Friday, 18 December 2015

Parenting, parties and the Christmas holidays: Why it can all go wrong when you let your guard down just a little!

If you speak to teachers, particularly Year Co-ordinators who follow a cohort of students through their high school years, they will often say that they see the biggest change occur in the young people when they return to school after the Christmas holiday period between Years 9 and 10. Sometimes it can be a year earlier and in other cases a year later, but it nearly always seems to occur when the students have returned from that extended summer break. Now you could argue that this is simply due to the length of time the students are away from school but in my experience this behavioural change often appears to be due to a change in parenting that occurs over those summer months, particularly in regards to those young people aged around 14 and 15.

The summer break (both before and after the Christmas and New Year holidays) is a time when there are usually lots of parties or gatherings and parents are bombarded by requests to attend this or that event. It's the most social time of the year, for both teens and their parents, and everyone wants to let their hair down just a little. The holidays are also long, very long! Many of the teens have up to 8 weeks away from school, that's time where you have to maintain your schedule (sure you can take some holidays too but there aren't too many jobs where you can take off the same amount of time as your kids have off school - not even teachers match there!), keep your family running as usual and also ensure your kids are occupied and safe. They're going to want to catch up with friends, go to the movies, travel to the beach or whatever and, at the same time, you have to keep doing what you would usually do if they weren't on a break and maintain a healthy level of parental monitoring and control ... It's not surprising that at this time of the year some parents find this all just a little bit too difficult and let their guard down, letting some things 'slip through to the keeper'. Things that you wouldn't normally allow to happen are permitted and then you've set a precedent and it all goes downhill from there!

I've written about the unique issues that I believe parents of Year 9s face in another blog entry. Those aged 14-15 years are going through that really interesting time called 'middle adolescence' and they are going to push as many boundaries and rules as they can to try to get want they want. They're also going to be relentless in their efforts - begging and pleading, threatening, telling you that you're a bad parent and that they hate you - and in normal circumstances you're often able to stand your ground, but it would appear that the summer break is where this age group can often find the crack in their parents' resolve!

A great example of this is how many 14-15 year-olds manage to get permission from their parents to travel into the city they live and watch the NYE fireworks! Groups of unbelievably young people making their way into the city, usually by public transport, and then wandering the streets (often drinking alcohol) - truly bizarre! What is a parent thinking? I don't know if any of these people have actually been into a city on NYE but it's certainly not the place for a group of 14-15 year olds to travel unsupervised. Last year I had a mother contact me to ask me what I thought about her 15 year-old daughter's request to travel into Perth to watch the fireworks there - she didn't want her to go but she seemed to be the only parent who had a problem with it and was she simply being overprotective, as one of the other mothers had suggested? All I did when she called me was to ask her whether she felt comfortable with her daughter taking part in such an activity and if she didn't, why not? She was adamant that she didn't and essentially her reason was 'safety' - she didn't feel that it was a 'safe' thing for someone of her daughter's age to do. I then asked her why then was she was even considering it? The answer was simple - her daughter would not let up - the begging and pleading and the constant barrage of "you're the only one who does that" was just too much. As she said to me - "At least when she's at school I have some relief during the day, when she's on holidays I can't get away from it!"

As I've said many times before the key to good parenting is not all about saying 'no', it's more about looking for those opportunities where you can say 'yes' and allow them to do something. 'No' is still one of the most important words you will ever say to your teen (most probably the fourth most important, just behind the three little words "I love you") but if you overuse it or don't use it properly, you're going to have great conflict and your relationship with your child will suffer. Of course you have to have rules and boundaries and appropriate consequences if your child breaks those rules but you can't simply lock them up in their room and wrap them up in cotton wool in an effort to keep them as safe as possible. They're going to have to do things you don't want them to do and then make mistakes and do the wrong thing, that's how they learn, that's how we learnt. You just don't want those mistakes to be potentially life threatening ... Am I for one second suggesting that you should even consider allowing a 14 or 15 year-old wander into the city to watch the NYE fireworks? Of course not, this is incredibly dangerous and to my mind this has the word 'no' all over it!

Without any doubt your teen is going to 'try it on' over the summer break, particularly that group who are going through that wonderful stage of 'middle adolescence' (parents of Year 9s, I'm sure you know exactly what I mean!). They're getting older and they're going to want more independence and if there's ever a time you're going to let them get away with just a little more than in the past it's during the school holidays - the long school holidays! You'll be tired and they'll be relentless in their efforts to get what they want. It's a very strong parent who is able to maintain their resolve throughout this time - most give in, at least a little! Remember, look for opportunities over the summer break to say 'yes' - identify activities or events that you may now feel a little more comfortable with, particularly things that they may have previously requested that you said 'no' to in the past, e.g., going to the movies with friends by themselves, catching a train to the beach, etc. Make sure you still have your rules and boundaries around these and maintain your standards but 'allowing' them to do new, more adult things will help keep your relationship just a little more healthy when you have to say 'no' to the big ones which are bound to raise their ugly head!

Most importantly, remember that once you have let your guard down and allowed them to do something, it is extremely hard to go back. At 14 or 15 they may think they're now adults but they have very little, if any, life experience and when put into adult situations and things go wrong they simply have no idea what to do. The vast majority of the deaths I have been involved with in schools over the years have involved this age group - young people who did not have any clue how to respond when things didn't go as planned. Of course you've got to let them grow up and have experiences that are potentially risky, but at 14 and 15 (and even 16 in most cases), these should be controlled as much as possible. If you're going to 'give in' a little over the break (and no-one can blame you - it's a long time to maintain your resolve), choose carefully - you don't want to paint yourself into a corner for the year and years ahead ...

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