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Weathering the adolescent storm

| September 24, 2010

Popular Web definitions of a storm include “an atmospheric disturbance” and “a wind with a speed from 89 to 102 kilometres per hour”. Both are perhaps apt descriptions of Meg Fargher, coauthor of The Adolescent Storm – A Handbook for Parents – but meant, of course, in the nicest possible way.

For those of us – and there are many – who admire Fargher, and who have followed her career, we know that a wind of that force may take your breath away, or sweep you off your feet. If you can hold on, though, it’s an invigorating experience.

An important South African contribution

Fargher recently retired from a nine year headship at one of the pre-eminent schools in South Africa, St Mary’s School in Waverley, Johannesburg, but hardly paused for breath before she tackled new projects. One was the authoring, with psychologist Dr Helen Dooley, of this important new book.

“The consequences for children of what been called different styles of parenting have been the subject of considerable research since the late 1960s, beginning with the work of Diana Baumrind,” observes Australian educationalist Professor Steve Dinham. Fargher and Dooley have made a valuable contribution to the field.

Their book is rooted firmly in a South African context. Hence, says Fargher, the use of the overarching metaphor of the storm. In the introduction, she and Dooley explain: “The book is South African in that it sets [its] case studies into the calendar according to the South African school year, which begins in January, and ends
in December. Many, but not all, of the case studies are set in Johannesburg… typical to [this city] are wonderful, short-lived, regular summer thunderstorms.

Seasons help to make our lives less mundane and predictable and, likewise, adolescence is a remarkable and dramatic season in your child’s life journey.”

Times have changed

It’s a measure of the book’s impact that as one reads, one contemplates one’s own childhood. For many adults ‘of a certain age’, that may involve invoking memories of pain and confusion. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that children were expected to be ‘seen and not heard’. Adolescence was an awful time – we hung around, pimpled and mawkish, our parents hoping like hell that everyone would survive the ‘phase’. Rules seemed arbitrary, and young people’s feelings simply didn’t count.

Today, many adults still consider themselves ‘the walking wounded’. Writer and developmental psychologist Judith Rich Harris describes it thus: “In the earlier part of the 20th century, parents didn’t worry about shoring up their children’s self-esteem or sense of autonomy, and they didn’t feel called upon to provide them with
‘unconditional love’. They worried that their children might become spoiled, self-centred or disobedient. In those days, spankings were administered routinely, often with a weapon such as a belt or a ruler. Kisses were exchanged once a day, at bedtime. Declarations of parental love were made once a lifetime, from the deathbed.”

Fargher herself grew up when the word ‘parent’ was still a noun. She’s both surprised and delighted that the book makes people reconsider this onerous task in the light of their own experience.

“That’s a positive thing, I think. Today, on the whole, there is more conscious parenting going on. “The challenges are greater today, though. Society is characterised by change, which makes it all the more difficult to raise teens. Parents want to do the right thing, but often they don’t know that is. Adolescence is a scary time for everyone.”An uncertain societal environment is compounded in many contemporary urban settings by the fact that both parents work long hours outside the home. ‘Lone parenting’ – a consequence of divorce – is also common.

‘Good enough’ is, simply, good enough

These factors influenced Dooley and Fargher to draw on the work of Donald Woods Winnicott (1896–1971), the English paediatrician, psychiatrist, sociologist and  psychoanalyst. Observes Fargher: “One of the hallmarks of adolescence is an expectation that parents will adapt and acquiesce to their need for instant gratification. Adolescents also believe that they can – and should be permitted to – do anything. “Many parents will consequently fret that they are not doing enough to protect or guide their adolescents, or they will overcompensate, and give in to every whim and tantrum.

Then adolescents have to be more adult than they are emotionally able to be. Winnicott called such environments ‘not good enough’. “Parents often need to let themselves off the hook. Winnicott advocated a ‘good enough environment’. This amounts to a parent making clear to an adolescent that their feelings and impulses are important, but that they have to be managed at appropriate times and in appropriate ways.”

Find the right way to talk to teens

Talking to your children every day from infancy onwards is critical to forming respectful bonds, says Fargher. Talking does not mean lecturing or grilling. “Even if you’re terrified by something, say increased teen sexual activity, it’s important to talk to your children in neutral ways that reinforce boundaries and values. Move from telling them how to think to asking good questions that will help them sort through their choices.” Parents should also not be afraid to take a stand when necessary, says Fargher, recalling an instance when she successfully took on a nightclub serving alcohol to minors.

Adolescents will of course display acute embarrassment, but they will also appreciate it deeply. “As parents we need to be doing the car runs, the picking up and the fetching, no matter what the toll on our own life. We need to be involved.” By the same token, however, we (both parents and teachers) need to give adolescents the space, time and freedom to ‘play’ at being adults. Say Dooley and Fargher: “Playing and dreaming are extremely important to help adolescents develop their identity. Adolescents in play feel supreme because time and space are under their control. Parents should protect this space and tolerate it; particularly because in today’s frenetic society adolescents seem to have less and less time to play and dream.”

Heed early storm warnings

Another reason for the success of The Adolesc ent Storm is that it’s not a ‘heavy’ academic text. “Of course, there’s a case to be made for a book that deals with extreme behaviour problems in communities facing serious socio-economic challenges, but this book deals with the stuff that everyone goes through on a daily basis. It’s the sort of book parents can dip into while waiting to pick their children up from school, for example,” says Fargher. And what about book two, explaining
parents to adolescents? “Funnily enough, we have thought about it, but would they read it?” wonders the author.

Philip Arthur Larkin, CH, CBE, FRSL, widely regarded as one of the greatest English poets of the latter half of the twentieth century, wrote a frank poem about parenting, called ‘This be the Verse’. Some may call his view jaundiced. Perhaps parents should rather pay attention to early storm warnings, as captured beautifully by equally famous Irish poet Seamus Heaney in ‘Storm on the Island’. As you batten down the hatches, make sure that there’s a copy of Dooley and Fargher’s Adolesc ent Storm in your emergency kit:

Storm on the Island
We are prepared: we build our houses squat,
Sink walls in rock and roof them with good slate.
This wizened earth has never troubled us
With hay, so, as you see, there are no stacks
Or stooks that can be lost. Nor are there trees
Which might prove company when it blows full
Blast: you know what I mean – leaves and branches
Can raise a tragic chorus in a gale
So that you listen to the thing you fear
Forgetting that it pummels your house too.
But there are no trees, no natural shelter.
You might think that the sea is company,
Exploding comfortably down on the cliffs
But no: when it begins, the flung spray hits
The very windows, spits like a tame cat
Turned savage. We just sit tight while wind dives
And strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo,
We are bombarded with the empty air.
Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.

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Category: Book Reviews, Spring 2010 Edition

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