caring parents who are dong this in my best interest, then I'll accept it. If I had a solid and stable relationship with you then I should feel reasonably comfortable at being left behind. But if I want support and I see that lack of support as a loss, as abandonment, as threatening, then I will put up my defences and shrink into a corner."

Teenagers are particularly susceptible to resentment when a situation occurs which they would not have to deal with in normal circumstances. Mark's partner, Katy Coleman, 26, moved with her parents to Italy eight years ago, but returned to England at 18 when the parents relocated to Canada for her father's job. "Initially it wasn't a problem," she says. "I didn't have a great relationship with them and I was quite happy that they couldn't interfere with my life. I didn't appreciate the implications of not having my parents around."

The implication -that you are forced to mature fast - became apparent when elderly relatives in Britain became seriously ill.

Katy recalls: "When my parents left, three of my grandparents were alive, and I was left with the responsibility of looking after them. On separate occasions I've had to call my parents and tell them to come back because their parents were going to die. I resented it because I felt that this was their job, not mine. One of my grandmothers, in particular, felt abandoned by my parents and we used to sit together and bitch!" She recognises the difference between needing and wanting her parents. She is in the process of buying a house with Mark Magurey, and admits: "It would have been great to show my mother."

Despite the fact that she has missed out on a family life, Katy Coleman reckons the experience has been a positive one, and most people in her situation seem to feel the same way. Kate Eaton says: "Being independent was good for me. I don't wish any of it hadn't happened."

If anyone loses out it is most likely to be the parents. Mark Magurey recalls that after he left Hong Kong for Britain, his mother developed insomnia, and Kate Eaton suspects that although she still misses her parents, they "still feel guilty even now".

At least she remains close to her parents. A natural consequence of the onset of maturity and enforced competence is, as in Mark's case, a feeling of complete dissassociation. Not that he doesn't love them, but he no longer needs them.

Charles Yates, 23, was brought up in Cyprus after his mother emigrated, but returned to Britain at 18 to attend university. His feelings, which he describes without emotion, would make any parents think twice before putting distance between themselves and their offspring. "I never feel any maternal need at all. My mother used to depend on me. I feel completely able to cope on my own. I rarely think about her. My life is completely isolated from my parents. What they do has no bearing on my life."