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Why Do So Many Teenagers Get Into Trouble?

By Benison O'Reilly - 13th November 2012

Everyone has worries with their children, dear.
But yours have come early.

These are the opening lines to the Australian Autism Handbook, first edition. They were said to co-author, Seana Smith, by a preschool teacher, upon discovering that Seana’s three-year-old son had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Naturally, Seana burst into tears.

Recently I’ve been holed up writing a new edition of the Autism Handbook (it hits the shops next April). So powerful are those opening lines, my new co-author, Kathryn Wicks, and I decided to retain them for the second edition.  However, it’s only with time and experience — or more particularly the experience of raising teenagers — that I’ve come to discover how prescient were the words of that preschool teacher.

We all have worries with our children.

This may seem an unusually sombre post from me, but I think it’s an important message for people to take on board.

My youngest son, Joe, was also diagnosed with autism just after his third birthday. Very early I dispensed with any illusions that parenthood is an easy road. That’s not the experience of all mums and dads, however. I recently heard a parenting expert on the radio talking about the perils of raising teenagers.  She mentioned how it’s not uncommon for parents to get through the first decade or so of parenting largely unscathed and even congratulate themselves on a job well done.  Then the adolescent years come along and — largely unprepared — they get hit by a metaphorical runaway truck.

I’m not just talking about a bit of teen backchat and surliness, either. Among my friends and close acquaintances I can list the following challenges with their adolescent children: anorexia nervosa, school dropout, sexual assault, bullying, drug addiction, family estrangement, alcohol abuse, chronic fatigue syndrome, school suspension for sexting, police arrest for assault, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and that perennial favourite, depression. 

It can be tempting to point the finger at the parents. Surely they must have done something wrong for their kids to turn out this way?    If the blame lies with the parents, of course, we can comfort ourselves that this won’t happen to us.

Think again.  Every single one of these kids was from ‘nice’ middle-class, two-parent households, with mums and dads who — while not perfect — loved their children and took their parenting responsibilities seriously. Good parents can have children and teenagers who go off the rails.  Anyone can experience parenting stress.

Why do why so many teens get into trouble?  I don’t have any easy answers, but I’d suggest you read Michelle Higgin’s excellent happychild post on the teenage brain to give you some clues to why risk-taking behaviour and peer influence are so powerful among teens.

Temperament clearly plays a role, too. As any parent with more than one child can tell you, some kids are more defiant/anxious/melancholy/risk-taking/easily-led than others.

Finally, I’m not sure we can let ‘society’ off the hook. When a close friend observed her daughter putting on weight she never once mentioned the ‘F’ word; instead she focussed on her daughter’s other considerable talents and attributes. Unfortunately she couldn’t prevent the sly asides and jokes from her daughter’s friends and, even worse, the parents of some of her daughter’s friends.  It was these attitudes that led to a diet and then, when my friend’s daughter started losing weight, it was their praise and approval that lead to the spiral into anorexia nervosa.  It seems, in some circles at least, that young girls remain the sum of their looks.

That’s not to suggest we throw up our arms in despair. As Michelle explains, if we can offer authoritative parentingthat typified by warmth, acceptance and respect, but still providing boundaries and fair and consistent discipline — we may be able to prevent a few crises, or at very least  have the best chance of reaching out to our teens if the worst happens.

The good news is, with the love and support of their parents, most of my friends’ kids have worked through their problems and emerged the other side. It’s likely this will be the experience of most of us.  Sometimes active intervention will be required — after a hospital admission and several months of psychotherapy my friend’s  beautiful daughter has reached a healthy weight and mindset — but sometimes good parenting just means ‘being there’ until our kids sort their stuff out, continuing to love them even at their most unlovable. 

Image from freedigitalphotos.net

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