Given that the research literature have identified that problems associated with youth such as, anorexia and bulimia, bullying and other acting out behaviours, substance misuse, marginalisation of certain groups of people in communities, abuse, self-harm and suicide are significant, what do parents go through in attempting to care for their early adolescent child or children?

Some of the symptoms have already been mentioned above. Stressful anxiety (situational), frustration, irritability, confusion, helplessness, guilt, periods of outbursts of anger and then remorse, fatigue, headaches, tension muscular aches and sleeplessness and depression are just some of the possible symptoms that could indicate difficulties with coping with a problem adolescent. Patton, Olsson & Toumbourou cited in Rowling, Martin & Walker (2002, 28) discuss the way that family dynamics impact negatively and positively on the mental health and well-being of the adolescent and the parents. They stated:

‘Risk factors that might receive attention include family conflict, disorganisation, parenting style and family management as well as family backgrounds. Conversely a sense of positive connection, good communication, intimacy and confiding are positive aspects of family functioning that are suitable targets for both mental health promotion and prevention.’

Options — Defining ineffective options

What is effective and what is ineffective? Given that we are discussing adolescents with problems, then an effective approach would be one aimed at coping with the problems using a combined problem solving and resilience building strategies. Ineffective parental approaches or options are most likely to be:

  1. those where the parent ignores or is ambivalent about their child’s needs, schooling, interests and so on and doesn’t become actively involved with their child, their learning and their development,
  2. where apportioning blame, being inpatient and creating dependency are common in dealing with a child’s issues and problems,
  3. where confrontational emotions and actions including anger, lack of compassion, hysterical yelling or screaming and physical violence replace problem-solving, empathy and guidance. This situation is often coupled by poor communication, lack of intimacy and loss of caring being propagated to the child and reflects an abusive default model for dealing with issues and problems. The child may feel alienated, vulnerable and scared as a result.
  4. where hypocritical or dishonest words, actions, beliefs, attitudes and values or insincere praise or an environment of secrecy demonstrate to the child a lack of truthfulness, trust and respect for adults,
  5. ignoring at-risk behaviours and hoping that problems will automatically sort themselves out or disappear in time.

It is extremely difficult although not impossible to turn around such a difficult family culture. The child may learn not to trust or respect other adults as they mature. Depending upon the circumstances, this could lead to relationship problems, guilt and fear of intimacy of any kind, bullying and abusive behaviours or attachment to abusive partners in life, low self-esteem and self-worth, phobias, obsessions and compulsive behaviour, fear of interacting with or caring about other adults, and low motivation to learn or to seek challenges in life (Bright, —re sexual abuse consequences; Wright & Leahey, —re consequences of divorce for children; Rutter & Smith, cited in Rowling, Martin & Walker (Eds.), 2002, 79).

That is why a positive child-parent relationship is so crucial in helping an adolescent person to feel some degree of control and autonomy in their life and to feel valued, heard and loved by key people in their life, in order to grow and develop into a more mature and well balanced person. The spin-off from this is that the parent may also grow and develop and have a mutually loving, respectful, open and honest relationship as their child matures through life.

Of course there may be situations where even with the best of intentions and skills, parents are still unable to cope with their child’s behaviour and thinking. It is important to recognise one’s limitations and to know when to seek professional help when needed. The child may or may not have significant mental health issues but whatever the case, it is important to seek help when one’s ability to cope as a parent is severely strained.

Sometimes a child will listen and respond to a person outside of the family, and often if there is a rapport and trust built up say with a doctor, counsellor, nurse, dietician or someone with good listening, helping and guidance skills, then parenting may become a bit easier to cope with especially when there are also many work and family priorities to deal with at the same time.

It is also becoming increasingly clear in the research literature that communities also have a major role and responsibility in supporting parents and adolescent children who are having problems. For example, the role of the popular media (especially glossy popular fashion magazines that target children and adolescents) and the fashion industry in representing women in fashion as skeletal objects of beauty; the role of the popular media and dieting entrepreneurs in promoting dieting fads (however extreme) and even cosmetic surgery in order for young women to become beautiful and slim and therefore valued in the community; in part reflects inaction by communities and society in general to focus on healthier lifestyles and to prevent exploitation of women and their bodies and minds.

As a consequence, eating disorders in young female adolescents have been rising significantly. With the addition of peer group competition from school friends and other friends to look slim and attractive and to appear ‘cool’ and therefore desirable and valued, a socially acquired mental health problem exists in many westernised countries including Australia. Parents often find it extremely difficult to cope with their adolescent child who may have anorexia or bulimia on their own. Expert help is highly advisable as soon as possible after poor eating habits have surfaced as a problem.

Ultimately however, the community has a significant moral and pragmatic role and responsibility to protect children against blatant and irresponsible commercialisation of women’s bodies and social disease causation (McMurray, 2003, 147-148).