When you think of a homeless person, you may not immediately think of a teenager. And yet, it’s estimated that nearly half of all homeless Australians are children and young people under the age of 25. The figures are similar in the US and UK. That adds up to over 41,000 young people (aged 15-24) alone and seeking help from homeless services in 2014-15, according to Homelessness Australia.
Some of these young people are suffering from mental illness, fleeing family violence or child abuse; some simply name the cause as “family breakdown”. The seeds of the latter can be sown during continued disagreement over issues as complex as boyfriends/girlfriends, or as simple as an untidy bedroom.
When problems escalate into a war of words where no-one is willing to back down, voices and emotional stakes can be raised. “If you‘re going to live in my house, you’ll do what I say!” “Fine! Whatever!”
Without wanting to overdramatise, things can get serious pretty quickly if the next slam you hear is the front door. Misplaced pride or sheer stubbornness can often prevent either teenagers or parents making the first move to heal the rift.
Social support agencies are scrambling to try to provide 'transitional accommodation' to meet the growing need for a stable living situation in the hope of family reconciliation. Couch-surfing can lead to risky behaviour, and skipping school. If the next steps are drug and alcohol use, unprotected sex, and/or stealing just to survive, problems can spiral.
“BUT I CAN’T JUST LET THEM DO WHATEVER THEY LIKE!”
Family conflict involving parents and teenagers is nothing new, and many parents find themselves walking a fine line between backing down and digging in when faced with a lack of teenage cooperation.
Ideally, our teenagers will leave home to live independently at an appropriate and mutually agreed time with our blessing and support – not in the blink of an eye after everyone loses it! Staying calm and keeping one eye on the bigger picture can help. And that can be easier said than done.
HOW MUCH TALKING IS GOING ON?
Communication is not just a buzzword. It needs to be a way of life. Many families these days are time-poor and opportunities for talking may be few. Think about your weekly routine. How many hours – or minutes – are there each week when both you and your teenager are in the same space, not already occupied and available to talk? Is it even an hour per week?
…AND WHAT’S BEING SAID?
It’s natural, but not wise, to fall into the trap of using these occasions to try to deal with issues you want to resolve: Helping with chores. Doing homework. Keeping their room tidy. Funnily enough, these are not a young person’s favourite conversation topics. And just as if your boss only ever spoke to you to complain about your performance, your teenager may feel less and less like talking to you if these are always on the conversational agenda. Not only will each conversation become unpleasant; the likelihood of resolving the issues becomes smaller.
If this pattern is repeated, a teenager’s response is often to avoid the parent whenever possible. The opportunities to talk become even fewer, while the issues become bigger and parent frustration grows.
STEER THINGS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Viewed like this, it’s more obvious that the pattern has to be reversed, and parents are the ones to make the first move. You need to use these all-too-brief opportunities to build the relationship with your teenager and make conversation a pleasurable activity. Talk about things they’re interested in and show genuine concern and curiosity about what’s important to them. Turn the negative into a positive.
But what about those unresolved, frustrating issues? Make an appointment to discuss them at a time when you are both relaxed and available. A family meeting can be a useful way to do this. It can be a challenge to find a suitable time, but if the issue is important for the family to function properly, it will be effort well spent. Get some professional help and support if needed.
REPAIR THE DAMAGE, OR STOP IT FROM HAPPENING IN THE FIRST PLACE
Leaving home in anger or fear often results in family breakdown which some find impossible to repair. Far better to prevent it in the first place. Clear rules and realistic expectations, and fair consequences, all need to be negotiated and agreed to by all. This shouldn’t be attempted when people are in a hurry, busy, or angry. So pick your moments, and your battles, and get your relationship back on track to save a lot of potential heartache.