This fact is not lost on parents who feel helpless whenever their teenagers go quiet, withdraw, or seem generally out of sorts. When that happens, most gingerly enquire whether there is anything they can do to help, then back off when all offers to chat are rebuffed. Until now, parents were not equipped for this eventuality. But thankfully, the recent publication of Flagging the Screenager has helped to change this.
Penned by mental health experts Dr Harry Barry and Enda Murphy, the book is not, as the title might suggest about the often unhealthy length of time many teenagers spend staring at screens. It’s a treasure trove of wisdom, information and advice, a must-have tool for anyone who wants to understand the nature and origins of emotions, why individuals respond in the way that they do, and the coping strategies with which to survive the life crises that can so easily threaten to floor young people.
“Most adolescents are not taught what to do should they become anxious, despite the fact that anxiety is a perfectly normal occurrence,” says Dr Barry.
“Most are not aware that how they feel relates to how they think, and while very many parents wrongly assume that they do, most youngsters have no idea how to cope when they get distressed and when ‘scary’ feelings come.”
The book is filled with information that parents should know: 75% of significant mental illness presents for the first time between the ages of 13 and 25. Children who typically get to sleep by 11pm have a significantly reduced risk of developing major depression in adolescence. Because teens require up to 9.5 hours sleep to function normally, they, when woken early, lose out on REM sleep which is crucial for brain development. Those who start drinking before the age of 15 are up to seven times more likely to be involved in road traffic accidents, and to develop alcohol or other addictions in adulthood.
It’s also filled with wise reminders such as the importance of teaching youngsters how to live in their world, rather than ours, and the wisdom of teaching them how to fix their problems for themselves, rather than trying to do that for them.
As a mother of four, two of whom are teenagers, it’s a book I treasure, and one I have recommended to every parent with whom I have spoken, since the day I read it.
I had only one niggle with this excellent parenting manual and that was that for the most part, references to gay and lesbian activity were linked to negative situations such as bullying and self-harm. The book is likely to be read by many an adolescent who might find it on a parent’s bedside table. For their sakes, I thought it might have been better had the authors first stated the obvious — the normality and acceptability of being gay or lesbian — before launching into the difficulties with which that can sometimes be linked.
When I raised this with Dr Barry, he agreed on the normality and acceptability of same, adding there were plenty of other books which spelled out that message, if that was what was required.
As for what adolescents need most, Murphy believes it’s to be listened to and accepted for who they are. They also need to be taught coping skills, he says.
“We can teach that by helping them to practice the activities of everyday living, such as loading the washing machine, keeping themselves and their surroundings clean, and living life to the full so as to ensure that they have meaning in their lives.”
Explaining that they can draw on these life skills in times of difficulty, Murphy continues: “95% of recovery for those struggling with mild depression involves getting out of bed and engaging with the daily activities of living. Of course, many require a lot of support in doing that.”
Like that of Enda Murphy, Dr Barry’s advice for parents is straightforward and sound: “Never invalidate how a child feels. Accept what you’re hearing no matter how hurtful it may be. You don’t have to agree, as it’s more about listening and trying to understand. Avoid being either overly flexible or completely rigid in your parenting approach. Boundaries are necessary but over-rigidity may trigger anxiousness in youngsters. Never rate yourself as a bad parent when you know you’re doing your best.”
The core message in the book, says Murphy, is that our kids will survive our parenting if we come “within an ass’s roar of getting it right”. Now there’s a reassuring thought.
Flagging the Screenager, Guiding your Child Through Adolescence and Young Adulthood, by Dr Harry Barry and Enda Murphy, Liberties.