Growing up isn't easy, but at least kids in Greenwich have somewhere to go when they need to let off steam. Lesley Gerard reports
It is called growing up. It is about defying authority, standing up for yourself, claiming independence and, sometimes, being a total pain. Teenagers do not come with a foolproof instruction manual and parents often get the balance between friendly support, guidance and discipline badly wrong. A minor argument over clothes, messy bedrooms or coming home late can escalate into violent rows or a complete breakdown in communication.

For many teenagers, the only answer seems to be a shouted exit via the front door. For some there is no return. But for teenagers in Greenwich there is somewhere to go, somewhere to cool off - a hostel that takes youngsters in and allows tempers to cool.

The girl's story

Debbie is a 15-year-old with adult worries. Her relationship with her parents has broken down because she refuses to give up her 20-year-old boyfriend, who has a criminal record and a history of drug abuse.

Debbie (not her real name) is staying at the house in Combwell Crescent, Greenwich - which offers temporary accommodation for teenagers at their own or their parents' request. Children aged 13 to 17 can stay for a few nights, or longer. There are 10 staff on 24-hour call and space for six teenagers. The place is almost always full. Combwell, set up eight years ago by the borough council, has saved many from becoming runaways or ending up on the street.

For Debbie it is a safe haven and neutral territory where she can try to reach a compromise with her family. Once home, she will receive visits from an outreach worker.

Soft-spoken and shy, Debbie says she is trapped in a no-win situation. "I'm being forced to choose. Whichever way I go, I lose someone I love, my parents or John; it's a tug of war with me in the middle."

Jo Navin, the centre's manager, is more hopeful. Compromise and communication are the keys to rebuilding relationships and to preventing disputes from escalating, she says. At Combwell, all parties can voice grievances in front of social workers. Sometimes the child is escaping problem parents; the best option is not to return home. At other times there is room for compromise.

"Stalemate can be broken by new compromises. The teenager might promise to go to school, the mother might promise to listen more. Gradually, with new boundaries, things improve," says Ms Navin.

The Combwell service helps families experiencing a range of problems from arguments to physical and sexual abuse.

Although adolescents might have drug or alcohol problems, the most common sources of conflict are children staying out late and truancy.

Ms Navin adds: "The important thing is to realise that every teenager's problems are different and to listen to their needs."

The mother's story

Olive Kalili Of Woolwich Common, south-east London, is 37 and has seven children aged 17 months to 17, including Delroy, 14.

"Delroy began skipping off school. I was shocked and angry. I shouted loud, but I knew it was half the fault of the friends he had got in with. At first I grounded him, then moved him to a new school. It was fine for a while, but then the truancy started again. He kept the same friends. Once he stayed out all night. I was frantic, had the police out. I thought he'd been kidnapped.

"We had rows because I wanted him home by 9pm and he wanted to be in by 10. He was trying to run me. One day he told me he did not want to stay and his brother had to physically sit on him to stop him from running away. I felt I would hit him if we didn't get help.

"Social services arranged for Delroy to do his schoolwork at Combwell Crescent. He comes home each evening and we see an outreach worker once a week. It is getting better. We have compromised on 9.30pm as a time for him to come in.

The boy's story

Delroy says: "I just don't like going to school, there is nothing there, it's boring. When Mum found out I was missing from school, she really yelled, but I didn't feel nothing, I was not bothered. Me and my friends like to go to London, or down the arcade. Sometimes we play cricket, it's better than lessons.

"Going to Combwell is OK, but I do not feel like going any more. The schoolwork is not hard, just boring. Things have got easier, but I don't see what I've done wrong. I haven't done nothing, not even smoked a cigarette."

Teenage pains: what the experts say

Life with teenagers need not get out of hand. Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, author of Positive Parenting, advises parents not to over-react when teenagers push at the boundaries.

"Make clear, fair home rules and keep them. Parents can be threatened by their seeming not to need them any more. Becoming over-protective and authoritarian can make matters worse."

Trying to be a child's best friend and confidant can be equally disastrous.

Caroline Douglas, director of Exploring Parenthood, says: "A mother who goes down the disco or smokes pot with her children's friends at parties only succeeds in being an embarrassment and loses authority and respect."

According to the experts, here are some basic dos and don'ts for anxious parents:

Insist on certain family rules - despite battles. See disputes as a sign of caring .

Listen before you leap, don't fly off the handle, and remember that you should be setting an example.

Accept swings between mature and immature behaviour. Behaving like a three-year-old one minute and a 30-year-old the next is what adolescence is all about.

Avoid accusations. Use "I feel," rather than "You make me feel ..." to start discussions.

Recognise that an adolescent needs increased independence and has a right to have a point of view, even if it differs from your own.

Look out for extended periods of depression or other unusual states of mind, and if necessary get help - around 30 per cent of adolescents are known, at some point, to be clinically depressed.

Don't raise complaints as they are going out of the door. Wait until later to talk.

Don't worry about when they are doing their school work if they are doing OK at school.

Don't throw in six other complaints when addressing one issue.

Childline for children with problems. Tel: 0800 1111

Parentline for parents

under stress. Tel: 0800 1111

The Association of Child Psychotherapists Tel: 0171-794 8881

Exploring Parenthood 4 Ivory Place, 20A Treadgold Street, London, W11 4BP. Tel: 0171-221 4471

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