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When he was four, my son wanted to run away from home. I remember the occasion but not the situation. Perhaps he wanted dessert before dinner, or he might have been playing a game and didn’t want to leave it for something as mundane as a bath. Whatever my offence was, it was serious to David. There could have been any one of a thousand different reasons for my offence. I was always doing things that David didn’t approve of, like making him eat his vegetables or asking him not to interrupt while I was on the phone. Every day it was something else that I did wrong. I just thought he was being cute.

I remember that my response on that occasion was to offer to pack David’s suitcase for him. Thankfully he didn’t call my bluff, because I’m not sure what I would have done next. Looking back on it, though, I could have handled things differently and would have, had I to do it again. The trouble is that when children are little everything they do and say is adorable; everything that they find serious makes us laugh. Perhaps I should have taken into account that however I felt about it, it was serious to David and the issue could have been handled more sensitively. Of course, hindsight is a terrific thing.

Communication is the key and we should begin at the beginning when it’s easier to deal with. I’m happy to say that I didn’t leave things too late. It took a while (the parenting fairy being permanently out of town) but I worked it out for myself. I spent most of their lives boring my children with little lectures about right and wrong but also attempting to see their side of things whenever possible and allowing some room for negotiation.

This memory came surfacing up from the subconscious today because a teenage runaway, Madison Murphy, was in the news recently. Her desperate parents were teary eyed and begging their daughter to contact them. All would be forgiven, no questions asked, they said, if only she would come back. Madison hadn’t accessed any of her social accounts for 24 hours and that seemed ominous. A whole day is like a lifetime for people on Facebook or Twitter. Teenagers in particular can’t bear to be separated from the social network for more than five minutes at a time. That, and given that 35,000 people are reported missing each year: 1 person every 15 minutes, made Madison’s parents frantic.

It was lucky for them and for Madison that she gave up living it ‘rough’ quite quickly and came home. After the event, Madison realised that the argument (something about a trip to Paris) was “not really important anymore.” Madison was lucky she had an event to look back on. Nothing is important if you can sleep on it and talk about it calmly and rationally the next day. Again, it’s about communication. My guess (only a guess) is that Madison didn’t want to hear her parents’ no doubt genuine reasons for denying her, her wish, and they were too old to remember what it was like to want what your friends are having. I don’t think that’s the end of it. There are bound to be more arguments. That’s life in a family unit that has a teenager in it. I’m hoping that both Madison and her parents are aware now of consequences and will work their way through whatever issues comel up with a better understanding.

I think that even if you’ve recognised and implemented the communication process early on, when the time comes, it’s still hard to understand the mindset of teenagers. Even if you have had a really great relationship with your child, once the hormones kick in and your children mutate into teenagers, they become alien beings that you no longer recognise. You can’t help seeing them as they were and they can’t help wanting to be individuals trying to break out of the family cocoon.

They choose clothes that you think belong to the rag bag; they shave their hair, wear nose or tongue rings and speak a foreign language. The angels that came to you when they skinned their knees or had problems are gone and aren’t planning to come back. Ever. What you have (even if it’s in the mildest possible form) is a stranger who prefers his / her peers’ opinions to yours. Where they once thought everything you said and did was right, suddenly everything you say and do is old fashioned and therefore irrelevant and wrong. Their new mentors are their teenaged, equally alien friends.

The heartening thing is, if they and you survive the experience, they will come round full circle to being the person they were when they were little: good natured, loving and kind and hopefully ready to be the next generation of parents. I was going to end it by saying ‘the next generation of long suffering parents’ but it’s not true. Before and after the teen years, it’s pure joy. And the best thing is that one day they will come back to you for advice. Promise.

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