Standing outside the box

I was chatting to my sister about disciplining teens and the old chestnut came up about giving them barriers to kick against. “Yes” my sister said, “but what if those barriers don’t work?”

It came to me that there are different types of barriers and then this analogy popped into my head. Imagine your teen in a cardboard box. Firstly, imagine that they are screwed up into a ball. They have no leg space to unravel themselves and they are struggling for air. It’s uncomfortable and oppressive and they can’t talk because their face is pushed downwards onto their chest, with their knees digging into it. They are getting hotter and more frustrated as they literally cannot move. It’s dark in there. Their parents are sitting on the box, preventing them from opening the flaps. 

Now imagine the scenario of the same teenager, but they are in a bigger box. There is room in there for them to stretch out their legs. They can breathe freely and when they want to talk to someone, they can open the flap. Their parents are standing just outside the box. When the teen stretches out their legs, their feet touch the sides. They feel secure in their box, as the cardboard walls make them feel safe. 

One thing I’ve learnt over the past few years, is how important it is to parent outside that big box, rather than sitting on it. Teenagers want to know you are there, but not too close. They need to feel trusted, but they also need to know what the parameters are. They need rules so that they can argue against them, whilst knowing you care and have certain expectations of them. In short, they need a box, but they need space in that box to move. If we don’t give our teens space to explore, to make mistakes then they will never learn what to do when they fuck up. If we are always on them, rescuing them when they fail, they will never learn resilience. If we don’t give them the space to be able to kick the sides of the box, they will most probably eventually explode out of it, catapulting us far away and abusing their new found freedom, because, like a kid in a toy shop, they want all the toys they were never allowed. 

So back to my sister’s point: what if those barriers don’t work? Well, if the big box isn’t strong enough, and this could be for a multitude of reasons: poor friendships, incident-induced anxiety, perhaps some nature and a little nurture, then we will watch them fuck up. That’s ok. We did and we survived. But we will be there, standing right outside that box, to help them get back on track. 

Not Just The 3 Of Us

So predictable

Since my daughters have hit their teens, I have had that recurring thought of the similarities between teenagers and toddlers: self-centered, attention-seeking and petulant. Unable to always communicate properly, other than via a series of miserable whines that extol utterances of ‘woe me’. The ability to make you feel like a worthless piece of shite, whilst you freely still slather them in love. Then there’s the highly irritating trait of being utterly charming to granny and friends’ parents, so that these duped individuals exclaim to you (in a voice that makes you feel like a nasty fraud), “difficult? I don’t know what you mean!” Usually said as they feed them another biscuit which, when they have cheerily and smugly said goodbye to you and your offspring, will leave you dealing with the carnage of the sugar rush.

Are you the parent of a toddler who is worried about time moving too fast? Fret not. It only moves like lightening in the bigger picture. The minutiae  of life, the bickering and the tantrums, can keep the cogs turning slowly. Of course, just like toddlers, there are many moments of wonder and unadulterated joy with teenagers, but we all know that the reality is that shit happens. Whatever lies your Instagram feed is showing you, with the best will in the world and as much as you would not be without them, sometimes being with toddlers and teenagers is hard bloody work.

Last night however, prompted by one of my dogs wanting a wee, when he should have been going to sleep, my thoughts turned to the differences between having little ones and having teenagers. As I lay in bed, waiting for partner to take the dog out to the toilet, it came to me that one of the most stressful parts of having babies and toddlers is their unpredictability. Weeks of colic with daughter 1, unable to predict what would set her off screaming for hours, sent my already high stress levels rocketing. I can clearly remember the pure relief I felt, when at 16 weeks I had got her into some kind of routine, her colic had subsided and she became more predictable. If as parents of tinies you knew the night schedule in advance: baby wakes at 11pm for a feed, toddler cries 1am-2am for no apparent reason, baby wakes at 2am for a feed, toddler wakes at 5am for Peppa Pig on loop and breakfast, it would actually be far easier to deal with, because you could formulate a plan. Not quite knowing makes it stressful, and in the early days it can feel quite scary.

As a rookie teacher it was the same. The more experienced I became, the more behaviours I had encountered and therefore the more predictable they were. I think it’s the same with teenagers; in many ways their behaviours are highly predictable. You get very little thanks for doing things for them as they feel it’s their right anyway. They don’t bring dirty mugs downstairs. They spend hours on their phones, they take hundreds of selfies…oh the list could go on and on, but at least you know where you stand! They can be so incredibly predictable.

Does predictability make life any easier? Sometimes. Although occasionally, of course, it is the surprises that make life interesting*.

*not when they involve screaming, shit, sick or wee. Smiles, flowers, pleasant behaviour, are all good surprises

“In fiction: we find the predictable boring. In real life: we find the unpredictable terrifying.”

– Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Be Real(istic)

Be Real is a national movement made up of individuals, schools, businesses, charities and public bodies, who are coming together to campaign to change attitudes to body image.’ They are aiming to create a more accessible, more real vision of beauty.

Now, I am all for this. As a woman and mum to 5 girls, body image is a subject close to my heart. It worries me how much pressure girls are under to look good, to conform to a certain image. An image that is, in reality, completely unattainable for various reasons. Those glossy photos they drool over in magazines that are photo shopped to hell. Then, there’s the often overlooked fact that to a large extent, you are what you’ve got. If your mum and grandma were short with large thighs and an ample bust, then there’s a very good chance that you may be too and there just isn’t a lot you can do about it. It’s very difficult to turn a pear into a banana.

Of course, the point of this campaign is to spread the message that you don’t have to change your body shape to conform. They want kids to see beauty as confidence and are saying that it’s not what you look like, it’s who you are. I applaud this, but they are really up against it with this campaign and without trying to sound as if I’m pissing on a brilliant parade, here’s why:

Parents are our kid’s role models. Kitchen shelves all over the world, are heaving under the weight of low carb diet cook books. At the moment, my Instagram feed is full of photos of shredded veg. Photos of every meal, meticulously prepared under Slim fast rules. Mum wants to lose weight. Nothing wrong with that. Mum is obsessed with losing weight. Every pound lost gives rise to an exuberant shout out in her Facebook news feed. We all know that losing weight is bloody hard work and making the ordeal public helps keep the momentum going. Meanwhile, her daughter is taking all this on board. Her mum’s desperation to change her body shape. Her daughter can see that it’s not about who her mum is: a hard working, amazing person who is always there for her family and who gave birth to wonderful human beings. No, her daughter is seeing through her mum’s eyes that it isn’t, in reality, about who you are, it’s about what you look like. Because ultimately, for many, this does go quite some way to defining who they are. 

Then there’s the Social media obsession with make up. Driven at high speed forwards by beauty bloggers, who are telling our impressionable daughters that it is vital to have a different make up brush for each part of your face. Trust me, I know. I know because my daughters are keeping Chinese factories in business. 

There are the models who are starving themselves to within an inch of their lives, only to have curves photo shopped on to their bodies. Oh, the irony of it! Meanwhile, our daughters are lapping up the images. Images that are reinforced by celebrities, who further feed the obsession with looks. In a warped kind of way, they make it all seem more real than the photos of models, because their whole business is built around making people connect with them. 

We’re telling our daughters that they are, ‘beautiful’. Mums proudly post photos of their daughter on social media and the comments of how ‘pretty’ she is, flood in. Perhaps there’s no harm done. Perhaps we are telling her that looks matter. Almost unwittingly reinforcing that thought.

The ‘Be Real’ campaign is spreading such an admirable message. Dove are one of the supporters of this campaign and they have tried to change attitudes to body image before, using ‘real’ women in their adverts. This served to hi light awareness of the issue of body image in advertising and that is, of course, a good thing. My point is that despite a global conversation being initiated by the campaign, kids continue to be bombarded by unrealistic images. The internet is too vast, self esteem is too fragile, humans are too easily influenced and peer pressure is too great to stop our children, especially girls, ever being completely happy with what they have got. 

We really are up against it: from the media and from our own insecurities and inbuilt gender stereotyping. Unfortunately, it isn’t so much, ‘Be Real’ as ‘be realistic’. But we still need to fight it. We must do our best as parents to lay strong foundations from when they are very young. We must try to keep reinforcing the message that it’s not all about their looks and we must continue to encourage them to be active. We must keep on trying to fight what seems like a losing battle and even small victories may count.

I am always here

God, teenagers can be miserable buggers. I mean, I know that they have to deal with a whole load of shit on a daily basis, mainly parents, and I am also aware that life must be really hard when quite literally the whole world is against you. But surely it wouldn’t kill them to muster up a “hello” in the mornings? Are they in danger of cracking the layer of make-up with a smile? Don’t for Christ sake say that you actually liked the fact that I made you a cup of tea, or that you are grateful that I brushed up your crumbs and wiped the jam off the table (again), because you will be dropping your teenage guard and leaving yourself exposed to the possibility of a conversation with your mother. 

I have decided that I am actually battle scarred, because I can laugh about this now. A few years ago I was reduced to tears and screams of frustration almost on a daily basis. I don’t care less now, I am bothered less and I believe that there is a subtle difference. I seem to have developed an armour that protects me from teenage moods. The occasional sword still gets through and stabs me, which reminds me how cruel they can be. But mostly I am hardened to their sarcastic comments that try to put me in my older person’s place; their disgusted looks that are trying to tell me how sad I am and how I need to get a life. I have grown a turtle shell that, rather than pointlessly rising to comments, bounces them back in a jovial tone. I can smile at their tantrums and stand back from their worries a little, which makes the advice I can offer more meaningful. My own worries are less now too. I still want them to achieve, but I see their achievements as their own and that they must reach them on their own.

I am always here, a mere step away. They can still reach me with their voice or with two arms outstretched. I am here, I’m just not sitting in their space. 

Pink Flamingos

8am Christmas morning and a song about hard sex and an iphone is blaring out of a speaker in the depths of a teenager’s bedroom.

“I’m sure the neighbours would rather hear Slade or the King’s choir” I yelled over the din. “That’s not appropriate.”

“It’s only a song,” one of the teenagers yelled back, sauntering out of her room, singing the lyrics – just in case I hadn’t quite heard them correctly the first time.

Some people start the big day off with tea in bed and a croissant. Others with smoked salmon and bucks fizz. My Christmas morning started with a sex-fuelled beat, ringing in my ears. Hello Christmas with teenagers.

They still want stockings, only now they are teenagers I am sent e mails with a whole list of links to random objects: a waterproof speaker for the shower, foundation, after shave balm – for a girl, (apparently it makes a good primer – whatever that is) and make up brushes – lots and lots of make up brushes. Unfortunately, half the things came from China and so didn’t arrive. In January we are going to be inundated with Christmas gifts. I’m going to pencil in another Christmas in the new year, just to accommodate them. They did partner and I a stocking each too – a sweet thought. However, whereas their stockings contained really useful items, ours contained: a toothpaste dispenser that causes the toothpaste to spew out everywhere in a gunky mess and ear phones for someone who has two left ears – two items from China that did, sadly, arrive. We also got chocolate and body butter. I can still remember the hedonistic days when both those would have been used in sex. Now they are added to the pile. *

We headed off to my sister’s to spend the afternoon, as it happened, having a smashing time: 6 large plates worth £120, a crystal glass and a beer bottle. My sister and husband remained calm throughout, although I suspect they may well need therapy come January.  This was the oldies causing carnage, the teenagers behaved impeccably: supping on their Blossom Hill Rosé with restraint that I doubt they will show at their New Year’s Eve parties. Whenever I opened my mouth, apparently I embarrassed them, which I think was a little harsh, as they spent the day in flamingo slippers.

I insisted on a family photo in front of the Christmas tree, as it just never happens. Every photo is more highly scruitinised than CCTV after a robbery and by the time any photo has been examined by 4 teenagers, it rarely gets approved for social media. This one got through. They didn’t even remove the tags – a small victory for me.

Teenagers still love Christmas. They still wake early – not 2.30am early but it is a bugger having to set an alarm to put out their stockings, because they are still up when you are going to bed. They continue to insist on traditions being upheld and get cross if you dare try to skimp. The worst thing about teenagers at Christmas is that they can no longer be fobbed off with: if you don’t do what I ask, Santa will bring you vegetables. No, Christmas with teenagers is far more about truth and honesty and it is quite refreshing not having to spend December perpetuating a lie.

*they did buy us some good pressies too (in case they read this)

Burn, Santa Baby, burn

Many of you reading this will have young children. You may well be shitting yourself as we speak, because it’s nearly midnight and you’re yet to think of what the Elf on the fucking shelf can get up to in the night. Because the pressure is most certainly on to make Christmas for your little ones as magical and memorable as you remember yours were. Because of this and only because of this, you will happily be woken up at 6am tomorrow, iPhone at the ready, to record your little ones discovering that the naughty elf has emptied out the sugar and in it are drawn the words: ‘I’m bloody knackerd, ok? This is all I could manage.’ Not one for the boast feed on Facebook or the Instagram photo perhaps. Don’t worry though, there are 17 more days to make up for it (gulp).

When my kids were younger, I too can remember thinking to myself: make the most of this really mind-blowingly, hyped-up excitement, because when they are teenagers, they won’t give a shit. They will have long discovered that Father Christmas isn’t real, they’ll want a lie-in on Christmas morning and won’t have any money to buy Christmas presents, because they will have spent it all on make-up brushes.

Well you know what? I couldn’t have been more wrong.

My teens are rocking Christmas! My god, they’ve been rocking it since October. Packages from China have been coming thick and fast! They have been excitedly showing me what they have bought each other and almost giving it away. Presents have already been wrapped and hidden in drawers under beds. Christmas music has been downloaded onto their phones and Christmas songs are hummed at breakfast. Last night, daughter 3 harangued me to put up the Christmas decorations, until I was beaten into submission by her pleading. We now have two trees, tinsel everywhere and even a star hanging from the front door. Christ these teens know how to start a Christmas party!

So for those of you with little ones, who may be concerned that you have limited time to make your children’s Christmas special, I have one word of advice: don’t burn yourself out, because trust me, you have many, many years of this ahead.

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Sexual control

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As mum to 4 girls, I worry about sex. I don’t actually worry about them having it, because they will at some point and I’ve got to get over that one. My worry is whether they will feel in control. I have more than one reason to feel worried, but for now let’s focus on the fact that nearly three quarters of girls in their late teens said that they heard names such as, ‘slut’, ‘bitch’ and ‘slag’ used several times a week. Boys call it banter, I call it harassment. I call it undermining females and taking away their control.

Kids are accessing porn younger and younger. Kids own mobile phones younger and younger. My step daughter didn’t have a smart phone until she was 17. My 12 year old had one at 11. With the best will in the world, parents can’t always be the internet police. Primary age children are being exposed to violent and graphic pornographic images and common sense tells us that many of them will normalise what they see, in order to try to understand it. The porn industry’s core target is boys aged 12-17. As author Mark Kastlemann said, “Giving porn to a teenage boy is like giving crack to a baby. Addiction is almost guaranteed.”

Schools are a hot bed of risk for our girls and so they must share the responsibility of sex education. Yet calls to make sex education compulsory for all children have been rejected by ministers. This is despite a group of MP’s finding that almost a third of girls aged 16-18 said they had been groped at school. I’m sorry? You what? The inquiry was also told that it was common place for girls to be slapped on their bums and for naked pictures of girls to be circulated among boys. So you see, I really am worried about control.

We can bring our girls up to be savvy and confident females in many areas of their lives, but the world of sex is different. Talking about it openly brings awkwardness and shut down, making exploring the issues surrounding it a whole lot trickier. Their sexual experiences are hidden so far away from us parents, that getting an understanding of their views on it is virtually impossible. “Don’t ever send tit pics” I lamely told my eldest daughters. They both looked at me as if I was a freak. The disdain in their faces made me feel uncomfortable, when I thought it would be the other way around. I am parenting in the dark here and I would appreciate a bit of help from teachers who have an element of detachment. People who can give out the facts to kids who can’t walk away with eyeballs rolling towards the ceiling. Kids who must listen, even if they think that they know it all. My daughters may not want to sit and chat to me about sending naked images of themselves online and the implications of it, but they may feel grateful if it came up in an organised discussion at school.

Yes, I really do feel a bit helpless here. “Ok girls, when you end up having sex with someone, make sure you are in control. Make sure you want it. Make sure you are happy to do what they are asking you to do…erm” Oh Christ, this isn’t going to happen. They’ll have switched off at the first bit. They’ll have run for the hills by the second. Yet this is an area of their life that could completely undermine the confidence that we have spent all these years building up. One photo, one misunderstood,’no’. A life long impact.

I need help. Society needs help. Our kids need sex education in school.

 

 

 

Time on our side

It was just daughter 1 and I for a couple of hours tonight. I cooked a special meal for her and I really enjoyed doing it. I wanted to do it. I kept an eagle eye on the time so that it was ready for her when she walked in the door. She asked about my day and I told her some of the little details that I wouldn’t normally bother with in a busy house, because they would get drowned out. In a busy house I lower my expectations of what I can achieve, yet I raise my expectations of my girls. I snatch at conversation and so it feels as if I snatch at parenting them too. I bark my expectations to them and struggle to find the time to listen to and explore their responses and explanations. In the quiet and calmness of the house tonight, I had the mental energy to let my guard down, in the knowledge that if it backfired I had the time to rectify it. In a busy house I cannot take that risk. There is no time for risks. As parents we must follow the parental code, laid down by…by who? Dictated by how we were raised, by the media, by how books tell us to do it? Tonight, with time and space, I felt free from these societal restrictions and I just relaxed and chatted. It was calmly liberating. Nothing earth shattering – it just felt so different from how I normally am.

It got me thinking about how as parents, we are so constrained by so many factors, all of which are setting our expectations of parenting. Our gut feeling gets lost amidst the Facebook feed and the Pinterest. We talk to our friends and other mothers at the school gate about how to manage a situation, but by then the moment has often passed. Save that thought for the next time it happens, we think. But the next time it happens we are fraught with anger and anxiety and a lack of time.

A lack of time. None of us have time. Teenagers don’t have time to listen to parents anyway, because we will be upstaged by the next Snapchat notification that must be responded to for fear of rejection from the people who really seem to matter to them right now – their friends. We must accept this and in the hustle and bustle of our busy lives it is quite easy to let it go, albeit with a moan, but we accept.

We accept, we moan, we listen, but all in a very busy way. All within the context of a very busy life. So tonight was a treat. For the time it took my daughter to eat the meal that I had lovingly prepared, we were able to chat without fear of jealousy or interruption from siblings. Without fear of saying the wrong thing, of parenting the wrong way. We had time on our side and it has made me realise that if, as parents we always had time on our side, we might all be a little different.

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The Voice of Experience Talks Bringing Up Teens

Quite often I see threads on my local mums’ Facebook page about how to discipline a teenager. I read these threads that are detailing the issues they are having and I nod along going: yup, yup, yup, like some kind of nodding dog. They are usually asking for advice, which although I don’t always jump in and give as I don’t necessarily feel equipped to, I do find myself questioning what I do, or how I think I would react.

With each teenager, I am experiencing new things and coming up against new issues. The issues that existed with my step daughter are now different for my daughters and so on. Life changes and evolves in all sorts of ways and as parents, we must be prepared to move with it.

With this in mind, I thought I would write another post in my: Voice of Experience series. Not because I feel that I have all the answers to teenage/parent angst, but because I have picked up a few things that have worked and are working for me on my journey.

The Voice of Experience Talks Bringing Up Teens

Sometimes against every gut feeling in your body, show them and tell them that you trust them. If someone feels they aren’t trusted, they are more inclined to stray. It builds up a huge amount of resentment. Trust is an essential part of any relationship and it is certainly important with teens.

Equally, make them aware of your expectations surrounding this trust. This gives them boundaries to push against, and therefore the security that you care and that what they do matters to you. 

Communicate with them. Try to get them out of the house and on neutral ground. A walk is perfect, whether it’s a dog walk, a walk around town, even a trip to the supermarket. Stepping into their bedroom with the words: ‘we need to talk’, is guaranteed to switch them off.

Don’t be afraid to thrash things out. You cannot avoid confrontation for an easier life. If you haven’t got the energy to deal with it, put it on hold until you have. Sometimes it’s good to let the dust settle. 

Don’t set unrealistic rules and be prepared to be flexible. Don’t see this as backing down. Often if you listen to your teen they are making valid points about something that you may have previously dismissed. Not listening to their point of view will push them away and closer to their friends who will always agree with them. 

Try to keep them close. You will feel that you are losing them, but you are not. Don’t smother them, let them go and ironically this will keep them closer to you. As they start to seek independence, to spend more time in their rooms and less time on family activities, don’t panic – this is normal. At about the age of 15, they will probably stop bothering to come downstairs to say goodnight. Don’t hold it against them, it’s nothing serious.

Don’t use cutting off their lifelines as punishments: their friends, their phones, social media. They quite literally are their lifelines. By doing this you are simply making them feel even more isolated and less likely to cooperate. If they see that you are listening to them and trying to understand, then they are far more likely to play ball. 

Acceptance is so important. Accept that they are going to push against you. Accept that they are going to break some rules. Pick your battles. It is not a reflection on your inability to parent, it is a sign that they are growing up.

Embrace their noise! Be happy that they have a voice. Teach them how to argue effectively and to put their point of view across.

Throw comments into conversations. Snatched moments are all you may get with a teenager, so use them in a way that you haven’t perhaps before. Don’t see it as futile and worry that you’re not getting time with your teen to get a message across. If you sit down at a table and talk to them for 10 minutes, they will only be listening to a tiny part of the conversation anyway and will actually remember even less of it. Think back to those throwaway comments people have said to you in the past that you remember. Sound bites have a place – be a parent politician.

Please add your thoughts in the comments box. Let’s share the challenges and celebrate the successes!

MHM TEENS stroppy

It’s only banter, right?

bullying-sign-2

“She’s got a fit body – if you put a paper bag over her head.”

Just a bit of banter. Laugh it off, even though it kicked you in the stomach and made you feel sick. Your friends are all laughing, so it must be ok.

Right?

You want to throw something back. You’ve got a split second to think, but the pressure of those laughing faces is stifling your humour. So you let it go.

Again.

“Shorty won’t be served.” “Get short arse a stool.” “Are their dwarfs in your family?”

He’s only joking.

Always joking. But you don’t find it funny any more. In fact, you never did. He’s the lad. He’s the prankster of the class and he makes people laugh.

So he must be funny.

But you can’t laugh it off. You must be weird for not getting his bants. You can’t take a joke. Perhaps you’re stuck up like he tells you that you are. You thought he was a mate, but he makes you feel like shit.

Everyday.

“He’s a prick” your other friends tell you. “Just ignore him and he’ll leave it.”

But he doesn’t.

You want to be witty and give the banter back. The trouble is, you’re just not feeling it. His comments aren’t making you feel like a laugh. They aren’t exactly cracking you up.

Just cracking you up inside.

His banter is making you feel like the smallest person in the world. The person he is telling you that you are. You are small and ugly and you can’t see anything else.

You ARE small AND ugly.

“Fuck off, you twat!”

Now you’re an attention seeker for daring to answer back. You’re a loser and you wish you’d kept your mouth shut.

It’s easier that way.

It’s easier for him. It’s easier for you, but you are a victim and you’re carrying that everywhere inside.

“Stop being a victim” your mum tells you. “Stand up to him'” she says.

But you haven’t got the banter, or the will to or the strength. You are usually strong, but not today. Not any day. Not with him.

You never feel strong with him. He’s a bully. You’re not giving it back. You are being targeted. It’s personal.

It hurts.

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