Keeping the door open

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
Teenagers typically find it impossible to discuss drugs or sex problems with their parents - so it is vital they have someone to turn to

I am a deputy headteacher with responsibility for pastoral care in an 11-18 rural comprehensive, not in the middle of an inner city. At lunchtime I keep my office door open. This is when the students of all ages, but especially the girls, pluck up courage and walk slowly by my door. I look up regularly and give a smile as they pass by.

Every day a young person, usually accompanied by their valued friend, walks through the open door and says: "Miss, can I talk to you?" I stop my work, close the door and listen.

What I hear varies from day to day. It may be that the girl thinks she is pregnant. They often require urgent emergency contraception, sometimes they are not sure whether they need it or not due to the level of their drunkenness the night before. They may have a problem with anorexia or bulimia. Self-harm is a recent addition to the list and with embarrassment and shame they roll up their arms to show me the damage inflicted on wrists and arms, caused by an inability to cry combined with feelings of self-loathing and an absence of self-worth.

One of the issues they find hardest to tell me about is sexually- transmitted disease. I remember the girl who walked into my room in utter shame and told me of the impossibility of approaching either her parents or her doctor about her condition. I quickly found an approachable female doctor for her to see.

Part of my response to these cries for help is to try and act as a good, caring parent. I remind them of the importance of having a good, positive self-image - of wanting the best for their bodies and the importance of treating their bodies with respect. I tell them how much I hope their sexual activity will have value, meaning, permanence, even love - and not be a drunken grope in a car park with a lad of 10 minutes' acquaintance. I remind them of their own space and that no one is allowed to invade that space without their permission. Most important of all, I tell them we all make mistakes. Guilt is a worthless emotion, but learning from mistakes and not repeating them is at the heart of human wisdom.

What age are these young people? The youngest are 12, and they range up to 18. If they are 12, I have to make the difficult decision and assess if the sexual intercourse is classified as rape or sexual abuse. There are child protection issues to assess. I frequently seek the advice of our excellent school doctor in this assessment.

Then comes the next difficult decision. Do I inform the parents? If I do, I destroy the trust between the young people and me. I may as well close my office door, the young people will not return to seek my advice again. What would be the cost of this? Would they go elsewhere or will the girls continue to self-harm, seek abortions or do nothing about an STD, which could lead to infertility?

I read with interest the recent case of a school which provided lunchtime access to a young health worker. The health worker was the go-between to a local hospital where an abortion was performed without parental permission or involvement. We, too, provide daily drop-in sessions for health, substance misuse, smoking cessation groups and the Connexions service - all without involving parental permission. In addition to this there is my open office door. Yet the recent case led an outraged mother to demand that she be informed about her own daughter. Parents have a right to such information.

Not one newspaper praised the school for its caring ethos. Immediately our media culture of scandal, blame and litigation went into top gear. I agree with the mother. Ideally, young people should be able to turn to their parents for help and support.

However, there is a counter argument. In our teenage years many of us make mistakes concerning relationships, sexual activity and substance misuse.

That is partly what the teenage years are about. We also want the space to make some of these mistakes without our parents knowing the details.

Surely, it is also part of a good education to teach young people how to seek advice and to sort out problems and mistakes for themselves? There is another issue too. Not all young people feel they can trust their parents'

response. Sometimes the parents' over-reaction, condemnation, even rejection, is the last thing that the young person needs. So, well done that school for being there for its young people who cannot or do not wish to share their problems with their parents and for giving advice about abortion. And in my rural comprehensive I will continue to keep my door open.

The author's name has been withheld at her request

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