PARIS — Six women and one man have gathered around the table. They are strangers of various ages who come from different backgrounds, but they understand each other perfectly because of the strong unifying dilemma they have in common: All are parents struggling to understand their teenagers.
They have gathered on a Saturday afternoon in the café of "l'Ecole des Parents," an educational research association based in eastern Paris. Behind the old-fashioned name (the association was founded back in the 1920s), it is a friendly place where parent meetings hosted by psychologists are often organized.
The goal is to share experiences and help each other. This new and popular form of parental support, which is government funded, is in growing demand; in fact, funding has doubled from 50 to 100 million euros a year. This theme tackled this afternoon, “teenagers and authority,” ranks among the parents’ biggest concerns.
Each parent starts by describing his or her situation with their children, all between the ages of 13 and 15. Sophie* has two sons who “don’t follow our schedule, never eat with us, and are always on the computer.” Anne has just forbidden her son from using the computer in the hopes of improving his grades. “He asks me for it every single day,” she says in a tired voice. Thérèse says she is “exhausted” because she has to cope with a teenager who is “always contradicting” her. Katie’s son “becomes violent when we refuse him something.”
“I’m a little lost,” she admits, “so I came here.” Sophie says she has no longer “any control” over her twins, one of which is failing school. Henri is here because “showing authority isn’t easy every day” with his daughters.
Age doesn’t seem to make things any better or worse for the parents. The youngest mother here today is 43, the eldest 57. Occupation and social status don’t matter either. Sandrine is a doctor, Katie works in the luxury field, Thérèse at the ministry of justice, and others are youth social workers. “I know how to handle other people’s children,” Henri laughs. “With my own, it’s more complicated.” Murmurs of approval emerge from around the table.
Technology at the root
The main topic quickly becomes difficulties the parents experience when trying to communicate with their children. Computers seem to be a universal problem: The parents have no idea how to combat technology. Some realize that their children turn the screens back on at night after their parents have gone to bed.
“In the evening, I tell my daughter, ‘Hand over your weapons,’” says Henri. “I confiscate everything.” But some quickly feel guilty about it. “My son told me, ‘Mom, you’re taking my life away,’” Anne says. “It’s true I don’t realize what his life is. I don’t know how to judge what's good for him anymore.” They have “their whole universe in these little boxes,” Claire notes. “We didn’t experience that,” Katie says. “So it’s hard to understand what we haven’t lived ourselves.”
From time to time, the psychologist intervenes and reassures everyone. Teenagers are “verbally disabled,” explains Nathalie Isoré, a psychologist at the Ecole des Parents. “They need to be self-centered and are always in opposition to their parents. It’s part of becoming an adult. Today, they take refuge in video games. Past generations did the same thing, but elsewhere.”
Within the group, parenting styles vary widely. Some are strict, and others are more laid back. “I had very authoritarian parents,” Claire recalls. “To my children, I give everything, right away.” Katie had the opposite experience, which she has replicated. “I have no authority,” she says. “My ex-husband is also permissive. My new partner is the only one who tries to have authority over my son.” But that’s not working out so well. Tensions are rising, and the couple is not sure whether to live together.
Life is no easier for strict parents. “I’m scared of being too bossy,” Anne says. She aims to have the “authority of two” because she raises her children alone. “I feel I don’t leave him enough space to grow up,” Thérèse says. “And when I get angry, I sometimes start undermining him.”
They all agree on one point: Saying "no" is always a challenge. “You have to be strong, take your time,” Anne says. “Our lives are busier and busier, and we’re exhausted,” Katie says. “Putting up barriers means extra work for us.” And having extended and recomposed families doesn’t help either. “There are lots of divided step families,” Katie notes. “In large cities, you often end up very alone.”
They all question themselves. “Why are you so sure that what you are doing is wrong?” the psychologist asks. “Think about everything you have given them!” On a piece of paper, she draws a graphic with “listening” as the x-coordinate and “authority” as the y-coordinate. “There’s a whole set of attitudes between excessive empathy and excessive authority,” she explains. “The ideal is to find balance.”
“Parents are looking for ready-made advice,” says Tiphanie Héliard, another psychologist at the Ecole des Parents. “We look for solutions based on their abilities.” When they leave, the parents may not feel they have the solution, but they at least feel better. “It helps to move forward,” Anne says. “It’s interesting to listen to others,” Henri adds. “And it’s comforting to know that we’re not alone.”
*All the names of people quoted have been changed