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A website run by teenagers is helping parents who can’t talk to their own children
Aged 15, Shamima Khatun was a typical noncommunicative, surly teenager growing up with her family in Manchester.
“Whenever my parents said I couldn’t do something I would get really angry and refuse to talk to them,” the now 17-year-old sixth-former says. “My friends were my entire world; meanwhile I felt like my parents could never see my point of view.”
It is this point of view that Shamima, along with 119 other teenagers, is now offering to other parents via a rather revolutionary advice website, designed to help parents understand their teenagers better. RadicalParenting.com is compiled almost entirely by 13 to 19-year-olds who write about their experiences and give advice on a vast range of subjects including their relationships with their friends and siblings, their sex lives, anorexia, drugs, depression, divorce, bullying and their internet habits. Their aim is that parents will be better equipped to deal with these subjects if they understand a teenager’s perspective on them.
Log on to Radical Parenting and you will read teenagers giving honest accounts of all sorts of subjects, from using crushed-up prescription drugs such as Ritalin to get through exams, to why they feel pressured into having under-age sex, to the way the MTV hit show 16 and Pregnant has glamorised pregnancy for them.
One 16-year-old writes about what it feels like to have a newly divorced mother out on the singles scene. “It is antagonising when she will leave for a date right before dinner time and tell me I am responsible for dinner that night. It is also irritating when I see her texting and grinning, not paying attention to one word I am saying.”
Another 16-year-old boy posts about coming out to his parents. “I am your son and I am gay. I know this is hard to hear. I know you must be scared, but I promise you are not more scared than me. People might hate me, I hope it will not be you.”
RadicalParenting.com was set up four years ago by Los Angeles-based college senior Vanessa Van Petten, who self-published her first parenting book aged 16 and then used baby-sitting money to launch the site. Now aged 24, she works as a corporate consultant and speaker on all aspects of teenagers’ lives, as well as writing a prominent blog. The site has 300,000 users a month, receives 500 e-mails a week from desperate parents and has 120 contributing “interns” mainly from the US and Canada, but also including Shamima in the UK and one each in Mexico and Egypt.
“We think of ourselves as a quasi-online magazine for parents and teenagers,” says Van Petten, who recently published her second book,Do I Get My Allowance Before Or After I Am Grounded? (Plume). “There was so much parenting advice out there, but none of it included the views of teenagers. I wanted to set up a resource that when parents are having a problem they can actually ask teenagers for help.”
For example, one recently divorced father wanted advice on how best to bond with his teenage children now that he no longer lives with them. This e-mail was passed on to the interns who had divorced parents. Another came from a mother furious because her daughter was getting terrible school grades even though she was offering her an allowance as an incentive to do well. She was told that instead of attacking her daughter for not doing well, or linking her results to money, she should come up with ways to help her daughter study and try to improve her self-esteem.
To become an intern, teenagers must submit a writing sample, pass a phone interview, then take training in writing, the use of citations and copyright laws. They must also get written consent from their parents.
For most teenagers today, says Shamima, conflict over school work and personal freedom, depression, “cutting”, anorexia and sexual attention by older men are a lot more commonplace than parents may imagine. And all these issues are exacerbated when children think their parents do not understand them.
“Teenagers do risky things, because the opportunity is there,” she says. “It is like having a cigarette in school, you’ll do it on impulse and not think through the consequences. And when parents accuse us of doing stupid things it makes us want to do them more.”
Van Petten says that parents who visit the site are often amazed by its subject matter, and by the depth and sophistication of the interns’ analysis.
“Once you get them expressing themselves, you realise that teenagers have this inner world that is incredibly vibrant and complicated. Parents may rarely get a glimpse of that in everyday life, or know what their children are up to,” she says.
For Shamima, contributing to the site has had the bonus of improving her relationship with her own parents.
“I do understand why it is difficult for parents because teenagers can’t always clarify what they want, but they expect parents to know. Now I am more focused on thinking how a parent might think in a certain situation, it makes me feel less angry towards my own,” she says. “Now I’m more likely to think: actually, my parents do have a point.”
Anthony, 17 How to talk about drugs with your teen
Whether through peer pressure or personal curiosity, every teenager will be confronted with the concept of taking drugs. Now, as parents, it’s probably one of the easiest “talks” to have work against your original intentions. Remember that teens know very little about drugs, and if you have ever taken any, saying a few things about them (not focusing only on the negatives) might be a good idea. It’s good for your teen to feel that you know more than they do. Your teenager is also scared, both of you finding out and of their reaction to the drugs. A lot of the time they’ll be eased into the idea by being told that drugs are harmless, but it’s good if you can explain the dangers.
The most important thing is that they trust you, and you trust them. Sharing stories about experiences, allowing them to ask you about difficult situations, and finding a midpoint between you and their friends is a good way to have a greater say over what your teen does, and give you peace of mind. By creating a relationship where drugs are not a “heavily disputed” topic will lessen their desire to take drugs and reduce your worries as parents.
Noelle, 16, What not to say when your teen tells you he or she is gay
Mum … Dad . . . ,” your son declares after sitting you down for a serious talk, “I have something important to tell you: I’m gay.” Maybe you’re shocked; maybe you’re scared. Maybe you’re angry or disappointed, or you knew it all along. Whatever the situation, coming out to parents is scary, and your child needs your unconditional love and support.
Realise that your child has not become a different person. If your son has told you he is gay, the chances are he has known for a while and his decision to open up about his sexuality has not been made lightly.
Open your mind, ears and heart. If your child trusts you enough to show you who he really is, live up to that trust. If he sees he can confide in you and be honest about himself, he will likely continue to do so.
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