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What is it about Year 9s (and their parents) that can make them a difficult group to deal with?

I’ve talked a couple of times about the pressure I get from some schools (and particularly parents) to talk to Year 9s. The discussion usually goes along the lines of ‘we’ve got some real issues with our Year 9 cohort … there’s some real partying going on in that group … parents are finding it really difficult to deal with the pressure around the type of parties that are being put on’. At the same time, as I have said before, I have never ever heard of so many young people in this age group being caught bringing cannabis to school and then being either suspended, ‘moved on’ or expelled. Year 9 certainly appears to be a very difficult time for many families, with parents often confused as to why this is happening.

This is the year they usually turn 14 and enter the time of their life often referred to as ‘middle adolescence’ – the time when the search for identity becomes a central concern. Just going through some of the emails I have received from parents over the years (and some of these go back quite a long way!), you can see some of the problems that can be faced:

  • “He went up to bed one night the 14 year-old son who had never caused me or his father any problems and woke up the next morning a completely different person. He now wears nothing but black, is desperate for a piercing and tattoo and refuses to see any of the friends he has had since primary school.”
  • “She is boy-crazy and her life seems to revolve around the next party she is going to. Saying ‘no’ results in huge fights. She keeps telling us that we need to trust her and that she doesn’t drink alcohol but she wants to go to parties with 16 and 17 year-old boys. We just don’t feel comfortable with that.”
  • “I’m pretty sure he’s smoking cannabis now. His friendship group has completely changed and he wants to do nothing but hang around at the local skate park. We’ve talked to his old friends and they have even told us that they’re worried.”
  • Help! Where did my child go?”

In his book You and Your Adolescent, Laurence Steinberg says that 14-18 is “a time for distinguishing oneself from the crowd”. Some of the things he says that parents should expect at this time in their child’s life are as follows:

  • changing interests, plans and friends – they may choose to stop wanting to play the violin after years of lessons and awards, or simply drift away from the best friend they started school with for no apparent reason w
  • obsessing about appearances – although we tend to think about extreme change here and how they dress (e.g., becoming a ‘goth’, or the like) or wear their hair, it could be as simple as adopting new mannerisms or vocabulary
Parents can get really stuck here – on the one hand it is vital that young people at this age are given the opportunity to create their own identity and establish where they fit in the world and become fully-functioning adults, but on the other it is also important to maintain rules and boundaries to keep them as safe as possible during this potentially very dangerous time of their life.

I believe that this is where parents get into trouble – they can see that their child is growing up and believe that they need to let them start to make their own decisions and trust them ‘to do the right thing’. This is the year of the ‘sleepover’, as well as the ‘party’ or ‘gathering’, and instead of making the call to parents hosting these events and dropping their teen off at the home and then picking them up, they begin to get increasing pressure (from their child but also friends and family members as well) to loosen the rules a little and let their child fly a little more. They’ve got to be trusted at some point but really, is Year 9 the time to do it, particularly when it comes to sleepovers and parties? Far from it – this is the time when if you see their wings sprouting, you should be getting a great big pair of garden shears and clipping them off as quickly as possible!

That said, Steinberg says one of the biggest mistakes parents make at this time is overcontrol. So how do you maintain rules and boundaries in an attempt to protect your teen but not run the risk of overcontrolling? Basically you pick your battles … there are issues around their personal safety and then there’s finding their own identity. You may be devastated that they’ve dumped their best friend that you have always liked and you may not like that they wander around the house in a black hoodie with their face constantly covered but trying to take control over who their friends are and what they choose to wear is only going to make you frustrated and push them further away. Of course there are family rules and values that need to be considered but if your 14 year-old daughter wants to get a yellow streak through her hair or wear a really ugly top with a safety pin through it, it most probably isn’t the end of the world!

If your teen wants to go to a party and you don’t think that it will be safe, however, this is where you do stick to your guns and the rules and boundaries do come into play. Fight with them about everything, however, and your life will be very difficult. If you let the ones that really don’t matter (i.e., they have nothing to do with personal safety and more to do with your personal disappointment, e.g., ‘what do you look like?’) slide once in a while you’ll find yourself having a much easier time. And remember, always look for opportunities to allow your child to do something – it shouldn’t be about wrapping them up in barbed wire and saying ‘no’ all the time. When you do say ‘no’, make it clear why and don’t back down.

The most interesting thing that I am observing at the moment is that those parents who do allow their Year 9 child (and even younger sometimes) go to parties and turn a blind-eye to drinking alcohol are also those who are actually controlling in a completely different way, i.e., not allowing (or at the very least, enabling) their teen to solve their personal problems themselves. These are the parents who call the school if their son or daughter is punished in some way and demand that the punishment is lifted, get involved in every single dispute and argument that their child has with their friends, blindly side with their child against the school and teachers regardless of the situation and simply never allow their teen to deal with the everyday issues that we must all face if we are to become well-rounded fully functioning adults. It really is an interesting phenomenon (and an extremely difficult one for schools and teachers, particularly as far as discipline is concerned) and one I can’t see disappearing for sometime yet …

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