Living with teenagers
Three chapters, with the start of a fourth, from a manuscript
commissioned by a UK publisher after the screening in 1994 of
a BBC1 TV programme in which I facilitated a group of parents and
teenagers exploring the challenges of living together. The publisher found the
chapters too radical. This is the
first publication of the original text.
Chapter 1: Parent trouble
Your teenager as citizen of the future
Who is this young human being who is living with you? Certainly he or
she is your teenage son or daughter. But who are these persons we
They are people reaching full physical and sexual development; they
are opening and deepening emotionally; they are flexible and adaptable
in their attitudes; their intellectual grasp is rapidly extending; their
capacity for curiosity, experimentation, adventure and enjoyment reaches
out toward the whole world; their idealism and spirituality is born on
waves of commitment and enthusiasm. All this can be included in the
thrust of a single statement: they are emerging adult decision-makers.
They are learning to shape themselves and their world by the choices
they make. They are citizens of the future.
• When they are eighteen years old in our society, they have the
right to vote. We believe they are mature and responsible enough to
participate in the democratic process, to have their say in political
decision-making by choosing their preferred representative.
• When they are eighteen, and male, we also believe that they have a
duty, in times of military threat to the nation, to fight for their
country; and that they are sufficiently strong and competent to handle
the life and death decisions that have to be made in the midst of
Yet all the evidence is that we, as parents, do not treat our sons
and daughters in the three years before they become eighteen in a way
that truly empowers them to make these - and many other - kinds of
challenging decision. It is remarkable that, launched into the adult
world by the simple accident of turning eighteen, they strive and
survive and so often succeed - just as we did when we made the dramatic
This says a lot for the resilience and adaptability of the human
spirit. But what would the entrance to adulthood be like and what would
adults be like if, throughout their teenage years, people were truly
affirmed and empowered as emerging adult decision-makers? Such
affirmation tends to be the exception to what usually happens.
You as embattled parent
Many parents of teenagers use four different rather frantic ways of
behaving. Some parents specialize in just one or two, others may move
around among all four. The one that all parents start with and most
parents keep on trying to use is the first one below, taking control;
when this doesn't work, then they resort to one or more of the other
three. But none of these behaviours really work, because none of them
are really empowering. Yet the parent keeps applying them, frequently
with a mounting sense of desperation and fruitless effort, feeling
embattled and trapped in endless variations on failure. Here are the
four frantic ways.
• Taking control You give them strict orders, firm and clear
guidance, direct supervision, moralistic 'oughts' and 'shoulds'; you
discipline them with punishments, or control them with rewards.
Underneath all this, you are impatient and intolerant, blaming and
Jane is 16 and her father is a police officer. He gives her
strict orders as to what time she is to be back at home after a
night out. If she is late, he uses the police car to go the disco to
take her home.
• Being submissive You allow them to ride roughshod over you,
to do what they want at your expense; you let them get away with it; you
put up with all manner of inconvenience. And below this, you feel
impotent and helpless, humiliated, hurt and unloved.
Valerie is a single mother living with her son Tommy who is 15.
He leaves every room he uses in a mess - bathroom, kitchen, living
room, bedroom. She slaves around cleaning up after him, feeling
hassled, distraught and powerless.
• Going to the rescue You express your care, concern and love;
you insist on taking your full share of the blame for all that is going
wrong for them; you ask them to tell you all about it and talk it all
over; you offer to do whatever you can to help; you arrange for them to
have outside professional help, or informal help from friends and
relatives. Behind all this, you are guilty and ashamed, harbouring
feelings of failure.
Quentin is 14 and he is steadily on cannabis. His parents have
long loving conferences with him based on the theme 'It's all our
fault, what can we now do to help'.
• Turning away You neglect them, ignore them and pay them no
respect; you dissociate from their behaviour and attitudes and disown
them emotionally; at the extreme of this kind of behaviour, you reject
them, throw them out of the house, send them to the other parent,
withdraw all financial support. Within all this, you are full of
suppressed anger, with outbursts of hostility.
Sarah is 16, assertive and wilful. Her mother has insisted that
she lives away from home so as not to disturb the household as her
mother's new live-in lover settles down.
As I said above, each of the last three of these ways of behaving may
follow on from attempts at control. When you try over and again to
control the behaviour of your teenager, and it doesn't work, then you
may simply give up for a period and relapse into submission; or you may
feel guilty and concerned and try to help; or you may get fed up and
angry and push your child away.
Whatever sort of pattern they fall into, these four kinds of
behaviour are compulsive, that is to say you are locked into them, they
drive you, they are rigid and maladaptive - they don't fit the situation
and above all they don 't work.
Control, to which most parents are heavily addicted, is useless: a
teenager cannot learn how to live by being told how to live, but only by
the practice of making their own choices, being responsible for their
own lives. Submission in a parent is not a good model for a teenager,
who needs examples of adults who clearly define their boundaries, state
justly and fairly their proper rights, needs and interests, and
negotiate strongly to get them respected. Guilty rescuing treats the
teenager as a bad psychological case, and he or she may then act into
what is thus being implied. It is the opposite of the affirmation the
teenager needs. Rejection is a destructive way of throwing the teenager
into an alienated and unhappy lifestyle, not a truly autonomous one.
Why, then, do parents behave in these ways so often, sometimes
shifting around inconsistently between them?
How your teenager reacts
Before considering why parents behave like this, let's look at
typical sorts of disquieting ways in which teenagers behave, often in
response to the parental compulsions.
• Being rebellious They do what they know you have ordered
them not to do; they deliberately flout your guidance; they subvert your
direct supervision, do the opposite of your 'oughts' and 'shoulds',
bypass your punishments and ignore your offered rewards.
Having repeatedly been told not to stay on the telephone for more
than five minutes, George, who is 15, regularly makes calls that
last twenty minutes.
• Exploiting you They take you for granted, abuse their
privileges, trample on your rights and boundaries, take more than they
are due to receive and offer no gratitude.
Joy is 16 and has friends in when her parents are out. She gives
the teenagers all the special foods her mother has bought for the
family weekend, and leaves the house without clearing up after the
• Being childish They avoid the challenge of emerging
adulthood, indulge themselves with food, drink or drugs, revert to a
childish or infantile absence of responsibility, retreat into phantasy,
childhood games and play, expect to be provided for and looked after.
James is 18, lives on social security, avoids work and further
training, and spends hours playing video games, in which he is an
• Pretending to conform They apparently conform to your
expectations and wishes, without real commitment, to rescue themselves
from excessive tension, so that they can pursue their secret life,
protect their interests and keep you sweet for further use.
Geraldine is 16. She apparently conforms to all her parents'
ideal and unreal expectations. Behind this screen, she smokes,
drinks, has regular but unsatisfactory sex and bouts of shoplifting.
These behaviours too are driven, rigid and maladaptive. They are
distressed reactions to various sources of tension, a main one being the
compulsive way parents so often behave. Teenagers deeply, intuitively
feel that the parent is not acknowledging who they really are and what
they really need. They lapse into frustrated reaction and get distracted
from the real business of being an emergent decision-maker. For
teenagers, the challenge of moving towards the adult world has added to
it an upsetting complication: their principal guides and initiators -
their parents - are themselves too distracted to be helpful. Hence the
tendency to run amok in despair.
You can see how the two sets of behaviours interlock and run each
other, the main source being the parental set. Intolerant, disapproving
control breeds wild rebellion; impotent, humiliated
submission invites punitive exploitation; guilty rescuing
suggests evasive regression; the fear of rejection
procures prudent compliance. Of course, in reality the
interlocking is not a simple one-to-one correspondence of this sort. All
the parental compulsions will interact in varying ways with all the
teenage ones. Once the two systems get well enmeshed, their respective
components continually trigger each other off, and you have a
relationship between parent and teenager that is mutually negative.
There are certainly other significant sources of distressed teenage
behaviour, and we will look at these in the next chapter. But the
parental sources are critical, and are a central theme of this book.
If you as a parent are controlling and rejecting, you may take no
responsibility for the fact that your approach is not working, and put
all the blame on your teenager. He or she, you will say, is the source
of all the trouble, is being unreasonable, having difficulty with
growing up, rejecting the claims of responsible and considerate living,
and so on and so forth. If you as a parent are submitting and rescuing,
you may take all the responsibility upon yourself and relapse into
guilt: you are the cause of all the problems, have been a bad parent,
have failed miserably, and your teenager is headed for disaster in life.
If you move around between all four frantic behaviours, you may
oscillate between blame and guilt.
Both blame and guilt are irrelevant and useless. What is needed,
first and foremost, is an understanding of the parental trap, and how to
get out of it. This is the trap that keeps parents locked into their
fruitless round of compulsive behaviours.
The parental trap
The trap is not difficult to understand. It is not an inherently
difficult concept to grasp; but more to the point so many parents know
it well from within, through experience. Simply to describe it to them
is to ignite strong sparks of recognition. Nor is the trap difficult to
spring, once you grasp the knack and have the nerve to try it. There are
four parts of it.
• The influence of your own past Somewhere inside you as
teenage-embattled parent is a buried script, unnoticed and
unacknowledged, perhaps strongly denied. It contains the story line of
your own teenage years. And it includes the recorded behaviour of your
own troubled parents all those years ago. This script is a story of
still unfinished business: of needs and rights unnoticed, of longings
frustrated, of inept and inappropriate parental attitudes. None of this
is resolved, none of it healed, none of it brought to the surface for
the release of tension, the generation of insight. As embattled parent,
you carry round a buried script that is still active with a need to be
noticed, rewritten and have its beleaguered business finished. The
script is buried, disowned, because it is upsetting to stay too close to
it, and also because as an older teenager you had to deny your need for
liberation in order to cope with the increasing pressure of events. You
had to come rapidly to terms with the limiting conditions of the adult
world, to acquire some acceptable social identity that would enable you
to claim a place in that world.
• The effect of bonding The bond between you and your child is
very deep. Its depth and existence is quite independent of whether it is
acknowledged and expressed, or denied and rejected. It strongly claims
your energy, positively or negatively, consciously or subliminally. What
this means is that, whatever your attitude, you identify with
your teenager, that is, feel his or her identity as your own. And this
is the basis for projecting the buried script.
• Putting your past outside you Because of the close
identification, as embattled parent you are continuously and unawarely
putting on to your teenager your own unfinished teenage business as
recorded in the buried script. What is not acknowledged within is
displaced without, as if it belongs to someone else. What we disown in
ourselves we see in others, especially our own children. Once the
story-line of the script is projected in this way, the scene is set for
• Unawarely re-enacting old trouble Human beings continuously
re-enact in the present the hidden, unhealed troubled events of the
past, particularly those that have scarred their personal identity,
their sense of who they are. The re-enactment does several things, none
of them, bar one, being fruitful.
• It keeps the re-enacted script buried by disguising it as
• It seems to explain why there is a haunting sense of pain and
trouble: since the real cause of the pain is buried, I re-create a
similar kind of situation to try to feel justified in having the
• It displaces that haunting sense, seemingly gives it somewhere
to go, something to busy itself with. Displacement, however, is
always ineffective and counter-productive: it never procures
healing, and it breeds further upset.
• It is a misbegotten attempt to try to resolve the old trouble:
like someone repeatedly rattling the wrong key in a lock to open it.
• It is an unconscious call to someone, anyone, to get the
re-enactor out of the four-part trap: and this is the only
potentially fruitful effect. Unfortunately the appropriate kind of
help is rarely forthcoming.
There is a central feature of re-enactment that is critical: it is to
do with multiple roles. The buried script carries within it a complex of
interrelated attitudes and behaviours: your parents', those of other
contemporary authority figures, yours as a teenager, those of your
brothers and sisters and other peers. It is a dynamic drama, a tense,
interacting whole. And you can re-enact any of the roles within it.
When your teenage self is projected onto your teenager son or
daughter, you can slip into your parents' roles in the buried script. To
put it the other way round: if you re-enact you parents' roles from the
script, then you can displace the vulnerable part of your teenage self
on to your son or daughter. This keeps it buried and denied within, as
you project and oppress it without. Now you can really re-enact the
During the war, Michael sent his 12 year old son Richard to stay
with a family in another country. Richard was deprived of father-son
bonding throughout his teenage life. Years later, Richard sent his
11 year old son Peter over several summers to travel with another
family on holidays abroad, thus re-enacting the painful absence of
Another feature of re-enactment that sometimes occurs is
sameness-in-difference. The re-enactment can look very different, even
appear to be the opposite, of what is written in the buried script, but
the net effect is really the same. So when you try not to repeat the
mistakes your parents made, you may an end up making the same
fundamental error in a very different form.
Sally and her husband George were both brought up in homes in
which nudity was a matter of shame and embarrassment. As teenagers
they felt that their emerging sexuality was never honoured. So when
they became parents, they were often and unhesitatingly naked in
front of their own young teenage daughters, who were actively
encouraged to be unashamedly nude. Later in life the daughters
reported that they never felt that their emerging sexuality was
properly honoured. What was the same, within its quite opposite
forms in the two generations, was the oppressive, interfering
attitude, advice and behaviour of the parents.
Mistrust, always mistrust
Whatever the external shape of the drama in the buried script,
whatever different ways your parent was compulsively controlling,
submissive, rescuing or rejecting, the underlying negative message to
you as a teenager was the same: 'I don't trust you to make the right
choices'. Consider the following, and remember, we are considering what
is going on now between the hidden image within of your own parent and
your buried teenage self.
• The controlling message is: 'I can't trust you, so all I can
do is try to control you'.
• The submissive message is: 'I can't trust you and I can't
control you, so all I can do is suffer you'.
• The rescuing message is: 'I can't trust you, so all I can do
is try to salvage what I can from the damage that's been done to you'.
• The rejecting message is: 'I can't trust you, so all I can
do is withdraw all my support'.
This is why sameness-in-difference can involve a shift in the form of
the parental compulsion, for example, from control to submission, but
the underlying impact is the same. Your parents may have over controlled
you as a teenager, while you over submit to your own teenager, but the
core message in the buried script is still being re-enacted: 'I can't
trust you'. Here is another brief history, in which the core message is
translated from rejection to rescue. It is also translated from
moralistic control to therapeutic facilitation.
Margery was brought up in a harsh religious household that simply
ignored what was really going on in her, in order to impose on her a
code of duty and service. After a disturbing divorce from a man who
was active in the same religious group, she was worried that the
same kind of emotional neglect, together with the impact of the
divorce, had affected her teenage daughter, Susan. With loving
concern, Margery persuaded Susan, despite Susan's initial strong
protests, to go with her to a counsellor for two years. Both Margery
and the counsellor repeatedly and gently urged Susan to express what
was really going on in her. Susan in later years reported that these
sessions made her feel that what was really going on in her was
being totally ignored since she never wanted them in the first
Mistrust does damage
To imply to your teenager by the way you relate to him and her every
day that you don't trust them to make the right choices, is the last
thing any adolescent needs. The young human being, emerging towards
adult decision-making, needs affirmation, support and above all
opportunity to learn what is involved in making their own decisions in a
wide range of life-areas. To get the opposite of this, in the form of
persistent mistrust, is damaging.
• It undermines your teenager's self-confidence, implants a negative
self-image, and leaves a mixed wake of depression and impotent anger.
• It is self-fulfilling: it produces the very consequence it fears.
Your teenager may act out his or her anger in all sorts of 'wrong'
• It generates in your teenager compulsive rebellion, which is a
distorted form of autonomy. Denied real affirmation or real opportunity
or both, teenagers seek out forbidden fruit, in order to assert a
deviant kind of independence and so revenge themselves on their
Sam goes home every day after school to a father who is critical
of the relative absence of girls in Sam's life, of how he relates to
the girls he does on occasion bring home, and of the girls
themselves. The father wants an assertive, macho son, seen in the
right places with attractive young women hanging on his arms. After
two years of this, Sam takes up with a local prostitute on a regular
• It likewise generates compulsive exploitation, regression and
compliance: different ways in which the teenager acts out its
emotionally disabling effects. Mistrusted, teenagers help themselves to
everything unthinkingly, revert to childish behaviours, or appear to
conform to parental requirements as a convenient cover-up.
Mistrust also does damage to you as a parent. By trying to take over
responsibility for your child's life, you are defining yourself as a
'good parent' in terms to be measured entirely by how your teenager
• As a compulsively controlling parent, your identity does not depend
on what you do in making something of yourself, but on how your teenager
does or does not meet your expectations. You define yourself in terms of
the behaviour you want your teenage to produce under your direction. So
you have no real identity of your own. Your identity is a hostage to
your teenager's waywardness.
• This means you are setting yourself up for failure and a consequent
breakdown in your self-esteem. On the one hand you are convinced that
you are no good unless you are a good parent, and that a good parent is
a controlling parent. On the other hand it is obvious on a daily basis
that control doesn't work, can never really work and is somehow
misplaced. So you end up feeling no good, confused and believing there's
something really wrong with you.
• Having no proper identity of your own through trying to control
your teenager's life, is a way of avoiding the challenge of establishing
a real identity by developing yourself in new and enterprising ways. As
your teenager faces the first great phase of self-development, you too
are called on to face a new mid-life phase of self-development.
• You are unawarely stuck on the time track. You are applying to your
teenager the kinds of control that were appropriate when he or she was a
young child. In failing to see that they are no longer relevant you keep
yourself and your teenager outside your respective paths of true
At this point, as a somewhat aggrieved, embattled parent of a
teenager, you may say 'But surely, I can't trust my teenager to
make the right choices: he doesn't have the experience or the
knowledge; he doesn't know the way of the world; he can't
appreciate all the issues that need to be taken into account; he is
bound to sacrifice long term advantage for short term gain'. But
listen to yourself, to the continuing irrationality.
How can he and she acquire the experience and the knowledge, if you
never affirm their right and need to do so by their making significant
choices? What good are your choices imposed on young human beings
resenting and regretting that the opportunity was missed to make their
own way. Why so little faith in the reliability of the human psyche as
it emerges toward adulthood with a flourish of strong energy of
different kinds in teenage years? One of the main ultimate outcomes of
this kind of mistrust is that it generates pseudo-adults rather than
real adults, as we shall see.
The roots of mistrust
The basic root of mistrust is fear. Here are some of the different
kinds of fear that may be at work.
• Fear of your own unlived potential Conditioned by your
parents and others to mistrust your own teenage aspirations, you have
embalmed them in fear, which unconsciously increases as they appear to
become more and more impracticable with age. This fear is then projected
on to your own teenager as a mistrust of their capacity to make the
From his early teenage years, Frank wanted to become either an
orchestral conductor or a brain surgeon, having significant
potential in both directions. His father was an alcoholic and the
family was always short of money. He was persuaded by his mother to
leave school at 14 and go out to work as an office boy to help the
family finances. After many years he forgot his youthful
aspirations, rose to become sales manager and eventually set up a
successful company of his own. Meanwhile he had married and fathered
two sons. The eldest, in his late teens, wanted to become a creative
writer. Frank pooh-poohed the idea and said it would be foolish to
throw up the opportunity to join and eventually take over a thriving
• Fear of the upsurge of life in your teenager He and she are
undergoing rapid physical, sexual and mental development. Human nature
demonstrates its dramatic, emerging power before your eyes. You are
afraid that it will all run riot in negative, disruptive, chaotic,
self-centred and self-destructive disturbing actions.
There is a very pervasive, still potent tradition in western culture
that fears nature, the human body, human sexuality, human potential.
They are felt to be dangerous, lurking sources of damnation. Augustine,
who dominated Christian doctrine, saw original sin as concupiscence,
transmitted biologically through sexual procreation. At the Reformation,
Calvin wrote of the 'hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature'.
In the 18th century, children at the dawn of puberty were routinely
taken to watch public hangings, then brought home to be gratuitously
flogged, so as to put the fear of god into them in order to contain
their innate nastiness.
That was long ago, yet not so long ago. Meanwhile, the tradition
lingers on in secular form. The Freudian id is a seething unconscious
cauldron that seeks to give free rein to primitive impulses, sexual and
aggressive. It needs to be contained by the reality principle of the ego
and the censorious demands of the superego.
You may be neither Christian nor Freudian in your explicit beliefs.
Yet you may still be caught up in the persistent, pervasive echoes of
this cultural legacy. For there are as yet no widely prevailing belief
systems, available to large numbers of people, that affirm trust in
creation, trust in the body, trust in sexuality, and trust in the up
thrusting energies of adolescent human beings.
The problem with a fear of, a lack of trust in, these great
realities, is that it is self-perpetuating through being
self-fulfilling. Once you fear your own human nature, you inhibit it.
This distorts it into ugly forms, and then you realize how right you
were to fear it. When you fear the human nature of your teenager, you
oppress it, it responds in disturbed behaviour, and you then blame
yourself for not having exercised enough control: you clearly took the
correct approach but with not enough rigour. This mutilating,
self-locking treatment is not one from which any teenager can benefit.
At the age of 14, Jane started going out on dates. Her mother,
terrified that Jane would be willingly seduced into rampant sexual
activity, become pregnant and have a secret abortion, insisted that
she be good and return home at a very early hour. Feeling deeply
mistrusted, Jane's hurt and resentment drove her to seduce her
boyfriend and she became pregnant. Her mother accused Jane of being
bad, insisted she have an abortion and tell no-one about it. She
then refused to let Jane go out at all. Within a year, Jane had run
away from home.
• Fear of the challenge to your own limited lifestyle You fear
that if you truly affirmed the right of your teenagers to make many more
significant choices than you allow, in doing so they would throw into
relief the unnecessary restrictions of your own life. We keep our
children chained, otherwise once liberated they may throw a spotlight
into the shadows where our own redundant bondage lurks. To support their
fulsome development, we need to set in motion our own renewed
Who really is adult?
If parents of teenagers are caught in the parental trap, are they
really adults? If parents snare their teenagers in the same trap, will
the teenagers grow up to be real adults?
Young people stumble into adulthood never resolving their induced
teenage compulsions to rebel, exploit, regress, and comply - behind
which lie all manner of unexplored potentials. The social challenges of
the adult world demand an appearance of responsible decision-making. The
teenager, not empowered from within to emerge into adulthood, is dragged
by the pressure of events to make some working accommodation to its
requirements. The result is a pseudo-adult, a partial, incomplete, not
fully empowered adult, with a fixated, unliberated teenager within.
Pseudo-adults have had to abandon their own teenage liberation. They
sustain their new-found and precarious social identity by denying that
this abandonment matters or indeed that any such abandonment ever
occurred, or, which is the same thing, that there was ever anything to
abandon. Their teenage script is buried.
At 17, Peter had an ambition to roam the world, travel far and
wide, work at any job, test himself with the rolling dice of fate,
meet the challenge of unknown human encounters, and find a luminous
woman on a distant hill. His father became anxious and concerned at
this phantasy, and thought it was an irresponsible avoidance of
getting a proper qualification. Peter was persuaded by the subtle
intimidation of his father to abandon his plan and proceed straight
from school to enrol for a medical degree. The pressures of the
training, the competitive pursuit of a medical career, induced Peter
to forget his teenage ambition and deny that it was ever relevant.
When in due course pseudo-adults become the parents of a teenager,
the buried script is triggered into re-enactment through identification
and projection. Pseudo-adults become pseudo-parents who cannot empower
their teenage sons and daughters. They cannot see what the teenagers
need. They just see the projected ghost of their own past self, and deny
to their real teenagers what they still deny to this ghost and they do
this by re-enacting variations on the internalized compulsions of their
When pseudo-adults re-enact the interlocking parent-teenage
compulsions of their own teenage years, they do so in a form that is
somewhat up-dated and improved by the onward march of social change. And
from this a new generation of pseudo-adults appear, perhaps a little
less pseudo- than their predecessors.
Of course, this a caricature. It emphasises the pathology of the
interaction between the generations. But it does what all relevant
caricature should: it brings home an important and central element of
A more balanced account of the embattled parent's relationships with
their teenagers is that it is not always embattled. It is a mixture in
which the rational, the sensitive and the human are interspersed with
strong bouts of the irrational, the insensitive and not so human. What
makes parents emotionally incompetent is that they don't know which is
which. They can't really tell when they have shifted from a rational to
an irrational approach .
This also means that the shift is unpredictable. Teenagers live in a
domestic undergrowth in which they never know when the helper will turn
into the hunter or vice versa. This leads inevitably to
reciprocal mistrust and desperation. The desperation is acute and
potentially explosive since the parent implies that the teenager is not
entitled to have it. The helper who turns into the hunter still claims
to be the helper, and while aiming the gun expects gratitude for
The concept of emotional competence - knowing how to handle our
emotions - is one of which our society is still widely ignorant. We
understand intellectual competence, technical and practical competence,
and we could hazard a guess as to what aesthetic and spiritual
competencies might mean. But we receive no education and training in how
to identify and manage our own emotional processes, as they affect our
relationship with ourselves and our interactions with other people.
The culture, through its child-raising and educational practices,
only has one message about emotions: learn to control them. But it
doesn't specify how to do this. It strongly implies that excessive
display of emotion of any kind is unseemly, and, above all, that
distress emotions - of grief, fear and anger - must quickly be brought
under control. To be seen as adult is to be seen as someone who, both in
social interaction and in private, can reliably control their
The problem with a non-specific injunction to control emotions is
that it makes no distinction between appropriate, aware control in which
the emotion is contained but not assaulted, and inappropriate,
uncontrolled control in which the emotion is attacked by suppression, or
by the more extreme battering of repression and denial. And where there
is repression and denial, there is the return of the repressed in
disguised and distorted forms: the individual concerned typically
projects the inner victim onto others and sustains the repression within
by oppressing the surrogate victims without.
In a society which makes no distinction between aware control and
repressive control, all kinds of people in all kinds of situations slip
- out of a healthy human way of relating - into acting out in oppressive
relations with others their internal repression of certain emotions. And
they are relatively unaware of when they make this slip.
Father Murphy, a white-haired priest in his middle 50s, is a
kindly, benign and much-loved man, who frequently counsels young
people, especially at the request of their parents. Some of the
teenagers come away quite agreeably surprised, others leave his
counsel dispirited and resentful, yet others depart with an
unsettling mixture of both responses. In a training group in which
he is a participant, it becomes clear from his interactions with
other members what is happening. He simply cannot tell when he has
shifted, sometimes in relating to the same person, sometimes in
relating to different people, from authentic and sensitive human
caring to subtly oppressive moralistic interference.
This kind of emotional incompetence - the unaware shift from the
authentic to the compulsive, from affirming the present to re-enacting
the past - can happen in subtle and not so subtle forms in all
professional practice. Its occurrence is especially bizarre in the
various helping professions, where it results in pseudo-helping. And
parenthood is the great domain of amateur helping where it can occur a
There are various criteria of emotional competence. There are two
related ones which are quite central, and which are relevant here.
• Being able to spot when unfinished business from the past, a buried
script, is about to be triggered off and displaced into current
interaction with your teenager.
• Being able to replace it with a sensitive and imaginative response
that is empowering for both of you in the present.
We shall look at both these criteria in practical detail, later on,
when considering how to get out of the parental trap, and how to relate
to teenagers as emerging adult decision-makers, citizens of the future.
Chapter 2: Teenage tension
Sources of teenage tension
As well as parents snaring their children in the parental trap, there
are other significant sources of teenage tension, and it is important
that these are now acknowledged.
• The crisis of choice: there are six aspects of this crisis and they
all bear upon the great issue of the teenage years, the formation of
• There is a bewildering array of choices to be made, a plethora
of options. Personal development is branching out in so many
different directions: emotional intensities; romantic phantasies;
erotic arousal; exploratory, adventurous impulses; corybantic,
untamed energy; intellectual curiosity; the urge to create and to
master challenging skills; the ambition for personal achievement;
the pursuit of exemplars; spiritual and mystical awakenings; the
search for ideals; and more.
• There is the anxiety of choice: I want and need to make my own
choices, to become my own person, yet I am frightened to let go of
the security of my parents deciding for me.
• There is the dilemma of modelling: I don't originate my own
choices if I do the same kinds of things my parents do; I still
don't originate my own choices if I make a point of doing the
opposite to what my parents do.
• There is the dilemma of identity: do I make basic choices in
order to create who I am, or do I decide who I am in order to make
• There is the challenge of different kinds of identity: to do
with moral values, with fulfilling potential capacities, with social
recognition, and with economic livelihood.
• There is the ever growing pressure, as the teenage years go by,
of choosing a career and a life-style, to meet the challenge of
economic survival in the adult world, and relate it to the other
kinds of identity.
• There are peer group pressures and sibling rivalries.
• There is the restricted, authoritarian model of education used in
secondary schools. There are the limited attitudes and reactions of many
other authority figures in the wider reaches of political and economic
life: the cynicism, the competitiveness and self-centredness, the
manipulation, the moralistic interference, the hypocrisy, the low
commitment to care for the planet and the people, the lack of idealism.
• There is the total absence of initiation to mark the emergence of
adulthood at puberty. The culture as a whole has no grasp of symbolic
and affirmative rituals, rites of passage, affirmative apprenticeships,
initiatory bondings, imaginative developmental pathways. There are only
well-intentioned, piecemeal, lukewarm ' youth' enterprises here and
there, dotted haphazardly over the cultural landscape.
All these together, even without compulsively misguided parenting can
generate a high level of tension. And this, of course, makes the case
for empowering parenting all the stronger. To begin with , I will look
at the first large item on the list above. It is all about the central
teenage issue of discovering how to make truly personal choices.
Anxiety about growing up
Growing up in the teenage years means coming to grips with the second
item on the list: the anxiety of choice - I want to do my own thing, but
I'm frightened to let go of the security of my parents choosing for me.
The teenager is in the watershed era, between the dependence of
childhood and the independence of adulthood. There is a drive within to
achieve personal autonomy, offset by a fear of stepping outside the
familiar zone of parental guidance.
The anxiety is increased by the first item on the list - the
bewildering array of choices to be made. With so much development going
on within, there is a call to make all sorts of choices in the world
without, where a huge array of options waits. The very abundance of
possibilities can be frightening and confusing. Where to start and how
This fear can be a separate cause of disturbed teenage behaviour.
Overcome by the panic of making a personal, responsible choice, your
teenager does something rebellious or exploitative or regressive, to
provoke you into disapproval and control, so you end up telling him or
her how to behave. Once you are provoked into taking over the controls
again, your teenager feels your familiar guidance. Now he or she can
keep you hooked in a negative cycle. The total cycle looks like this.
• Your teenager is afraid of real choice.
• He or she provokes you.
• You take over the controls.
• Your teenager feels the safety of the familiar cage, but it is
still a cage.
• He or she rebels against the controlling bars of the cage.
• This provokes you into renewed forms at control.
• Your teenager feels the safety of the familiar cage, but it is
still a cage.
• Your teenager again rebels against the control.
• And so on.
So it goes fear-provocation-control-safety-rebellion/provocation-control-safety-rebellion/
provocation - etc. If any act of rebellion doesn't elicit disapproval
and control, then your teenager will start up some new provocation. This
vicious cycle is continuously run by your teenager's fear of making real
choices and will enable him and her to go on avoiding them. By needling
you into oppression, he and she can feel safe, indulge their resentment,
justify their rebellion, and persist in evading the challenge of
emerging into adulthood. Provocation and rebellion become a negative and
addictive substitute for real decision-making.
Julia, 16, regularly does things, apparently inadvertently, which
pull down upon her the controlling wrath of her mother. For example:
she turned on the bath, went to her room and forgot the water was
running until it was all over the floor and seeping into the flat
below; when there was no-one else in, she went out for the evening
and left the front door ajar; and so on and so forth. Her mother not
only scolds her forcibly for these events, but also tells her what
to do on all sorts of other occasions for fear that she might be
Because of your buried script and the compulsion to control which
comes from it you are already primed to collude with this negative
cycle. So both you and your teenager become locked into an addiction to
fruitless behaviour, each for your own disturbed motives. Once you are
both displacing variations of fear in this way, real life passes you
both by. That is, the real life of real people, where you make choices
that fulfil yourself and empower your teenager to make personal
decisions, and he or she feels the inner zest of making them.
Teenage rebellion: evasion or protest?
Is your teenager rebelling, or being exploitative or regressive,
because he or she is afraid of making real choices, or because he or she
is feeling oppressed by your compulsive and outdated control? Put
briefly, is the rebellion to do with inner evasion, or external protest?
It is extremely unlikely that it is either entirely rooted in a
fear and evasion of responsible freedom, or altogether reactive,
a protest against your inappropriate control.
Since compulsive parental control, based on mistrust, is probably
continually present throughout most teenagers' lives, their provocative
behaviour will certainly have a strong reactive element in it. It also
seems reasonable to suppose that there is a core of existential anxiety,
a fear of decision-making as such, underlying it. But though these two
things are of relatively independent origin, they massively reinforce
• Your teenager's fear of freedom leads him or her to a provoke and
exacerbate your pre-existent compulsion to control, setting up the
repetitive negative cycle described in the previous section.
• Your compulsion to control, which carries the message 'I don't
trust you to make the right choices', greatly exacerbates fear in your
teenager about making responsible decisions. Your mistrustful message,
itself rooted in fear, transmits fear to your teenager, thus undermining
his or her self-confidence and implanting a negative self-image.
Julia, 16, described in the previous example, has always been
over controlled by her mother, from her earliest years. And as she
goes through the teenage years, the control becomes even more
strident. As a result she has low self-esteem and damaged
self-confidence, and thus her fear of finding her own way in life is
greatly increased. Her repetitive carelessness is both an
unconscious protest at the control, and also a way of making sure it
doesn't stop, since she feels too bad about herself to deal with the
challenge of making her own real choices in life.
It is this last effect that creates the biggest ambiguity. How much
of the fear in your teenage is their own stuff, and how much did you
induce by your mistrustful attitude? Whatever, the answer, you have
certainly increased the total amount. Because of this, it wise for you
to treat your teenager's rebellion and provocation as primarily
reactive, and to put your house in order accordingly.
If you do put your house in order, withdraw your compulsive control
and apply the sorts of strategies to empower teenage decision-making
that are suggested later in this book, then your teenager may continue
to try to provoke you. This continued provocation does sometimes happen
and may go on for a while. And initially, at any rate, it is still
ambiguous. Is it motivated by the fear of freedom, or by a disbelief
that your empowering intent is genuine and a consequent need to put it
the test for a time, or by the continuing low self-esteem that is the
legacy of your past over control?
The longer you hold your new course without wavering, the more
certain it becomes, if the provocation continues, that it is existential
anxiety at work, your teenager's fear of emerging as an adult
decision-maker, exacerbated by leftover low self-esteem. The greater
then the need for you as parent to give supportive affirmation of this
Conformity as cover-up
At least if your teenager is rebelling, or being exploitative or
regressive, you know he or she is busy with the turmoil of growing up,
either resisting the challenge, or protesting your over control, or
both. But what if he or she is apparently compliant, conforming to all
your guidance and control, stated or implied, with very little evident
turmoil at all?
This is in some ways more disquieting. For behind the apparent
compliance, there is highly likely to be covert rebellion, hidden
defiance, carefully veiled reactive behaviour. If this compliance
bridges the whole teenage period between childhood and adulthood, then
the teenager emerges as a very pseudo-adult, whose behaviour is all
convention and conformity and none of it the outcome of authentic
personal choice. Meanwhile the hidden reactive behaviour also continues
on into adulthood, turning into all manner of distortions and
disturbances in the individual's private life.
Sally, now 32, was the apple of her parents' eyes. As a teenager
she fulfilled all their hopes and ambitions for her: she did well in
school exams, played in the school teams, brought home the nicest
kind of girls and boys, was attentive around the house, and
well-mannered to all her parents' friends. She was happy to choose
the career they wanted her to have. From the age of 16 she started
to drink spirits, always ensuring that her parents never found out.
From 17, when she was trusted to stay away from home, she quite
regularly got drunk. At college, she was a controlled alcoholic, and
got a good degree. She is now a confirmed alcoholic, with one
marriage disaster behind her, and is seeking recovery through the
twelve step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous.
While your compliant teenager may make life much easier for you, in
the limited sense that your status quo is not disrupted and you can
continue on unawarely re-enacting your buried script, there is a twofold
• You are never challenged to grow into full parenthood, to
facilitate the emergence of an adult decision-maker and so never
discover who your son or daughter really is.
• Your son or daughter slips by undeveloped into adult life, carrying
on your own buried script as their own, almost word for word the same,
ready to transmit it unblinkingly to yet another generation.
The first step: being different
Teenagers feel the urge within to become their own person, to make
their own choices. Suppose your teenager overcomes the anxiety that this
urge arouses, doesn't get stuck in either provocation or compliance, he
or she is then faced with a dilemma - the third item on opening list of
• For your teenager to make the sort of choices you do doesn't feel
original to him or her.
• To do the opposite of what you do is still a formula based on what
you do, and while it is a step of separation, it doesn't really feel
How does this dilemma get set up?
You are the ever-present model of adult decision-making, who has been
there every day since the start of your child's life. A lot of the
choices you made in the earlier years were choices made for your child,
decisions made on his or her behalf. Even the choices you made entirely
about yourself, your own preferences and life-style, set the context for
directing the life of your child: he or she grows up associating all
your decision-making with directing his or her actions.
For the teenager, faced with the challenge of adult decision-making,
you are a potent and influential model. But you are still, in all your
actions, associated with direction and control. So it is difficult for a
teenager to feel that a choice is his or her own, even if he or
she has a good reason for making it, if it looks the same as your kind
of behaviour. Such a choice is ambiguous because it is uncomfortably
close to compliance. If I am your teenager doing the sorts of things you
do, then I may believe I really have my own reasons for doing them, but
I can also wonder whether this belief is just a way of rationalizing my
conformity to what you want me to do.
How, then, can your teenager cope with you as a powerful and
influential adult model, strongly associated with control, even where
your behaviour has nothing to do with directing your child? How can he
or she get out from under this association, while still finding some
security in you as a model? The simple solution is to use the formula of
doing the opposite of what you do in certain kinds of up-front, basic
everyday behaviour. Your teenager uses you as a model in an upside down
way by setting out to be different from you.
• We must allow that this formula of doing the opposite of what you
do, in quite obvious ways such as language, clothing, hair style,
behaviour round the house, taste in music, choice of foods, social
customs with peers, while it is not really independent behaviour, is a
first step for a teenager in getting a feel of what it is like to do his
and her own thing without actually doing it.
• By the use of the formula, they can create images of themselves as
people who make choices that are different to yours. Being a
different, separate sort of person in this reactive way is not being a
truly autonomous one, hence the underlying disquiet of the dilemma. But
it creates a platform from which teenagers can later on launch
themselves into real independence, and so move out of the discomfort of
• This being-different platform is strengthened because it is shared
in large measure by your teenager's peer group, all of whose members
adopt broadly similar language, clothing, hair style, behaviour round
the house, taste in music, choice of foods, social customs. This shared
identity within the peer group eases the anxiety of separating off from
parental behaviour as a reference point and of becoming a different sort
It is also important not to confuse this formula of being different
to you with the business, described above, of trying to provoke you into
control. Being different to you is way of establishing a psychological
base for making real decisions later on. Whereas trying to provoke you
into control is a way of avoiding the challenge of making such
And while it is important that you don't mix them up in your
perceptions and see all being-different as provocation, your teenager
may well mix them up in behaviour. Just because being-different takes
your teenager in the direction of making real choices, this may stir up
the fear of doing so, then the being-different behaviour may sometimes
degenerate into provocation.
Peter is 17. His parents like soft mood music and traditional
romantic ballads. His choice in music is acid jazz, a merging of
traditional jazz with 70s style funk, 90s hip-hop beat and
cutting-edge technology. There are occasions when he plays it in his
room very loud. Sometimes this is just his way of being different.
At other times, when it is very late at night and decisions about
the next day loom at the back of his mind, or when his parents are
entertaining and decisions about his own social interactions come
forward, it is his way of dealing with the fear of choice by being
Being-different behaviours are usually fairly superficial, to do with
immediate impact, appearance and preferences: they are matters of
external taste not of deep morality. Once your teenager feels
sufficiently different to you in these relatively superficial ways, he
and she will feel the urge to become more fully autonomous. They will do
without the prop of an inverse model, and start to make truly
independent, deeper choices that reflect values either the same as yours
or very different to yours.
There is, finally, the very important point that the less directive
and controlling you are in relation to your teenager's life, and the
more affirming you are of his or her ability to take charge of his or
her own life, the more freedom he or she will feel to use you as a
right-way-up model. This means your teenager can do the sort of things
you do, because he or she can feel and inwardly approve the values that
are evident in how you behave. The more you support your teenager's
independence and personal responsibility, the more he or she can see you
free of the aura of control, and appreciate in their own hearts and
minds what you stand for.
Identity: discovery or decision?
We now come to the heart of your teenager's crisis of choice. This is
the dilemma about whether to discover his or her identity through action
or whether to decide on it first in order to act.
• As a teenager, do I first make basic choices in living in order to
find out who I want to be?
• Or do I first choose the sort of person I want to be in order to
make my basic choices?
Do I plunge into the maelstrom of choices in order to discover who I
am? Or do I decide who I am and make my choices accordingly? To put it
another way: Do I make everyday decisions of various kinds first and
then see whether the person I become is the kind of person I really
choose to be? Or do I first of all decide what sort of person I want to
be, and then make everyday choices accordingly?
Marie is 16. She was raised in a radical kibbutz in Israel with a
highly collective life-style. She left it two years ago. She has
strong views about her experience, and would like to write about it.
In talking this over, she wonders whether she just decides to start
writing about her experience in order to discover if she is a
writer; or whether she first has to decide that she is a writer in
order to be able to write about it all.
Of course this crisis is not peculiar to a teenager. It faces each of
us, all the time, whatever our age. A person is a self-creating being.
Each day the process of inquiry begins anew: what I choose to do creates
my personality, but what sort of personality am I going to choose to
Your teenager, however, faces this crisis at its first dawn and in
its most acute form. When he or she has overcome the fear of choice, has
got used to being different by the use of upside-down modelling, there
arises, somewhere deep within his or her being this great dilemma of
identity. Who is the 'I' that is involved in decision-making? Do I make
decisions to discover and create my identity, or choose an identity in
order to make decisions?
It is not that your teenager sits down in a reflective mood and
defines the problem in this explicit form, rather he or she feels the
dilemma as an inner crisis of how to be and do. To help get some insight
into resolving it, there is a simple distinction between the
potential-I, the actual-I and the ideal-I.
• The potential-I is the whole range of innate propensities,
aptitudes and interests which start to make their claim on your
teenager's behaviour. I alluded to this burgeoning of personal
development in so many different directions at the opening of this
chapter: emotional intensities; romantic phantasies; erotic arousal;
exploratory, adventurous impulses; corybantic, untamed energy;
intellectual curiosity; the urge to create and to master challenging
skills; the ambition for personal achievement; the pursuit of exemplars;
spiritual and mystical awakenings; the search for ideals. The potential
person within your teenager is a dynamic seedbed of impulses to think,
feel and act in these various ways.
• The actual-I is who your teenager has now become by virtue of what
he or she has done and is now doing. Incidentally, this also includes
what teenagers did to themselves in the past in order to survive what
was done to them by others.
• The ideal-I is found in the visions and values your teenager
aspires to, his or her sense of what is a fulfilling, rewarding and
uplifting way of life. And this is not to be confused with socially
conditioned morality, with the internalized prescriptions and
proscriptions acquired from parents and other authority figures in
earlier childhood. Personal vision is in a zone of inner truth beyond
the level of social conditioning.
Following the prompts from within
Because of the burgeoning power of the potential person within your
teenager, following its impulses is the royal road to his or her
personality development. There is not much point in nature producing
this upsurge of capacity if the dispositions to action that go with it -
which I call life prompts - are simply to be ignored. This is where you
as a parent need trust: trust that the emerging potential is reliable
and will flourish in vigorous healthy forms if you affirm it and support
its active, creative expression.
Your teenager needs both inner courage and your outer encouragement
to take this royal road. One way of avoiding the challenge, of falling
prey to the fear of following the exploratory promptings of inner
potential is for a teenager to invoke some vision or ideal of how to be,
construct choices to realize this, and ignore life prompts altogether.
If this happens then the ideal-I within the teenager swings into
premature and fundamentally defensive action, suppressing life prompts
and the experimentation that follows from them. This defensiveness is
heavily veiled by the ostensible idealism of the chosen behaviour. So we
get the phenomenon of young people identifying fully with the
doctrinaire idealism of some religious cult, with rigid codes of
conduct. They are caught up in a false euphoria based on the evasion,
suppression and displacement of their own dynamic potential.
The rigid codes may prescribe abstinence, or indulgence or some
mixture of the two. Whatever the case, what underlies the codes is a
spiritual dogma about what choices to make, and a subtle coercion to
Paul, 17 is uneasy about his sexuality and how to relate to
girls. He is frightened of his healthy impulses to meet them, talk
to them and explore friendship with them. He becomes a devotee of an
oriental cult which strongly encourages explicit sexual activity in
workshop settings as a means of spiritual liberation. Paul
suppresses and ignores his life prompts about healthy relationship,
and learns, exhorted by robed 'guides', how to sexualize himself and
others in order to discover the 'joy and freedom' of the road to
In a similar vein of thought, Anna Freud (1958) identified strategies
that adolescents inappropriately use to try to cope with and control
their burgeoning impulses. One is asceticism, avoiding pleasure
by strict diets or vigorous exercise. Another is intellectualization,
developing personal theories about the nature of love and of life.
A better role for the ideal-I within the teenager is to monitor the
effects of acting on life prompts. The inner idealism can evaluate the
learning that stems from following these prompts and assess whether the
actual-I one thereby becomes is the kind of person one really wants to
The dilemma of identity for a teenager is: do I make choices to
discover who I am, or do I choose who I am in order to make choices? The
resolution proposed here for your teenager is to turn the dilemma into
an interactive sequence. Go for the first part, then the second, and let
them interact in that order. So the recommendation to your teenager is
• Follow the life prompts of your potential-I to make choices to find
out what kind of an actual-I this creates.
• Then invoke your ideal-I to see whether you want to be like that.
• If you do, then let this confirm future choices of a similar kind.
If you don't, then let this realization shape new choices that accord
more with what you want to be.
• Meanwhile, continue to be open to a continuing upsurge of life
prompts in all sorts of directions of living.
• Keep this interaction going, giving primacy to life prompts,
monitored, confirmed or modified in their outcomes by your inner vision
In other words, let idealism follow and temper prior experimentation,
rather than precede and inhibit it.
Marie, 16, described in the previous example but one, feels a
strong prompt to leave school and the whole social environment of
her life, and to go abroad to find work in another country. She
wants to discover more about who she is by making choices in an
unfamiliar and different kind of setting. Once she is abroad, she
keeps checking in with her inner vision of who she wants to be, to
see whether her bold plan of self-discovery is proving to be
The life prompts can of course be suppressed in other ways than the
misplaced idealism illustrated by the case of Paul above. There is also
the teenager's fear of choice leading to the negative cycle of provoking
your control, then rebelling against it in order to provoke more of it,
as described in an earlier section of this chapter. There is your
anxious over control generating the sort of rebellion, different from
provocation, that distracts your teenager from following creative life
Teenagers know in their bones that they really need to follow life
prompts. They also know in their bones that it is scary. Hence the
possibility of giving way to the fear and acting it out in misplaced
idealism, negative provocation or persistent rebellion at your over
I have so far looked at your teenager's basic identity crisis as a
dilemma of choice: do I discover who I am by making choices, or do I
decide who I am in order to make choices. But when a teenager is
concerned with what kind of a person to become or choose to be, there is
also the challenge of different sorts of personal identity and of
how to integrate them.
There are several aspects of personal identity and it is vital that
they are not all run together. Erik Erikson (1963, 1968) tended to make
the choice of a career as central to the formation of adolescent
identity. If the teenager cannot select a career, he thought, then role
confusion follows, characterized by an inability to further educational
goals and by over identification with popular heroes and cliques. But
this is too quick.
Personal identity is multi-stranded, and each strand needs attention.
It certainly cannot be assumed that all these strands will coincide with
the choice of a career. And the notion of a career is ambiguous: it may
or may not include several of the different strands. The four main
strands are moral, psychological, social and economic:
• Doing something worthwhile What shall I do that will be
worthwhile and enhance the wellbeing of other people and myself, of the
planet and the life forms on it?
• Fulfilling myself What shall I do to realize and express my
special interests, talents and abilities?
• Achieving social recognition What shall I do that will win
me the esteem of other people?
• Surviving economically What shall I do that will be a
livelihood, will earn me a living.
All these different identity goals are relatively independent of each
other; and it is possible to fulfil each of them without the other three
being met at all. You can do something morally worthwhile, such as
voluntary work among the afflicted, that does not involve realizing your
talents, that achieves little or no social recognition and that makes no
contribution to your economic survival. You may fulfil yourself, for
example as an inventor, but invent a lot of useless things that make no
contribution to anyone's welfare, that are socially ignored and make no
money. You can become socially recognised for behaviour that is neither
worthwhile nor fulfilling and yields no financial return. You can
survive economically doing relatively worthless and unfulfilling work
that no-one notices.
At the other extreme, each of the four identity goals can be met to a
significant degree by following one career. The environmental architect
is doing something worthwhile, that realizes his or her creative
talents, that is esteemed by others and that makes a living.
The four goals can also be distributed singly or in various
combinations over different life activities. Thus some young people in
the Philadelphia Life Centre separate off surviving economically from
meeting the other three goals. They have part-time jobs, often of a
hum-drum kind, in the surrounding culture in order to make enough money
to meet subsistence needs. The goals of doing what is worthwhile and of
being fulfilled, they realize through being social activists and change
agents within a widespread network, the Movement for a New Society, and
through living in community and creative innovation in their life-style.
The goal of social esteem is met through the approbation and support of
other members of the Life Centre. Their money-earning, being part-time,
gives them time for their other, more valued pursuits.
So the Life Centre people treat their money-making identity as
necessary but unimportant, and stress the importance of the non-economic
goals of doing what is socially worthwhile and personally fulfilling,
social esteem among their peers being the by-product. Some people,
including myself, would regard this gap between subsistence and other
more valued activities, as relatively healthy. But it is a much more
sophisticated way of forming an identity than someone like Erikson was
able to envisage.
The great danger in our sort of society is that another kind of gap
often develops which is not at all healthy and teenagers can fall foul
of it in their choice of careers. This is the gap between, on the one
hand, achieving social recognition and making money, which together are
highly valued as career goals, and, on the other hand, doing things that
are worthwhile and fulfilling, which are not valued or included as
career goals and are regarded as purely private, secondary pursuits.
Worthwhile and fulfilling goals are about inner, personal
development. They involve activities that are intrinsically rewarding -
done for their own sake, for the satisfaction internal to them. They can
have attached to them a sense of calling, a vocation, the
commitment of a personal mission. If a career does not involve them and
is all about social recognition and making money, then that career is
extrinsically rewarding only. It is done entirely for the sake of
external gains and benefits. It does not fully engage the human person.
It is motivated by one or more of the following: social and economic
survival, competitiveness, social ambition, need for conformity,
covetousness, greed, lust for power, pursuit of sensationalism, fear,
insecurity, deprivation, and so on.
Of course, the potential conflict between survival on the one hand
and personal development on the other is one of the great recurring
tensions of the human condition. So often, so many people have felt
driven to survive by doing work that negates the unfoldment of their
capacities. It is all too easy for a teenager, faced with anxious
parents, a competitive society and his or her own anxieties about
choice, to settle simply for economic survival and the social status
attached to it, and disregard his or her identity as a moral being and
as a self-realized person.
Choosing a career
'What are you going to be when you grow up?' In the old days, this
was the sort of question friendly adults would ask shortly after a child
of nine or ten, especially a boy, had been introduced to them. It was
fondly supposed that every small male child was a micro-adult with a
keen eye on future career and status; and that every small female child
was already planning the drapes in the house in which she would raise
her children and look after her husband.
At the same time, such children were regarded as unfit to be heard
and barely fit to be seen save on terms controlled and dictated by their
parents and betters. This contradiction - that a child could readily
decide what to be, while being treated as totally incompetent to decide
anything properly for itself - was a convenient myth that enabled
parents to imagine that the careers they imposed on their children were
the ones the children had always had in mind. In this way, parents could
absolve themselves for any responsibility for fostering autonomy and
self-direction in their children. This sort of contradiction still
persists today, in somewhat altered form.
• Many parents expect that teenagers of both sexes will give serious
thought to planning their future careers around about the age of 14 or
15. This, in a country like Great Britain, is the age at which choices
must be made about O level examination subjects, since these have some
bearing on the later choice of A level subjects, which in turn affect
entry into different courses in higher education, many of which are a
direct entry to various professions and careers.
• Yet in all other respects, a teenager of 14 or 15 is treated with
condescension, as a helpless, incompetent and immature being who is
unfit to run his or her life without continuous parental control. This
contradiction is in itself a great source of stress for the teenager who
is at the receiving end of it. How can a teenager of this age give
serious thought to a preferred career, when being so mistrusted in
self-management by the very people who are encouraging him or her to
make a choice.
There are certainly differences of social class in this matter. The
contradiction just described applies in many middle and upper class
homes where it is assumed children will go forward into higher
education. In many working class families it is assumed that children
will leave school after gaining some minimum number of passes in the
sub-O-level CSE examination - a qualification just sufficient to mark
them out as having enough working intelligence to take on semi-skilled
work or train on the job for skilled work.
In this case, the contradiction is of a different kind. On the one
hand, the teenager is expected to be able to choose a worthwhile job
right here and now in their teenage years. On the other hand, they are
regarded as someone who is not capable of choosing and not worthy of
receiving any kind of higher education. Some would see it not as a
contradiction, but as a double put-down: you're only fit to be a
low-skilled and low-paid wage-earner; and you're not fit to be properly
Where the full-blown contradiction does apply, in middle and upper
class homes, the teenagers concerned often fudge and compromise in the
subject and career choices they make, because they have not been
encouraged to exercise personal responsibility. They have therefore
developed no capacity for creative, autonomous decision-making. They
have no base within, no nurtured area of life prompts, whence a real
sense of direction can emerge.
They are then, because of their underlying anxiety, in great danger
of falling foul of the gap mentioned in the previous section. They may
choose a career that is all about making money and social status and
doesn't bear much relation to their inner values and interests.
So there is a double dose of stress: firstly in trying to make such a
decision encumbered by such a contradiction; and secondly, in having to
live with the ongoing consequences of a decision which the teenager may
feel was never rightly or wisely made.
Teenagers with teenagers
Let's now have a look at some of the sources of teenage tension other
than parental over control, described in the first chapter, and the
inner challenges of choice, so far considered in this chapter. An
obvious one is the pressure that comes from associating with other
teenagers. Here there are two main features, and the first one is this.
• People who are oppressed, oppress each other. If young people,
especially, are victims of oppression and can't find any way out of it,
to survive it they internalize it, identify with it, and then they
reproduce it in their own behaviour in relation with each other.
If members of a teenage peer group are being driven into compulsive
rebellion by being over controlled at home and school, and this is
exacerbated by their own fear of making real choices about their lives,
then they will act out this over control in relation to each other. Of
course it won't look like the parental control from which they all
suffer and it certainly won't be focussed on the same issues, but it
will have the same sort of intent and effect, which is to get conformity
Peer group control of this sort is exercised through joking,
cajoling, goading, mutual conspiracy, mocking, plotting and railroading
through decisions. What it is aiming at is negative conformity:
collusive rebellion and provocation, with some exploitation and
regression thrown in. So quite apart from what parents may or may not be
doing, there comes a point at which teenagers themselves, through the
pressures they exert on each other within their peer group, keep
themselves locked in compulsive and negative behaviour.
Margery, 17, is attractive and sociable. Her peer group of
teenage friends is heavily into sexualizing their interactions, a
culture of covert rebellion in the face of misplaced authority in
parents and teachers. On her birthday, she is given a card by her
friends decorated on the inside by attached condoms. She makes love
regularly with her current main boyfriend for fear of losing his
interest if she doesn't. The experience actually makes her feel,
more often than not, quite sick.
• The second main feature of a teenage peer group is that it is an
arena in which basic social tensions are worked out. Each member of the
group has his or her own simple social identity crisis which consists of
three main quite normal anxieties. They reinforce each other, in the
individual and in the group as a whole.
• Will I be accepted? Will I be approved of, liked and
wanted? Or will I be rejected, disliked and unwanted? Here the
teenager's need to love and be loved is at risk.
• Will I find a role? Will I understand what is going on
in the group? Will I be able to make sense of this situation, so
that I can find some kind of role, function or position within it?
Here the teenager's need to understand and be understood is at risk.
• Will I be effective? Will I be able to do what I want to
do? Will I be able to control the situation to meet my needs? Will I
be competent or incompetent? Here the teenager's need to act and
choose, the need for mastery and personal power, is at risk.
These are all perfectly normal and healthy concerns. On their own, if
modest, they may act as spurs to fulfilment, motivating teenagers to
find acceptance with each other, to make sense of what is going on in
the group and explore rewarding roles in it, and to feel effective in
managing and meeting their needs. If this is so, then the influence of
these anxieties within a teenage peer group is constructive, helping to
create a co-operative, meaningful and creative climate for social
experimentation and learning. Within the peer group, a teenager can try
out a variety of roles, such leader or follower, change-agent or
conformist. The values and norms of the group provide a context within
which each member can acquire a perspective on their own values and
attitudes and so develop an increased and positive sense of their own
But if the three concerns become stronger, and get into overload,
then they may distort what is going on in the peer group. One obvious
way they get into overload is if the teenagers bring with them to their
peer group the emotional effects of the persistent mistrust imposed on
them by their parents. The three quite normal anxieties about finding
some satisfactory kind of social identity within their peer group,
become increased and warped by the low self-esteem and self-confidence
that are the inevitable effects of such sustained mistrust. And as well
as all this, there are the tensions to do with the three forms of the
teenage crisis of choice. The resulting overload of emotional stress can
deform behaviour in the peer group in three classic ways, which
interweave and interlock together, diving expression to a negative sense
of identity in group members .
• Following the leader Several teenagers in their peer group
become submissive and passive. They rather blindly follow someone in the
group who strikes a pose as a leader. They find acceptance by adopting
the same posture and plan as the leader. Inwardly they feel powerless,
with a low sense of their own identity in the group.
• Running away from reality All the teenagers may collude in
taking flight from social and physical reality, in drugs, sex, drink,
theft, laying about, continuous partying, and other escapades. They find
a meaning and a role in avoiding the constraints and challenges of the
real world. Unable to find meaning in their own creative life impulses,
they give rein to meaninglessness and chaotic impulses.
• Going on the attack Some teenagers in the group may make an
aggressive bid for leadership. The dominant leader may start off a
campaign of scapegoating one member of the group, of initiating a verbal
or physical attack on some other teenage group, of mocking any genuinely
creative initiative from anyone else in the group. The other group
members collude with these and other forms of aggressive behaviour. They
find how to be effective in various forms of violence, in an attempt to
compensate for a loss of real inner personal power.
The disaster of schooling
The secondary schools that teenagers attend, whether in the public or
the private sector, make the same mistake as most parents -
inappropriate control - but on an even greater scale. Parents who try to
tell their teenagers what to do and how to be in their lives, at least
acknowledge that control is an irregular business. It can't be pursued
all the time, it's a hit and miss affair and there are great tracts of
time where it is not applied at all. Controlling parents do not have
daily timetables that specify prescribed activities.
Secondary schools, by contrast, are monuments to persistent,
authoritarian timetabling. They tell their teenage students what to
learn, how to learn it, when to learn it, and whether they have learnt
it. Staff make all the educational decisions for students, choosing
within any given course the range and order of topics, the method of
learning, the timing and pacing of learning, the method and procedure of
assessment. Within the learning process there is no self-direction by
teenagers in all these basic areas, only in the execution of homework
and other projects which are chosen for them.
And this is for young people who well before the age of 18 are
expected to make critical life choices about a career; and at 18 are
expected to be self-directing participants in the democratic process
voting for their preferred member of parliament, to take their place as
responsible citizens in the work force, or to become autonomous students
in higher education; and, if male, are expected to make life and death
decisions on the battlefield in times of war and national emergency.
So secondary schools control everything about the learning process
right up to and into the eighteenth year of a teenager. Then suddenly,
overnight, young people are expected to find their feet as autonomous
decision-makers with no prior preparation, experience and guidance at
any point in their school years. It is no wonder that many teenagers
feel that the educational method to which they are subjected is
demeaning and damaging for them and condescending on the part of staff.
When she was 16, having completed her O level exams, Val had a
long talk with her father and complained that the attitude of staff
to the pupils at her school made her feel she was being managed as a
child. She felt her integrity was abused and treated with
disrespect. Impressed by her clear, intelligent account and
persuaded of its unanswerable correctness, her father asked her what
she would prefer to do. Val suggested she take her A levels at a
College of Further Education where she believed she would treated
much more as an adult. Both her mother and father agreed to this
plan. Val found that the college of her choice , while still not
ideal, was more to her liking as an emerging adult. She had the
right to attend classes or not as she thought fit. She therefore
only attended those classes given by teachers she felt were really
good. If the teacher of a subject was no good, Val dealt with it by
private study. In her main A level exams Val obtained straight As.
The disaster of secondary schooling, then, is that it does not in any
way, within the learning process, encourage students to be
self-directing, to make important learning choices and decisions for
themselves - about what to learn, when and how to learn it, and whether
they have learnt it - in a context where teachers can guide, counsel,
challenge and support. It is not that secondary students should decide
everything about their curriculum entirely for themselves. This is a
ludicrous opposite extreme to the prevailing total authoritarianism.
But what is needed to avoid the current disaster of schooling is an
educational culture in which teachers invite students to collaborate
with them more and more in managing the learning process. In such a
culture there is a clearly graduated progression from initial
hierarchical control by staff of everything, through varied degrees of
collaborative planning between staff and students, to increased
delegation and student autonomy.
In the absence of all this, the experience of secondary schooling is
another great source of teenage stress and can only reinforce the
effects of compulsive parental control at home. So we get more teenage
rebellion, exploitation, regression or compliance, within the classroom,
within other school-based activities and within the school facilities
and grounds. And in extreme cases, while parents are more problematic
for their own teenagers to assault, school teachers are conveniently
non-related subjects for violent attack.
A teenager in term-time moves to and fro on a daily basis between one
pole of compulsive control, the parental home, and another, the school.
The distorting impact of all this on teenage behaviour is bound to flow
between the poles, with overflow at one end being increased by tension
generated at the other.
Gaie is 15. One day, when she comes home from school in a mood, she
is immediately subjected to inquisitorial, controlling and persistent
questioning from her mother, Sandra, who never really listens to what
Gaie may need and want to say. Gaie starts screaming and yelling abuse,
runs into her bedroom and trashes it. Sandra is non-plussed and
bewildered why her daughter should relapse into such extreme and
uncontrolled behaviour, after 'just a little friendly and sympathetic
Revolution in learning
Beyond the level of secondary education, in staff development units
in higher education all over the world, there is a massive modern
revolution in learning under way (Heron, 1989, 1993). It is true that
the majority of departments in universities, polytechnics, institutes of
technology and colleges of various kinds are highly conservative and
traditional in their educational methods. But the wind of change is
unmistakably blowing, and as always in the history of human rights, it
is only a matter of time before the innovations being undertaken in a
minority of departments spread wider afield. And as a matter of moral
urgency they need to be launched within secondary education itself.
It is worth briefly spelling out that nature of this educational
revolution since it has such a major bearing on the theme of this book -
that parents of teenagers need to affirm and support self-determination
in their teenagers lives. What the revolution has fully grasped is that
education is first and foremost about learning and only secondarily
about teaching, understood as an aid to learning. And what it has
grasped about learning is that is entirely a matter of personal
autonomy: people can only do it in and for themselves.
Learning is the acquisition of knowledge or skills from experience,
study or teaching. It involves interest and commitment: we only really
learn what freely engages our minds and wills. Then too it supposes
practice, understanding and retention: we have learnt something if
through mental rehearsal or practice we understand it or know how to do
it, in the case of a skill, and can retain that understanding or
competence for some significant period of time.
All these aspects of learning are necessarily your business: no-one
else can do them for you. Interest, commitment, practice, understanding
and retention are all self-generated, self-sustaining and self-directed.
It follows from this account of learning, that teaching can no longer
seen as imparting things to the student, but as enabling and supporting
the process of student autonomy in learning. How to facilitate the
students' inner learning process becomes the focus of concern, rather
than the old-style pre-occupation with how to teach things to people.
With this goes a significant shift in the onus of responsibility. In the
old model, the teacher is principally responsible for student learning.
In the new model, the primary responsibility rests with the
self-directing learner; and only secondarily with the teacher.
The concept of learning as self-directed only appeared in the old
approach as students working on their own on prescribed tasks, such as
set homework, set essays, set practicals and projects. The new approach
applies it to participating with teachers in three main areas of
educational decision-making. To educate persons means to facilitate
their self-direction not only in learning what the content of a
discipline is, but also in learning how to learn it, in learning whether
they have learnt it, and in working with other self-directed learners.
Hence the importance of the following kinds of participation.
• The learning contract This is all about learning how to
learn. The student, at the appropriate stage, is invited to co-operate
with teachers in decisions about learning objectives, that is, about the
main subjects and detailed topics to be learnt; and also about
timetabling, pacing, teaching and learning methods, the use of human and
physical resources. Such collaborative design of learning programmes may
involve both one-to-one contracts and one-to-group contracts between
teachers and learners. The contracts can be introduced progressively as
part of a gradient which starts with traditional control of everything
by teachers, followed by involving students increasingly in
collaborative planning with staff, and leading over to more and more
• Collaborative assessment This is about learning whether you
have learnt. First, the learner takes part with the teacher in
determining criteria for assessment. Next, the student assesses his or
her own work in the light of these criteria, and the teacher assesses
that student's work in the light of the agreed criteria. Then together
they negotiate the final grade. The importance of helping young people
to become self-assessing in this way cannot be overestimated, since once
they are living and working in the adult world, the primary way they
exercise responsibility is through being self-assessing about their life
• Co-operation with peers Persons can only be self-directing
in reciprocal relations with other self-directing persons. The autonomy
of the learner entails a context of co-operation with other autonomous
learners. Hence the importance of group-based learning, of students
working together on problem-solving, decision-making, practical work,
projects, giving each other feedback, using self and peer assessment
amongst themselves on their work. The independent learning group is an
essential context for the new educational approach. This too is an
essential preparation for the kind of creative teamwork increasingly
needed in modern organizations.
The relevance of all this to the message of this book is clear. Those
responsible for the development of teaching and learning in higher
education have grasped that learning is entirely a matter of personal
autonomy: people can only do it in and for themselves. This, of course,
is in relation to academic and technical subjects. How much more true it
is in the business of learning how to live, how to manage your life, how
to form your identity, create your personality and shape your destiny.
And this is the great task upon which your teenager is launched. He and
she know in their bones it is their business, their responsibility. You
as a parent can only enable, affirm and support them, in a secondary
role. In so doing, you can make use of something like the learning
contract just described above, as we shall see in a later chapter.
No rites of passage
Primitive, premodern societies gave great prominence to rites of
passage, ceremonies to mark what for them were the main events of the
human life cycle: birth, naming, puberty, marriage and burial. Both boys
and girls underwent a rite of passage at puberty to mark their coming of
age. It typically had three phases: separation, initiation and
reincorporation (Campbell, 1949).
The first stage was separation from childhood and frequently involved
painful ordeals, the experience and assimilation of which marked the
initial turning of the child into adult. In the second stage, among
members of his or her own sex, the fledgling adult was instructed in the
myths and practices - spiritual, technical, social - of the men or women
of his or her tribe. The third stage marked the formal and full
emergence of the newly qualified adult, perhaps with some insignia or a
new name, who was now eligible for marriage and could assume adult
rights and duties.
The great virtue of this process is that it makes a huge affirmation
of the physical, sexual, emotional, mental, practical and spiritual
capacities that are burgeoning into development at puberty. It both
affirms these powers and affirms that the young human being is now
capable of expressing them in a responsible and adult way. In this
respect it honours fully the message of nature: seeing all these
remarkable capacities coming forth in a rush, tribal societies rightly
took it that this meant they were ready for real use.
Its great deficit, from the modern point of view, is that it does all
this by imposing tribal conformity: the only way to be adult and
responsible is in terms of long-established traditional practices, from
which no variation is conceivable. So while the young person is fully
acknowledged to be capable of handling adult responsibility, what that
entails is predefined by the authority of tribal custom. The ideal-I was
defined by social convention, imposed upon behaviour and the life
prompts of the potential-I could manifest only within those rigid
In such a process, there is no adolescent phase of self-discovery,
experiment and identify formation, only the dramatic passage from
childhood to adulthood (Keen, 1991). There is no acknowledgment of
individual liberty, of personal responsibility forged by the free
discovery of inner values. The old coming of age rites of passage simply
won't do for the modern world.
But neither will the absence of any kind of fully explicit rite of
passage do. Modern teenagers suffer the disabling insecurity of members
of their society making no ritual affirmation at all of the sudden and
burgeoning increase in their powers. This huge event of nature and
immanent spirit is treated more as a comic-book problem than the
dramatic emergence of new capacities which it truly is.
What, then, is needed are new forms of an ancient practice, new
rituals to mark the coming of age of our young people. First, the new
rituals must affirm the power of the emerging capacities of adolescents.
Second, they must affirm the trustworthiness of these capacities and
their reliability as guides to action. Third, they must affirm the
readiness of the adolescent to respond fully and creatively to them.
Fourth, they must launch the young person on the path of becoming
responsible for the management of their own lives, with the full
blessing and active support of all the adults present. Fifth, as an
essential aspect of this, they must affirm the importance for young
people of trial and error, experiment and adventure as vital to
self-discovery and identify formation. In a later chapter, I discuss
further the possibility of rituals of this sort.
Reviewing the sources
It is probably useful at this point to look back and pick out the
main sources of your teenager's tension so far discussed. The first one
was described in the previous chapter, and the rest in this chapter.
• Parental mistrust There is the mistrustful and destructive
image of your teenager that comes from your misguided attempts at
controlling their lives.
• Crisis of choice There are the four forms of the crisis of
choice - the plethora of options, the anxiety of choosing, the dilemma
of modelling, the dilemma of identity - which your teenager harbours
within him or herself. And these lead over into issues to do with the
different sorts of identity and with choosing a career.
• Peer group pressure There are the strains that arise within
your teenager's peer group of friends: the three anxieties to do with
acquiring a social identity within the group, and the ways these can
deform group behaviour, if they get into overload through the addition
of the other items.
• Inappropriate schooling There is the tension that
accumulates from being treated at school too much like a child, for whom
all educational decisions have to be made right through to the age of
• Absence of affirmation There is the subtle insecurity of
feeling stirred by remarkable developments within, while adult society
makes no deep affirmation of the phenomenon and treats it as a problem.
These are the most immediate sources of tension in teenagers from the
start of the teenage years. They provide a convenient check list for
trying to get a sense of where the primary stressor is. For while all of
them interact with and reinforce each other, at any given time of crisis
it is likely that one of them will be in the foreground.
Chapter 3: Parent power
I have already used the word 'empower' several times in phrases like
'empower your teenager to make personal decisions' and 'empower teen-age
decision-making'. It is now time to find out more about what this
empowerment is all about.
Synonyms for the word 'empower' are 'enable' and 'facilitate'.
Empowerment, as I am using the concept in this book, is about enabling
other people to realize more fully their own innate potential, to
express more completely their latent human capacities. It is the
opposite of the compulsive and distorted kind of power that seeks to
manipulate, control and dominate others. Such negative power is a source
of oppression. Empowerment is a source of liberation.
The prime requisite of being able to empower other people out
there in the world, is that one is already empowered within by one's
own inner resources and capacities.
George is 15. He likes his dad because his dad talks to him not
simply like a man but also about being a man, about the personal
experiences that have led him to be the kind of man he is today. It
is not a lecture, it is not advice, just honest sharing from the
heart. George feels lots of space inside himself to become who he
wants to be.
• The first thing is to accept yourself fully just as you are. Stop
judging and condemning yourself; stop running away from yourself. Be as
you are being and say to yourself that it is all right to be like this.
This is the first step toward mental relaxation.
• Acknowledge and allow how you are being right now at this very
moment, and how you are being generally in your life in current
time. Instead of dividing yourself up into bad bits and not so bad
bits, give up this moralistic, judgmental way of thinking about
yourself and accept your whole self. A good metaphor for this whole
self you are accepting is that of a ripening fruit: some parts are
ripe, some are ripening and other parts are unripe. It is foolish to
condemn what is unripe. It needs nurturing into ripeness. Mental
relaxation is one valuable kind of nurturing.
If you are not mentally relaxed, your are almost certainly fretting
about the past or preoccupied about the future, and in each case driven
by mental 'should', 'oughts' and 'musts': what you should have
done, or what you ought to be doing next, or what you must
get done before too long. 'Should', 'oughts' and 'musts' of this kind
have an anxious, compulsive air about them. They are uninvited guests in
the house of the mind, taking up residence without your permission,
exploiting your naivety in accepting their pretensions to authority,
imperiously taking over domestic business and converting it into a
flurry of driven, and fundamentally unhappy, activity.
Accepting yourself as you are puts a stop to all this. The 'should',
'oughts' and 'musts' are like ghosts which manifest in the dark areas of
self-doubt and self-denigration. They fade away and dissolve in the
daylight of self-acceptance.
When Margery's husband and father of their young children died
unexpectedly, she was pole-axed with grief and it was three years
before she emerged from it. Then she took stock of her life and
realized she was driven from dawn until dusk by 'should', 'oughts'
and 'musts'. With a little help, she gradually allowed herself to
relax and let go of these and follow more of her own inner impulses.
Her children, now teenagers, started to treat her with more respect
• The second thing is to start learning to listen to your own life
prompts, by attending to the area where they manifest within you. Try
• Sit down in a quiet place where you will not be disturbed.
Gently let your muscles everywhere relax and enjoy the rhythm of
your breathing. Watch the ghostly 'should', 'oughts' and 'musts'
that have been haunting your past and future disappear as you say
mentally 'I accept myself. I acknowledge how I am now in my life. I
am a loving friend to myself.' Enjoy for a while the peace of
• Then notice that there is an empty space inside yourself,
uncluttered by fretful thoughts and emotions, a place where you can
allow spontaneous prompts about you and your life to arise in a
liberating, unconstrained way. Feel where this place is in the inner
space of your mind-body. It's not a head place: more likely to be
gut, a belly place, a centre place where you feel grounded, where
you feel the foundations of your experience emerge into
consciousness. Of course it is not literally in the body, not a part
of physical space. It is in that part of inner space which you feel
mentally is within the body.
• Test out the fruitfulness of this place by taking into it a
simple and pleasant issue current in your life - such as where to
spend your holiday - hold it there entirely free of any 'should' and
'oughts' and 'musts' and wait, both relaxed and expectant, until a
prompt arises, a felt sense of an appropriate way of relating to the
issue. It may arise as an image or as words or as a combination of
the two. When this felt sense arises, it is accompanied by
noticeable freeing of mental-emotional energy.
Peter is a hard-working architect and has discovered that by
taking time out very day or every other day to take quite critical,
work-related issues into his mental-emotional womb, as he calls it,
he can resolve them with a sense of refreshment and release. He has
also noticed that he has much more emotional attention for his
family when he gets home of an evening.
• When a creative prompt arises, with that subtle energy release,
then hold it in the empty space alongside the current issue and let
it ripen and mature as imagery or words or both.
• After the exercise, during the daily round, you can in your
thoughts, reality-test the life prompt, relating it to other
relevant facts and factors, seeing how it stands up as a
well-founded idea for action.
This inner space where life prompts can arise is not only active when
approached in this way by means of mental exercise at a special time and
in a quiet spot. It is also the place, in the midst of everyday life,
where you feel on-the-hoof prompts and especially a sense of timing in
your actions: when to set out, when to stay, when to get up and go. Some
actions, of course, are time-tabled in advance, and the relevant comings
and goings are managed by the schedule and the clock. But there are many
interpersonal occasions where this is not the case, and where a
developed sense of timing is one of the primary keys to effective
And it is also the place where you have a feel for a good pattern,
when arranging things in the house or garden, in decoration, in dress
sense, in music, architecture and all the visual arts. Indeed, this idea
of having a feel for a good pattern, can be used in a much more
generic sense to cover life prompts, and a sense of timing, as well. For
these are all about artistry in living, interrelating the various
elements one' s life into a satisfactory form in space and time.
• The third thing is to begin to identify the things you are busy not
doing to fulfil yourself by trying to control your teenager's life.
What also go with such attempts at control are: feeling responsible
for what he or she is or is not doing; and allowing your own sense of
worth, value and happiness to be determined by how he or she is making
out according to some external, conventional canon of success and
This form of speech - 'being busy not doing certain things by doing
other things' - is an odd one, but an important one. Putting it this way
brings out the fact that the real motivation for what you are doing
comes from wanting to avoid what you are not doing. You control your
teenager in order to avoid the challenge of self-development. In order
to reverse this tendency, try the following.
• Sit down in a quiet place where you will not be disturbed.
Gently let your muscles everywhere relax and enjoy the rhythm of
your breathing. Watch the ghostly 'shoulds', 'oughts' and 'musts'
that have been haunting your past and future disappear as you say
mentally 'I accept myself. I acknowledge how I am now in my life. I
am a loving friend to myself.' Enjoy for a while the peace of
• Enter the inner empty pregnant space - relaxing and promising -
where life prompts can emerge. Ask yourself what you really need and
want, to nurture yourself, care for yourself, enrich yourself, and
so to flourish and grow. What simple things, small deeds and acts,
would give you the sense of affirming you, of staking out your claim
to move forward in life, becoming fuller? Wait for the answers to
arise gently and surprisingly in their own good time.
• Make a list of the several things that present themselves as
options that can easily be realized. Hold the list mentally in your
inner space and wait until you get a felt sense of energy release
and subtle uplift on one of them.
• Then make arrangements to do that one thing, and do it.
• The fourth thing is to use every occasion on which you feel the
compulsion to control your teenager as an opportunity to do some little
thing that gives you pleasure, unfolds your potential, affirms your way
of being in the world. So instead of acting out an unhealthy urge to
interfere in your teenager's life, you liberate within a healthy impulse
to care for yourself.
• You are now practising attending to on-the-hoof prompts,
signals that arise because you make space for them in the midst of
• You will be surprised by how liberating and rewarding - and
effective - these on-the-hoof signals can be.
• Accept that you won't get every signal right the first time,
especially if you rush it, and grab the first urge that gets your
attention. The simple art is to cultivate short inward pauses in the
midst of events, just long enough to let go of the tension of the
situation, and pick up on the liberating antidote.
The great thing is to remember that you were mistrusted as a
teenager, and as a result your were conditioned to mistrust the great
surge of life that was occurring within you on many levels. This means
you never learned to trust fully the source of your own life prompts,
following some and ignoring many others and generally surviving in the
social system of the day by conforming to external standards of
appropriate behaviour. You then, perhaps, ceased to care for and
cultivate the needs and wants and creative impulses that spring up from
your own inner being. The well-spring within was boarded over, only
leaking here and there with occasional and spasmodic spontaneity. So the
challenge is to start to break out of all this; and it is a challenge
underlined by the exuberance of your own teenager's presence.
• Learn to trust you own life prompts, starting with impulses to
do simple everyday things that give you satisfaction.
• Learn to trust your ability to turn away from controlling your
teenager. Every time you feel the controlling urge, simply liberate
yourself from it, and switch over to cultivating your own inner
• This way you model what it is to live with inner creativity and
responsibility, being true to yourself; and provide a climate within
which your teenager can start to feel secure and confident to do the
same. This kind of modelling for your teenager is one of the
foundations of empowering him and her to make their own well-founded
choices in life.
Caring for your self, your inner being, your real needs, wants and
interests is the foundation of real co-operation and relationship with
others, especially, as in your case, with your own growing children. It
is not launching yourself on the path of selfishness and egocentric
behaviour at the expense of others, as your unsolicited 'shoulds',
'oughts' and 'musts' would have you believe. And they would have you
believe this, so that they can keep taking you over and bossing you
There can be no real relationship between any two people each of whom
thinks he or she ought to do what the other one really wants. It leads
to the ridiculous but familiar dialogue which runs:
A: 'Tell me what you want to do.'
B: 'No, you tell me what you really want to do.'
A: 'But I asked you first'.
B: 'I know, but I like doing what you like.'
A: 'I like you telling me what you want to do.'
B: 'That's not fair. Anyway, I like you telling me what you want
to do too.'
A and B have been conditioned to feel guilty about owning what each
of them really wants to do. So they feel they ought to find out what the
other one wants to do, and they pretend they like trying to find this
out. The dialogue has already started to degenerate into the blame game
in which A accuses B of not telling the sort of thing that A is not
telling, and vice versa.
A and B have not learned the rudimentary rule of healthy
relationship, which is that it cannot exist until each one owns his or
her own living impulses, what prompts present themselves here and now as
personal needs, wants or interesting options. Once each person owns this
to the other, then they can enjoy supporting each other in fulfilling
whatever needs, wants and options have been stated.
There are two useful definitions of human loving which I like, one
informal, the other more formal. They are two sides of a coin of shared
gold. The informal one is: 'To love a person is to delight in and take
pleasure in enhancing that person's uniqueness'. The more formal one is:
'To love a person is to help provide the conditions in which that person
can, in liberty, identify and realize his or her own true needs and
interests, wherever possible in association with other persons similarly
What is presupposed by both definitions is that the person being
loved is active too. In the first case, the loved one is actively
delighting in his or her gift of life and celebrating it uniquely. The
loving one cannot delight in someone who takes no delight at all in
their own living presence. In the second case, the loved one is seeking
freely to identify and realize his or her needs and interests; and the
loving one can only facilitate, help and support this process.
In a relationship of mutual loving, each person needs to be
self-disclosing and self-revealing, opening up and sharing their inner
being, taking pleasure in discovering and manifesting who they are. Then
there is someone really present for their partner to love. This then is
a possible model for you and your teenager.
• 'I am also learning to talk to my children, not at them. First
time round as a father I had truckloads of rules, oughts, ideals and
explanations - all of which kept me at arm's length from my
children. I thought it was my responsibility to oversee and direct
their experience from my superior position...Lately I have come to
believe that the best thing I can give my children is an honest
account of what I feel, think and experience, to invite them into my
inner world, tell them the stories that will give them some sense of
my pilgrimage as a man.' (Keen, 1991: 228)
What is clearly important is that you declare yourself. You become
open to your own inner, living impulses toward fulfilment, and to your
active emotional states; you own them fully to yourself; and then you
declare them to the relevant other with whom you are in loving
relationship. Nothing sours a relationship more readily than strong
impulses and emotional states which are acted on, but which are not
being properly owned or declared.
The person who acts on them, without owning or declaring them, is not
taking responsibility for them, and so they emerge in a disguised and
distorted form - which will almost invariably try to put the onus of
responsibility on someone else, to get them to do or not do something,
to initiate or stop something. The other will justifiably feel
aggrieved, because they have been treated dishonestly and
• I feel insecure and uneasy about what you are doing, unowned
and undeclared, becomes 'I don't think you are old enough to do that on
your own'. When fully owned, understood and declared, it becomes 'I feel
uneasy about what you are doing, but that's my problem. I really
understand and appreciate how important it is for you to do that on your
• I want more time and space to develop my own interests,
unowned and undeclared, becomes 'It would be a good experience for you
to spend several months abroad this year doing some kind of
international voluntary service'. When owned and declared, it becomes
'I've decided to devote about another four hours a week at least to my
wood carving; and I need to negotiate with you how we can plan out the
exclusive time we both want in the workroom.'
• I feel hurt and resentful that you don't understand how much I
worry when you are out very late and I've no idea when you are
returning, unowned and undeclared, becomes 'I want you in by 11 pm,
and I don't care how late everyone else is staying at the party'. When
owned and declared, it becomes 'I do worry when you are out later than I
expected, and I don't find it easy to manage or control my worrying. So
I would appreciate it if you could help me and give me a ring to say if
you are going to be much later than expected.'
• Your mother (father) and I need some extended time all alone to
re-establish a deep connection with each other, unowned and
undeclared, becomes 'I want you to be more independent and move out into
your own apartment, like other young people I know'. Properly owned and
declared, it becomes 'Your mother (father) and I have decided to spend a
month alone together to become more fully in touch with each other; and
we want to discuss with you how and when we can do this so that it is
manageable for all of us.'
The key to declaring yourself is to cultivate the practice of using
many more first person statements, especially the basic rock bottom ones
that start 'I feel', 'I like', 'I enjoy', 'I appreciate', 'I want', 'I
need', 'I will', 'I intend to'. In this way you learn to be more open
and self-disclosing, as a basis for an honest, non-manipulative,
non-controlling relationship with your teenager. And there are several
key areas where it makes sense for you to get into this more open way of
relating. There are declarations to do with:
• What you feel and think about the ongoing experiences of your
life. People are what we meet. Your teenager meets you when you tell
him or her what it feels like for you to encounter other persons,
places, the different situations you find yourself in, and what you
think about them. To quote Sam Keen again: 'The best thing I can give my
children is an honest account of what I feel, think and experience'. Of
course, such declarations are not indiscriminate and total. But if you
listen to your inner promptings, you may be surprised at the range of
things about the real you that it is appropriate and meaningful to
share. This is satisfying for you, builds real relationship, and is a
good model for your teenager.
• Your own rights, needs and special interests at all times, and
especially where they are being encroached on by your teenager's
behaviour. It really is important for you to stand up for and
declare your rights, needs and special interests in areas of life which
are entirely your business, and which are central to your own growth and
well-being. You state what the right, need or interest is, how important
it is to you, define clearly the boundaries you want your teenager to
respect, and ask for his or her support and co-operation. All this is
done without rancour, attack, blame or attempts at control.
In this way you declare yourself to be a person who is committed to
care for their inner being, to honour their life prompts, to change and
unfold. You openly show that you are seeking to be true to yourself and
putting this truth forward as your basis for a healthy relationship of
respect and co-operation. This is a very good model for your teenager in
his or her need to learn how to make real decisions.
• Your appreciation of your teenager as an independent
decision-maker. Make a point of declaring regularly and as an equal,
without condescension or patronage, what you are enjoying and
appreciating about how your teenager is looking, being and doing: ways
he and she are taking charge of their own lives in this or that respect,
being adventurous, taking risks, trying out this or that. Practise
affirming their reality, appreciating their perspective.
• Your anxieties and concerns about your teenager. You are not
disclosing these in order to control what your teenager does. Actually
it is when these anxieties are not fully owned and shared that they
convert into attempts at control. The point of declaring them is to be
up-front about your own vulnerability and fearfulness, so that, without
denying or suppressing your emotions, you can go on to affirm your
teenager's right and capacity to learn how to run his or her own life.
Again, this an effective way of relating to another and it models for
your teenager the fact that owning difficult feelings helps one not
to act on them.
What this whole chapter adds up to so far is the simple idea of
empowering yourself by enjoying yourself. In the old days enjoying
oneself carried strong implications of self-indulgence and selfishness.
Duty was separated from inclination, desire and pleasure, and meant
denying these things in a spirit of self-sacrifice and service to
others. The trouble with this kind of split is that the resultant
dutiful service is experienced by those who receive it as oppressive,
interfering and morbid.
This is because it is based on a fundamental mistrust of the inner
life of the person. Principles, rules and ideals are imposed on
life, dampening it down. They are not carried along by life as on
the crest of an uprising and dynamic wave, that mingles with and
empowers other waves. People who suppress their own inner life prompts
in order to serve others, end up doing things which damp down the inner
life energies of those they profess to serve. Everything they do
breathes out mistrust of the human well-spring within.
The mistake made by this old, oppressive notion of duty, was that it
confused inclination - what a person wants to do - with 'the base
passions', that is, a low grade gratification of the senses. Wanting was
seen as desiring and desiring was always construed as debased, moving in
the direction of greed, lust, sloth and indulgent sensationalism. At the
heart of this misguided tradition in the West is St Augustine's doctrine
of original sin as concupiscence, sexual lust.
Once this view is widely disseminated by parents, teachers and
preachers through their attitudes, bearing and behaviour, it becomes
self-fulfilling. Treated as basically no good, people feel no good, and
can only find an identity in being no good, so their life energies, when
not being bullied and coerced by some external authority, are distorted
into all sorts of sensory indulgence. Then those in charge of church and
state call out for more discipline, law and order in society and the
inculcation of a stronger sense of duty, self-discipline and
self-control at home and school. This leads to a further distortion of
human energies, and so the vicious cycle rolls on. It takes human
societies a long time to find their way out of this catastrophic
misreading of the human condition.
The modern view is quite different. It puts forward the doctrine of
original blessing (Fox, 1983; Perls; Rogers; Maslow; Jung; etc). It
affirms the innate potential of persons for creative living as the
foremost truth of human nature, instead of making central the idea of
its inherent waywardness. There is a well-spring of life within, and
this life is whole. It embraces spiritual life, imaginative life, mental
life, emotional life, volitional life, sensory life, sexual life. When
this spring wells up toward action, it is experienced as wanting to,
wishing to, liking to, needing to, desiring to, seeking to, intending
to, being interested to, and so on.
On this model wanting to is fundamentally wanting to celebrate
oneself, not indulge oneself. This means wanting to celebrate one's life
source in action; wanting to do so in all kinds of different ways, some
of these being old and familiar, others being entirely new and
ground-breaking; wanting to do this whole, so that whatever the kind of
action some selection of the different dimensions of life - for example,
spiritual, imaginative, sensory - are manifest in it; and wanting to
share this other people. Note there are four features of wanting to
• It is celebratory. It is about enjoying one's inner
well-spring of life, of taking delight in it. Enjoyment is having
pleasure in the process of life, whether the focal process is
emotional, intellectual, sensory, spiritual or whatever. It is about
bathing in the waters of the flowing source of everyday behaviour. It is
not to do with getting absorbed or lost in chunks of sensation: this is
sensationalism, the resort of those who have been oppressed by false
doctrines of duty as the opposite of pleasure.
• It is adventurous. As well as enjoyment of the familiar,
wanting to reaches out to new horizons, new depths, new ways of
living. So from time to time wanting to can be unpredictable,
spontaneous, surprising, thrusting in unexpected directions. This also
makes it highly personal and idiosyncratic. Each person makes new
gestures of being in their own extraordinary way.
• It is integrative. Its thrust is holistic, toward being and
feeling whole, toward the interweaving of life's many diverse threads.
Life is one, with many interrelated frequencies of energy: the life of
the spirit, the imagination, the intellect, the emotions, the senses,
the limbs. Wanting to is intrinsically multimodal,
multidimensional, multitrack. It desires the interfusion of modes: of
the spiritual and the erotic, the intellectual and the emotional, and
many other combinations. Having a one track mind or intention is a
distortion of human nature, occurring when the capacity to celebrate
life has been blocked and damaged.
• It is social and participative. Wanting to is wanting to
celebrate together. It reaches out to the other to give and receive, to
share my delight and share in your delight. It is about communication,
togetherness and relationship.
Enjoying yourself is about trusting your wanting to. Mistrust
it and shrivels into low grade even despicable impulses which fight with
compulsive, obsessive notions about what you ought to be like. Trust it
fully, without let or hindrance, with celebration and affirmation, and
it blossoms into the fullness of the many-coloured blooms of an active
and creative life.
One important consequence is that the old-fashioned split between
moral duty and personal inclination is at an end. B because wanting to
celebrate one's life source in action is fundamentally social and
participative, because it is committed to dialogue, reciprocity and
relationship, it is inherently facilitative and enabling of others: it
seeks to elicit delight in being as much as it wants to share it. It
replaces the old idea of duty as self-denying sacrifice in the service
of others, with the idea of the celebration of life with others.
Self-abnegation for others was always a self-contradictory and
self-defeating ideal for human beings. A society in which everyone
practises self-denial for the sake of each other is logically impossible
and would lead all its members into the neurotic, irrational and
fruitless kind of A-B dialogue illustrated a few pages above. What is
entirely possible, and liberating to contemplate, is a society in which
everyone wants to celebrate their own life source for the sake of
sharing it with each other. This is a model of creative moral abundance:
'wants to' here is inherently moral in the sense of being committed to
enhance the wellbeing of people. The gap between duty and inclination is
Enjoying yourself, then, is about trusting the living surge, the
dynamic wave form, of the potential-you as it rises and falls, ebbs and
flows, at the very source of your creative choices in everyday life. The
ideal-you of course is always up there like some star in the sky of the
mind: the guiding vision of your life, of the sort of person you want to
be, of the kind of society in which you wish to live. But if you try to
impose this stellar ideal on your actions at the expense of, to the
neglect of, the living rhythms of the potential-you, then disaster
strikes in the form of contrived, unreal and idealized behaviour shot
through with contradictions and ignored hypocrisies.
Also because imposing controls is what your parents used to do to
you, there is the danger that trying to impose the ideal-you on your
behaviour will get it all confused with the injunctions of your
internalized authoritarian parents. Then you get in a big mess because
you mix up life-enhancing ideals with misplaced bossiness.
Much the better role for the ideal-you is for you to use it to
monitor and value-check both the promptings of the potential-you, and
the outcomes of acting on these promptings. This way the potential-you
and the ideal-you can be used to check each other out. Neither is likely
to present themselves to you in immaculate form. There are the
distresses of childhood, the internalized parental control, the
prevailing values and norms of society picked up through socialization,
the belief-systems built into the way everyday language is used, the
apparent limitations of your current life-situation: all these may cloud
the way in which the potential-you and the ideal-you manifest in your
consciousness. Equally there may be times when each of them manifests
without obscurity. So strong and clear life prompts from the
potential-you may help to correct mistaken apprehensions from the
ideal-you. And luminous intimations from the ideal-you may clarify
uncertain prompts from the potential-you.
This model affirms the metaphors of depth and of height. The
potential-you is the living well-spring from the depths of being, with
its continuous upsurging prompts of wanting to. The ideal-you is
the guiding light in the heights, shining down a steady vision of what
can be. The actual-you is the fulfilled person manifest in creative
action, open to the depths and responsive to the heights.
Parent power is to do with being empowered from within, by accepting
yourself, enjoying yourself and declaring yourself in the ways that I
have suggested. This being empowered within is the basis of empowering
your teenager. The influence works in three ways.
• You are modelling a person who is being true to him or herself, who
is in touch with him or herself, who is responsive to the well-spring of
life within, declaring and sharing what is truly going on in his or her
inner being, defining clear goals and limits as a basis for effective
• This inescapably means that you are also responsive to the
potential-I, the life source, within your teenager. You are in touch
with a place inside yourself which wants to appreciate, delight
in and encourage the unique, innovative and adventurous decision-making
of your teenager.
• It also means you are a person to be respected, worthy, important
and interesting to do all kinds of business with. Your presence is such
that your teenager cannot but engage with you: it is a challenge to him
or her to relate to you person to person, adult to adult, outside all
the games and distortions that characterize relations between a parent
and a teenager who are both busy avoiding themselves.
No longer afraid of your own unlived potential, you no longer fear
the remarkable upsurge of life energy in your teenager. By trusting and
caring for your own inner being, the wanting to that arises
within you, you enjoy trusting your teenager as an emerging,
creative adult decision-maker. There really is no other way. Mistrust
your own well-spring, and you will be driven to try to control your
teenager's life in all sorts of inappropriate ways that either never
work, or if they seem to work, only do so because they have procured
Springing the parental trap
This is the trap discussed fully in Chapter 1 in which you
unconsciously keep reproducing how your own parents mistrusted you, by
projecting your buried teenage self onto your son or daughter and acting
out, in relation to him or her, the hidden memories of your parents'
behaviour to you. What you do to your teenager may not be exactly like
what your parents did, because of sameness-in-difference, also discussed
in Chapter 1, but the net effect is the same - mistrust. It is now
becoming clear how to get out of this trap.
• The first and most radical thing is to adopt a new belief system.
• Believe in the source of life within you. Throw off the
shackles of self-doubt and self-denigration which keep you chained
in the erroneous belief that you are essentially unworthy. This is
the legacy of a long-standing cultural tradition which has sacked
the citadel of the soul, crushing it into a dungeon beneath the
oppression of false doctrine, a dungeon where people clamp the
shackles and chains onto their own being, in a desperate attempt to
explain the misery they feel.
• Trust the source of life within you. Remember: it is
celebratory, adventurous, whole, participative in relation to
others. Find the metaphors or terms that inspire your trust:
well-spring, well-head, spring, source, fount, fountain-head, shaft,
borehole, reservoir, pool, sea, ocean, flow, rise, surge, stream,
spout, jet, surge, ground, base, foundation, footing, fundament,
origin, origination, derivation, genesis, birthplace, cradle, womb,
start, beginning, outset, dawn, dawning, launch, launching, inner
voice, signal-giver, life prompt, inner being, inner life, inner
light, inner potential, inner space, entelechy, ground unconscious,
goddess-seed, god-seed, life divine, divine immanence.
• Express the source of life within you. Take risks, try new
courses of action, explore new ways of being. Live life more fully.
• The second thing is to start believing in your teenager.
• Trust the source of life within him or her. It is in its first
full flood. Your teenager is very close to its promptings and will
achieve a great deal in life if living in an atmosphere in which
those promptings can freely flower into decision and action. Don't
confuse its boldness with lack of experience and ignorance. Give it
a lot of scope, in your own heart, to follow its own track. Be on
its side. Honour what is going on.
• Love him or her as an emerging decision-maker, someone whose
urgent and joyful and sometimes frightening business it is to learn
how to live by making choices about all manner of things. Respect
the fact that there are huge areas of living which are either
exclusively or primarily your teenager's business. Accept fully in
advance that if teenagers are going to learn how to live by making
• They need scope for experimentation with themselves, with
their own minds and bodies, and with each other in their
• They need scope for checking out the rigour and the
relevance of social rules and conventions. This means they will
cross limits and go over boundaries.
• They need scope for adventure with respect to the outer
world, going forth on journeys, exciting themselves with new
horizons, and testing themselves against the challenges of the
• They need scope for expansion of the spirit in exploring
new beliefs and practices, trying out unconventional forms of
• In all these respects, they need scope for learning by
trial and error. This means that they will make mistakes, indeed
must make mistakes, and must make a few big ones - in order
fully and effectively to learn by experience.
• Co-operate with your teenager. Make conjoint, negotiated
decisions in those life areas where you both have a stake and a
concern. Stand up clearly for your rights, needs and interests in
life areas which are exclusively your business; and expect your
teenager to respect them and do intelligent and considerate business
with you about making sure they are honoured in action by him or
• Enjoy your teenager, his or her boldness, originality,
vulnerability. Appreciate him and her: give them verbal strokes,
applaud them, saying freely and easily what you are enjoying and
valuing about how they are being and what they are doing.
• The third thing is to watch for the snap points. Snap is a
card-game in which players call 'snap' when similar cards are exposed.
To snap also means to speak irritably or spitefully. A snap point is
when your teenager's behaviour immediately triggers some bit of your own
buried history as a teenager, a bit in which you were simply not given
enough freedom to grow and develop as you needed to. And when the
similar cards are exposed, you say something irritable or spiteful,
echoing the early treatment which you yourself received and from which
you are still allowing yourself to suffer. So if you aren't in charge of
snap points, have no command over them, you will compulsively come down
on your teenager's behaviour, controlling it, criticizing it, mocking
it, undermining it - in general doing something unpleasant and
I have already mentioned what to do with snap points - the fourth
point in the section on becoming yourself at the start of this chapter -
and I will run through it again here.
Chapter 4: Teenage power
• Use every snap point - every occasion on which you feel the
compulsion to control your teenager - as an opportunity to do some
little thing that gives you pleasure, unfolds your potential,
affirms your way of being in the world. So instead of acting out an
unhealthy urge to interfere in your teenager's life, you liberate
within a healthy impulse to care for yourself.
• You are now practising attending to on-the-hoof life prompts,
signals that arise because you make space for them in the midst of
• You will be surprised by how liberating and rewarding - and
effective - these on-the-hoof signals can be.
• Accept that you won't get every signal right the first time,
especially if you rush it, and grab the first urge that gets your
attention. The simple art is to cultivate short inward pauses in the
midst of events, just long enough to let go of the tension of the
snap point, and pick up on the liberating antidote.
What does your teenager need in order to emerge as an adult
decision-maker? He and she need to feel certain things, understand
certain things and do certain things.
Feeling accepted and respected
Your teenager needs to feel honoured as an emerging decision-maker.
To this end, certain things are basic.
• A rite of passage that throws into dramatic relief the huge changes
that are taking place within your teenager's being. What I have in mind
here is some kind of ritual event, held quite early on in the teenage
years, that symbolizes in its language and its procedures the teenage
upsurge of physical, psychological and spiritual forces. I shall
consider the possible form of such a ritual and the role that you as a
parent might take in it, in a later chapter.
• An acknowledgment by you of all those areas of a teenager's life
that are properly his and her business, where he and she take the
leading decisions, and where you abandon attempts at inappropriate
control. A list of these areas might look something like this. I present
the most radical and complete account of it.
• Their appearance: clothes, footwear, headgear, make-up,
• Their hygiene: bathing, washing hair, change of clothing,
• Their diet: what they eat, when and how much.
• Their exercise: what kinds, where, how frequently and for how
• Their sex life: when it begins, how it is expressed, how often
and with whom.
• Their rest: when they go to bed and when they get up.
• Their going out: when, where, doing what, for how long, with
• Their interests: music, TV, films, theatre, books, magazines,
collecting, travel, etc.
• Their spending money: on what, how much.
• Their making money: how much, by what means, at what times, how
• Their use of drugs: tea, coffee, alcohol, nicotine, cannabis,
• Their room: what is in it, its colour, its state, who goes in
it, what is done in it.
• Their friends: who they see, how often, where, what they do
• Their education: whether at school or at home or in the world,
which school, what learning methods, what subjects, attendance. Homework: whether, when, how much and how long.
• Their travels: where, for how long, for what purpose.
• Their beliefs: moral, political, economic, religious,
psychological, ecological, aesthetic; how they are applied in
• Their privacy: where, for how long, frequency.
Your teenager is empowered by feeling that you genuinely believe that
all these areas are for the proper exercise of his or her own
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