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Parenting a teenager:”It’s all about sacrifice!”

I’m constantly writing about the bizarre parenting, particularly around alcohol and partying, I see or hear about as I’m travelling across the country and I have been occasionally criticised for what some see as ‘parent bashing’. I’m not a parent (as my wonderful sister-in-law has told me after hearing me present at an Information Evening a few years ago) and I absolutely get it, it’s so easy for me to criticise what parents do or don’t do in this area when I don’t have to deal with the issue myself. That said, I always try to make it clear in anything I write (or say for that matter) that I believe parenting is the toughest job in the world – there is no ‘rule book’.

Every family is different and within each family, every child is going to have their own personality and potentially their own issues. You’ll be different each time as well. Raising a child, with all the fears and anxiety that comes with first-time parenthood (combined with all the reading you have likely done about how to do it properly), is likely to be very different the second time around. You know more and you have actual life experience. You are going to be a different parent, no matter what you try to do, and you are dealing with a completely different human being – what may have worked extremely well with your first may go down like a lead balloon with the next! So, as I said – there is no ‘rule book’ – you can only do the best you can at the time! Maybe the one and only ‘truth’ when it comes to parenting is that you can’t and shouldn’t try to parent each of your children in the same way – that’s just a recipe for disaster!

So instead of ‘parent bashing’ I thought I’d do the complete opposite in this post and talk about a wonderful father who shared with me what he believed was the key to parenting a teenager. He was a teacher who had agreed to drive me home after a Parent Information Evening held at his school – it was quite a long trip and my visit to the school had obviously struck a nerve. He had a 15-year-old daughter who was just starting the whole teen party roller coaster and he just wanted to talk. I found some of the things he said that night so interesting and really insightful and when he dropped me off at my hotel I asked him if he’d mind sending me an email with his thoughts. At that time I was in the process of writing a book and was looking for personal anecdotes that I could use. I received the email the next day but for some reason the piece never ended up in the final edit. Here is a slightly edited version that was included in an early draft of my book …

“Thanks for yesterday and for the chat last night. When I got home after dropping you off I had a long talk with my wife and talked through all the issues you raised in your talk to parents, as well as the discussion we had in the car. As you asked, here are our thoughts on parenting a teenager (and I have to say that this is definitely a work in progress!)

My wife and I believe that when it comes to parenting a teenager, it’s all about sacrifice. Our daughter is the most important thing in the world to us and we would give our lives to keep her safe. Although there were some challenges when she was younger, nothing compares to the issues we are facing now. She’s a smart young woman but, as you said in your talk, she’s certainly ‘missing a piece of her brain’ at the moment! She’s a typical 15-year-old who wants to fit in with her friends and go to parties and we seem to be constantly fighting with her about almost everything.

We believe that to get through this time we have to sacrifice two things, one of which is proving to be far more difficult than the other. The first (and without doubt the easiest) is sacrificing our social life to some extent and particularly drinking alcohol on the weekends. We have always made ourselves available for sporting commitments, music practice and other activities, but when our daughter first started getting asked to parties we quickly realized that we were going to have to be ‘on-call’ 24 hours a day, particularly over the weekends. We have always made it clear to her that if something went wrong and she ever needed us, we would be there ASAP, no questions asked. Hopefully the need will never arise but if she calls us, we need to be able to hop into the car and get to her. We couldn’t do that if we had been drinking. We did think about the whole designated driver thing, one of us being able to have one or two glasses of wine one week and then the other the next but in the end, we’re in this together and alcohol isn’t that important in our lives anyway. We also plan to be the parents who take her to parties and also pick her up (at least for the next couple of years) – we don’t want to rely on others to do our parenting.

That’s the easy one, the second sacrifice is much more difficult – i.e., sacrificing our daughter liking us. I know you said that your kids aren’t meant to like you, but let me assure you, it’s the hardest thing in the world to have your daughter tell you that she hates you and you’re ruining her life! But the reality is that although this is so hard, we know it is the most important thing we can do to keep her safe. Making those tough calls and saying “No” when we have to is never going to be easy but sometimes it has to be done and she’s not going to like it. Yes, it’s true that she forgets she hates us pretty quickly but for that time when she says she does, it eats your heart away and that’s the ultimate sacrifice!”

I wish I still had the original email as I would love to make contact and see how things went – his daughter would now be in her mid 20s! I have never forgotten the conversation I had in the car with this amazing Dad. In my view I think he and his wife got it right – to some degree, effective parenting, particularly where teenagers are concerned, is all about sacrifice … Some sacrifices are not going to be too hard to make (giving up having a drink on a Saturday night to ensure that you can be there for your teen if the need arises shouldn’t be too much of a challenge, but sadly proves unbelievably hard for some!) while others can prove to be extremely difficult, e.g., sacrificing your son or daughter ‘liking’ you is never going to be easy.

Let’s make it clear, your teen should always ‘love’ you (remember – rules, consequences, bound in unconditional love), they’re just not meant to necessarily ‘like’ you very much during their adolescence! Undoubtedly, that is one of the greatest sacrifices a parent can make. Having the person you love and care about most in the world look you in the eye and spit out ‘I hate you’ because of the rules and boundaries you have put into place is never going to be easy but if doing that can keep them even a little safer during the teen years it’ll all eventually be worth it!

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