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New book by two frazzled mums decodes the: A to Z of living with a teenager

While there are plenty of books for new parents, how many of us have wished for a user guide to teenagers?

They can be mystifying, yet clear communication has become even more important now we are on lockdown, with tempers in many households starting to fray.

We’re two friends weathering the storms of our children’s adolescence together: Sarah has a 17-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son, who currently channels his angst into a punk band where he writes cheery numbers about the apocalypse. Cathy’s children are 22 and 18.

We’ve learned that what every parent needs is a way to let off steam — and a means to understand their offspring. So here’s our up-to-the-minute A to Z of adolescence, to help you interpret what your teenager is actually thinking...

British mothers Sarah Macdonald and Cathy Wilcox, have penned a book to help parents better understand their teenagers (file image)

A for … Approval

Your approval counts. A tiny bit. What counts more is peer approval. A case in point: you will find her a lovely dress for the school prom. She sends a photo to a friend, who replies with a thumbs-up emoji and the words ‘So beautiful, I love you’. You will buy the dress. You will get home and she will post it on the group chat and one committee member will say ‘No, too formal,’ or ‘No, blue is not your colour,’ and they will all pile in and that dress will never be seen again.

B for … Binge-watching

Sometimes they come out of their room looking like a possum with big eyes. Then you realise you haven’t seen them for three days. They’ve just binge-watched six seasons of U.S. police comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine. If you really want them out of the bedroom, we suggest simply changing the wi-fi password — they’ll spring out like a jack-in-the-box.

C for … Conspiracy Theories

The world is run by shape-shifting lizard people whose leaders include the Queen and Justin Bieber. Oh, and the 5G network gives people coronavirus. You can argue with the conspiracy-loving teen, but they know the God-like encyclopedia that is YouTube is right. Yet, fake news is a huge issue for us all. Teach yourself, and them, to be critical consumers and not believe in rubbish.

D for … Drama

We love drama as a school subject, but many teens love it as a lifestyle choice. For some teenage girls, there is only one volume: an infuriated dramatic scream. Listen calmly and help find a solution, using phrases such as: ‘What have you done that’s helped before in this situation?’ Acknowledge quietly that their world is small and their feelings large. Perspective comes with age.

Sarah and Cathy recommend trying the games your children enjoy, to better understand their world (file image)

E for … Eye roll

This ubiquitous flounce seems to appear spontaneously during early teenagehood and disappear a few years later, leaving no trace. It could be that eye-rolling is a passive sign of aggression, or that you’re the boss and they hate you for it.

F for ... Fault

It’s all yours. Everything. Deal with it. Their weird feet, their too curly/straight/thin/thick hair, their inability to do calculus and their fear of spiders ... you did it to them. Shame on you.

G for … Gaming

Yes, a lot love it. It’s their down-time, fun-time, me-time and fight-time. But do ask questions like, ‘Are you sure that other kid is 14, like you?’ ‘What kind of messages is he or she sending you?’ In fact, why don’t you just stand between teen and screen and ask lots of questions? They love that. You could also have a go yourself — sometimes you need to enter their world to understand it.

H for … Hearing

Kids are deaf to these phrases: ‘How was your day?’; ‘Dinner!’; ‘Please empty the dishwasher’. Yet, if you are five rooms away and whisper into your phone that you think your teen might have a boyfriend, they will come barrelling downstairs to scream at you. They are like bats. Their hearing can be supersonic.

Sarah and Cathy argue not enough quality information is getting through to teenagers, because there's top much to take in (file image)

I for … Info overload

You have it, they have it, we all have it right now. Info-besity is on the rise. Not enough quality information is getting through our teens’ skulls, because there’s too much to take in. So have some information-free nights — sit around a fire, look up at the stars, or meditate looking at a candle. They will grumble like hell, but they’ll feel better for it later.

J for ... Judgment

The teen brain isn’t yet fully cooked, and its judgment is impaired. Remember that when they make decisions that are dodgy, reactive and bizarre. Give them freedom to make mistakes, but not so much that they don’t develop judgment. Try to help them delay decisions if they are het up. Remind them you are there for them, and you won’t be judgmental. Because, God knows, they are.

K for ... Kardashian Feminism

If you think your child doesn’t know about porn, wake up 

This means you will hear arguments such as, ‘I need these fake nails and £50 foundation because it’s my right as a woman to look how I want.’ What looks like commodification of the female flesh to you is empowerment to her. What seems like dressing for the male gaze to her grandma is her notion of ‘bodily autonomy’.

L for … Like

At times this feels like their every second word. ‘So, like, I went to the shops, like, and, like, Charlotte said, like, I love your dress, like, and I said, like, you are so cute, like ...’ Along with ‘so’, ‘I mean’ and ‘OMG’, ‘like’ is their ‘um’. Give your teens a topic and ask them to talk for a minute without saying ‘um’ ‘like’ or ‘I mean’. You can’t change it, but it’s fun to watch them struggle.

Sarah and Cathy claim not having Netflix is condemning your child to a life of being left out of the conversation (file image)

M for … Mirror

Most teens are drawn to mirrors like moths to a flame. It’s not narcissism; it’s about working out who they are. Or it could be about popping pimples. Or that complicated hairstyle, or learning how to do make-up by watching endless tutorials on YouTube. Of course, some shrink from mirrors like vampires from sunlight — they have our full understanding and empathy.

N for … Netflix

If you don’t have it, you are condemning them to a life of being left out of the conversation. But instead of all watching separate screens, try something radical like ‘watching something together’. If you watch controversial shows, such as American teen drama 13 Reasons Why, you can lend the perspective of an adult brain to process what they’ve seen.

O for … Over-identifying

They are the best of you and you made them and they are fabulous. But they are not you. Do not live your own fantasies through them. Most of us have crossed the line sometimes: finishing their Solar System model at midnight with superglue and a beer; proof-reading their science project and adding a few ‘suggestions’. But try not to do it too often. They won’t get satisfaction from a job well done — and you won’t get a good mark for that essay anyway, and then you’ll be really cross.

P for … Puberty

Mothers, when puberty aligns with menopause you have what is medically termed a ‘clusterf**k’. They are blossoming while you are pruning and decaying. But their emotional pain is real and yours is not allowed. Perhaps we have more in common with teens than we think.

Sarah and Cathy warn that your child may never talk to you again, if you break their 'streak' of daily posting on social media (file image)

Q for … Queer

Your teen is growing up in a time of great change in terms of sexual identity. They are seeing and absorbing this more than you are. Male celebrities such as Billy Porter are wearing dresses to the Oscars, razor ads feature trans teens learning to shave with their dads and, generally, it’s hip to be queer. Teens who come out as queer are refusing to fit within the neat confines of sexuality or gender. This is where the generation gap looms large. Don’t interrogate them or tell them it’s a ‘phase’, and remember you might need to help grandparents deal with it.

R for … Righteous indignation

Sometimes every sentence a teen utters is like a weapon of righteous superiority. For people still so small in life experience, they can be bloody high and mighty. But occasionally we adults deserve a bit of righteous fury. Ask yourself: are you helping or hurting their future? Then tell them to go and sort the recycling, keep their showers to two minutes and reduce their electricity use to do their part. That will spur them on, or shut them up.

S for … Social media

Social media (‘soche’) is Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Omegle and all the trillion other apps that are being created as we speak. It is very important. If your teen does daily ‘streaks’ then you cannot take them out of range of wi-fi for more than 24 hours. A streak is like a wee on a post for a dog; their shout out into the void. Force them to break their ‘streak’ of daily posting and they might never talk to you again.

T for … Torpor

Teen torpor is wonderful to watch. That lanky body unfolds like a decaying flower then listlessly drags its legs to slump slothlike at the table. Some enter the room like a parched explorer crossing the desert and close to death. They’ve been tired all day and awake half the night and they just can’t deal.

Sarah and Cathy advise parents not to say things that sound sexist, racist and stereotypical, in the hopes of sounding ironic (file image)

U for ... Understand

You don’t. You can’t. And ‘stop trying to relate, it’s really annoying’.

V for ... Vegan

Vegans are kids with a conscience. You should respect them for taking a personal, political and inter-species stance. But reduce the workload on you by getting them to help with meat-free cooking. Don’t tease them with steak, but do talk about nutrition and consider regular blood tests to check their iron levels.

W for ... Woke

teens today are aware of race, gender norms and sexism. They might not know who Harvey Weinstein is, but they know we need a lesbian feminist Bond. And some are post-woke. This means they can say things that sound sexist, racist and stereotypical, but get away with it because it’s ironic. Don’t try this yourself.

X for … X-rated

Your teen could have been sweetly searching the internet for piano-playing pussy cats and seen something scarring they can never un-see. They might also find porn fascinating. They might feel all those things at once. Acknowledge that for many teens porn is their sex education, and that’s not a good thing. Talk to them about body types and images in porn. And if you think your child doesn’t know what porn is, wake up.

Y for … Yes

Sometimes having a teen is just a world of no. ‘Can I go to this sleepover party where there aren’t any parents?’ ‘No.’ ‘Can I borrow your car and drive all my friends to that sleepover party?’ ‘No.’ Try saying yes to easy things such as ‘Can I have cheese with that?’ or ‘Can I wear this frightful outfit?’ Pick your battles.

Z for ... Zzzzzz

Teen body clocks change around the age of 15. They go from 6am starts to impossible to wake up. Try shutting down and taking away all screens an hour before they try to nod off. They will scream that they need the alarm on the phone, but you can introduce them to the old-fashioned alarm clock. It’s retro, baby!

Adapted by Hilary Freeman from So... You’re Having a Teenager: An A-Z of adolescence from argumentative to zits by Sarah Macdonald and Cathy Wilcox (£14.99, Murdoch Books).

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