Stephanie Calman is the author of six previous books including the Top Ten Bestseller Confessions of a Bad Mother, the creator of the hit Channel 4 sitcom Dressing for Breakfast, and the founder of the groundbreaking website Bad Mothers Club. She is married to writer and TV executive Peter Grimsdale.
Here she writes wisely about teenagers, the pressures they’re under and the credit they’re due.
It’s never been easy, being a teenager. I was miserable when I went through it in the 1970s, and it’s surely harder now.
The basics haven’t changed: they’re trying to evolve – freely yet safely, while having to make crucial choices about their futures, at the same time as society is chucking random enticements at them – Sex! Fame! Cash! – that they don’t yet know how to assess.
That should enough to be going on with. But the added pressures on them in the internet era seem to me to be nothing short of crazy: to be clever, interesting, popular, entrepreneurial and physically perfect – to keep up with others who seem to be all those things, but really aren’t.
Back in the Seventies, we had institutionalised sexism and horrible clothes to contend with but it was all right to be lanky and flat-chested, or a bit chubby – as I was – with spots and gappy teeth. No-one was Head Girl and got ten A-stars and the lead in the school play, and had a cool boyfriend. But this is what our kids’ generation is insanely aiming for. Or rather, it’s the failure to achieve this unreality which is making so many of them wretched.
‘People look on Instagram,’ says my daughter Lydia, now twenty, ‘and see a filtered reality they try to match up to.’
‘Why do they care so much about likes?’
If this was a country where these were the visa requirements, you’d never go there.
They try pretty much to do everything right, with almost no room in which to fail – a luxury we were able to take for granted. And yet they’re – collectively – regarded as lazy, moody, vain, dishonest, impulsive and prone to unnecessary risk-taking.
See a group of them standing outside a fast food outlet and what do we think? Bound to be up to no good.
See your child lying on their bed with their phone? Lazy, useless brat….
Yet often that inertia is born of fear and self-loathing. It’s almost as if they’re the last social group you can pick on.
Meanwhile, we expect them to grow up while denying them the chance to learn the most basic skills. As a friend of mine recently observed: ‘There are kids going out to Africa and Asia in their gap year who’ve never been on public transport.’
How does that make sense?
Another huge shift has been that our sense of achievement now comes – far more than it used to – from our children’s prizes and exam results, creating a kind of twisted pride which only serves to increase the pressure. We need – as they used to say – to ‘Get a Life’.
Combined with our reluctance to iron out all the bumps in their lives, instead of letting them make their own discoveries and mistakes, it’s a toxic cocktail. But there is some good news.
Forty years ago, my friend got totally pissed at her fourteenth, and we did nothing except wedge a salad bowl under her as she lay puking in the centre of the room. A girl in our class who suffered badly when her parents divorced was given no support and even the one with a violent father was not seen as warranting concern – including by the school. That’s how it was then. Now, there’s far more emotional awareness. And the biggest eye-opener for me as a parent has been the incredible care young people take of each other, something I never hear about in the media.
The first inkling we had was a text from Lydia when she was sixteen, saying she was staying late at a party to watch over a friend who’d drunk too much and passed out.
‘What happened?’ we asked when she came in.
‘A bunch of us put her in the recovery position and made sure she didn’t choke on her own vomit.’
What a contrast with that party forty years ago.
Since our son Lawrence has been at university, he and his friends have steered each other through life’s most painful crises from the traumatic ends of relationships through toxic step-parents, anxiety and depression, to psychosis. And while I know the maths degree will be useful, the personal skills he’s developed during the last ten or so years will be what ensure his survival – and happiness – as an adult.
I’m sure we’d all say we value these qualities yet we don’t always show our kids that we do. Maybe it’s time we rethought our priorities.
Five Things I’ve Learned as a Parent
- Teenagers judge themselves more harshly than we realise.
- We forget how confused and frustrated we felt at that age.
- Our idea of ‘success’ is far too narrow: let’s find out who they are not pressurise them to be something they’re not.
- They don’t want us to do it all for them: they need to discover things for themselves.
- They deserve praise for the way they look after each other.
Confessions of a Bad Mother: The Teenage Years is published by Picador.
Read another guest post here by psychologist John-Paul Davies.