Education: Teenagers and how to survive them: Nicholas Roe joins a group of parents going back to school for lessons in the tricky subject of adolescence

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The Independent Online
IT IS NIGHT in a classroom at the City of Portsmouth Girls' School and a group of cheerful-looking parents are about to study the worst years of their children's lives.

Subject heading: 'Skills for Adolescence'. Unspoken sub- text: how to survive that crucial period of rows, sulks, late nights, dirty bedrooms and toe-nail clippings on the bathroom floor which can drive a family mad. As one mother put it: 'We've come because we don't want anything drastic to go wrong. I want to know that if a problem arises, I can deal with it.'

The lesson begins and out pours a mixture of wry anecdotes, gentle instruction and home-grown wisdom that keeps the class bubbling for two hours.

Janet Aughey,, senior teacher at the 710-place comprehensive, introduced the course that dragged parents back to the classroom because she recognised that caring for teens demands special tactics: 'For some it is an innate skill,' she says, 'but others struggle tremendously. Their young ones are treading two paths - being children and young adults. They switch from one to the other and that is one of the things that makes it so difficult for parents.'

Her course runs once a week for a month and is crucially aimed at parents whose children are aged 11 and 12: pre-teen. Start now, is the central message, and problems will be easier later.

Adapted from a US drugs education programme aimed at the family, Mrs Aughey's rules are straightforward. She teaches that explosions occur when lifestyles drive early wedges between parents and their offspring. You remove those wedges by building confidence in your child, by learning to talk to them properly, and by defusing individual conflicts in an ordered, unemotional style.

Easier said than done, of course, and the trouble with teaching parents to suck eggs is that it takes tact. A similar course planned earlier in a nearby school failed to run after Mrs Aughey wrote to mothers and fathers suggesting that the classes 'might help with problems in the family'. Nobody came. 'Now we say they are skills for life and you can be part of it . . .'.

So a major emphasis for the 20 or so parents who gathered at Portsmouth Girls' was on prompting students' themselves to share their own solutions to individual flashpoints. For instance, how on earth do you manage to talk to your child when most evenings they are out rigorously improving themselves at drama, music, sports . . ?

One mother had come up with a neat solution: she had arranged for her three children to do their homework together around the dining-room table so that she could chat to them while cooking in the kitchen.

Another mother (three-quarters of those who turned up were women) had stopped sending her two daughters to bed at the same time. With a year's difference in their ages she had an excuse to spread bedtime so that she could read each their own story instead of sharing the moment.

A father said he had learnt to put his newspaper down when his daughter started chattering, explaining privately: 'She just doesn't stop talking, and when I came here last week and they wrote up the subject heading: 'How To Stop Your Child Talking To You' I thought: yes, I want that. But it was ironic. It was about the way we stop children communicating. It made me think.'

If Janet Aughey's classes do nothing other than this they will have been successful. But her package includes instructions too. Families facing individual conflicts - dirty rooms, late homecomings - were urged to adopt a six-point problem solving process to eliminate the utterly impossible and arrive at a compromise. And those adopting house rules were asked quietly: 'Have you discussed these with your children?' Silence.

Sound stuff. Parents filing out at the end had just one criticism, which was that their children tended to take a rise out of the new communication process: 'I'll get home and they'll say, 'What are you going to share with us tonight, dad?',' said one.

Headmistress Dianne Smith believes the classes help parents and teachers to team up at a difficult stage, and Janet Aughey delights in a spin-off benefit: sitting in a classroom makes parents more comfortable about coming back at other times to discuss their child's general education.

But perhaps the most illuminating comment came from Jill Smouth, a mother of two, who said as she left: 'When my son was born I can remember thinking, 'I don't know what to do with this . . .' It's presumptious to think that what you are doing is always right. I came because it's a learning process . . .'