Is anybody listening?

25th June 2004 at 01:00
Parenting now seems to include psychoanalysis, says Stuart Waiton, who believes adolescents are better off with their friends

Once, when the term parenting didn't exist and we just had parents, the job of looking after children was understood to be relatively straightforward.

The "job" of parents was to feed, clothe and love their children and we were expected to get on with it.

Now it appears being the parent of an adolescent means we have to be a mind-reader and a psychologist. Our teenage children may "show it less" the latest NHS advertisement tells us, "but they need you more".

And I mistakenly thought that adolescence was a period of moving from childhood to adulthood, from dependence to independence. But no. Young people need their parents even more - but now as amateur psychologists.

Ironically, many of the professionals who advocate the "I'm listening" model of parenting are the same people who condemn the Americanisation of everyday life. Yet the role of the health service, and indeed many other state services, in encouraging us all to become parental Woody Allens seems to have passed them by.

Another current advertisement - this time on radio - relates to depression, which apparently "everyone gets". But this advert doesn't even pretend that feeling down can often best be resolved by your nearest and dearest. Talk your problems out with your parents - not a chance. Your friends wouldn't understand, we are told. Your partner? "Too close". Your colleagues? "Not close enough". So pick up the phone and talk to someone who's "listening".

Back in the US, the role of student counsellors in schools is well established. A recent piece of research showing that when these counsellors are introduced and pupils are encouraged to use them, a high proportion of students refer not only themselves but their friends for counselling. Which raises the question of what it means to be a "friend" today.

My uncle, an FE teacher in Manchester, told me that his late-teen pupils are encouraged to talk to a teacher or college counsellor if they think their friends may have "emotional problems". Naturally enough, he has found that now he has frequent visits from his students worried about their classmates who have "boyfriend problems" or "exam anxieties".

Teenage life has never been a stroll in the park, but neither was it or is it a period of serious mental health problems for most young people.

Indeed, a key stage of development for adolescents is when they stop looking to their parents or teachers for emotional support and develop this through the intimate relationships they create with their peers.

Young people need time and space to build this network of support through developing intimate relationships with their friends - indeed the very basis of lasting friendships and emotional maturity is often this sharing of intimate concerns and problems. However, with parents and teachers being encouraged constantly to watch over the "emotional well-being" of young people, and pupils being encouraged to refer their friends to "experts", this important stage in their lives could be undermined. Friendship, defined as "being emotionally close to another: with mutual affection and trust," is perhaps becoming less about the responsibility you take for your friends and more about passing on this responsibility to a third party.

At the same time, the more instrumental and practical role that both parents and particularly teachers have - a role that can help to put the emotional roller coaster of adolescence into perspective - may similarly be compromised.

Indeed, the role of parents and teachers as therapists, which is being encouraged today, runs the risk of transforming these relationships into something quite different and may help to keep young people in a permanent stage of adolescence and dependence.

Stuart Waiton is a director of

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today