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How to explain to Duncan that his girlfriend can’t come and live with us, after falling out with her mother?

The world of a sixteen year old is very different from that of his middle-aged parents.

I do feel sorry for him when I refuse. It’s true we do have the space – though we don’t actually have a room spare to give her. But he can’t see what we lack – and maybe it is just as well that he can’t. As a family, we are chronically short of time, and energy. Duncan’s sister Julie has been very ill over the winter, in and out of hospital. She needs to know that she can take the time and space she needs to recover without worrying about anything else. And Joe and I need to be able to relax when we come home from work – years of caring for Julie have taken a heavy toll. The last winter has been tough on all of us, we just don’t have the emotional resources to deal with anything more demanding than deciding which movie to watch.

The Elsa we have seen is a lovely girl – kind, resourceful, and sweetly vulnerable. Other people’s teenagers are always more appealing than your own. It’s been a pleasure to have her around. Perhaps it would do us good to open up to someone outside the family?

But no, reason kicks in: is this really doing Elsa any favours? Most parents are there for life: she will have to mend the relationship with her mother sometime. At sixteen, storms come and go – but let’s face it, back at home in your own bedroom is still where you would rather be. And what will she do if and when she falls for someone else if she depends on Duncan’s family for a roof over her head?

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I’m not a big fan of diets, but here I am downloading the NHS diet plan and back to counting calories.

Julie has been in and out of hospital like a yoyo the last week, so our family life has been pretty chaotic. But as soon as she started to stabilise again, she declared that one of the things she wanted to do was lose weight.

Now in the aftermath of crisis Julie’s head is not in a good place. Dieting can seriously mess with your head at the best of times: all those obsessional routines about calorie counting, all that guilt when you “sin”. She’s already surveying the wreck that is her sixth form career after two months of chaos and trying to work out how to recover that. To diet as well: is that a good idea?

I figured the best thing would be to offer to be her diet buddy. I could do with losing a few pounds anyway, and by dieting alongside her I could offer her support and moderate some of the extremes of behaviour.

In fact it’s been quite fun. Its been a few years since I’ve looked at the world of dieting, and there are lots of apps and much better sources of advice. I insisted we try the NHS plan because it is moderate, and because Julie had already successfully used their running program last year. We printed out the star charts and put them on the fridge, as instructed, and signed up to a free calorie logging app which allows us to be “friends” and share information. There’s been a fair amount of giggling and “Did you know…?” conversations. It’s fun to work on a project together.

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For millennia, human beings have adapted successfully to colder climates by wearing clothes and shoes. Leathers, furs, the wool from farm animals, rubber and now synthetic polymers, have all been used to solve the basic problems of heat loss, and water repellency.

But despite the accumulated wisdom of generations, teenagers still leave the cave on a cold winters night without a coat or a decent pair of shoes. For as long as there have been clothes, there have been harassed adults telling teenagers to put something warmer on. No doubt somewhere up above the Arctic circle, there are Inuit teenagers walking about outside in T-shirts and trainers while Inuit parents yell at them.

Today I broke my winter hibernation and braved the horror of the January sales for the single purpose of getting Duncan a decent coat and a pair of boots that will withstand another two months of snow and ice.

What I want to buy: a coat that is warm, weatherproof and well made, shoes that have a sole with decent grip.

What a sixteen year old wants to buy: a coat that makes him look cool, a coat that folds away to the size of a postage stamp when he takes it off (or which actually vanishes into thin air), shoes that make him look six inches taller.

We battled long and hard, up and down the heaving aisles of January shoppers. But the task has been completed at last, and I can rest up for another year. I have fulfilled my parental obligation to purchase appropriate winter clothes for my ungrateful offspring, who will almost certainly entirely neglect to wear them.

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It’s that time of year again: the start of another academic year. Everyone who has ever been a child or raised a child in the Western Hemisphere will recognize that this is the time of new beginnings. Small children start school, bigger children chafe in new uniforms, and many teenagers leave home for the first time against a backdrop of reddening trees and the freshening winds of autumn. 

For me it is also the time to pick up the exacting routines of housekeeping after the laxness of summer. Everyone has to get up, eat and shower and be out of the house on time.  Everyone has to return home safely at the end of the day and be fed again, listened to, commiserated with, supported and soothed and finally nagged back in to their beds.  The fridge must be kept supplied with food, everyone must have shoes and the lights on the bikes must be working. 

This routine, though somewhat monotonous, is necessary. Without it we rapidly sag downwards into the chaos that awaits beneath: skipped meals, forgotten medication, chronic sleep shortages and abandoned homework assignments. I will know my children are truly adult and independent of me when they finally recognise the importance of getting enough sleep and eating regularly.

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My son is now at home all day with nothing to do, having finished his exams. He is 16. He has the full use of his hands, legs, eyes and brain. I have taught him to cook (and so has his school), my fridge, my freezers and my cupboards are well stocked with ingredients, and there is friendly shop at the end of the road which will give my children anything they want on credit.

So why is he ravenously hungry when I get home? He says he doesn’t know where anything is. I show him (not for the first time). He declares it is too much work to make a sandwich. Then he says he still can’t remember where anything is anyway.

So here’s my solution: the “Food, Where Is It?” poster. Just to keep him alive until I get home. All he has to do is forage for the food, work out how to unwrap it, put it in his mouth and chew. Surely that isn’t beyond him?

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The situation is this: I am not terribly ill, but I am in some pain and discomfort, and feeling very sorry for myself. I wait impatiently for the date of my operation to be set, with a growing list of things that have to be put off or put on hold until I know. Can I finish planning the summer holiday? Can I promise to take Julie to a university open day? Can I commit to visiting my father?

In the meantime, my energy is in increasingly short supply, and must be meted out carefully. Did I really bake bread once? I cannot imagine kneading bread dough at the moment! The house has to run itself as much as it can. I have two firm sources of support: principally Joe, who runs all sorts of errands for me, often when he is exhausted himself, and who is the proverbial pillar of strength. My other ally is the Internet: now I not only order food, but whole dinners. If you live in England, I can thorough recommend family meals from Cook, which are delivered frozen and can be heated up in the time it takes a teenager to ask (sulkily) “what’s for dinner?”

Two things that I find the energy for because they are life-affirming. My office now looks over the botanic gardens, and I walk there every lunchtime, come rain or shine, absorbing the colours, the blossom, the textures, the smells. The other is music. I have signed up for a short online course to learn about Beethoven (from Coursera) and wherever I have ten minutes alone I listen to a movement from one of the piano sonatas: really listen, not have it on as background music. Both of these are luxuries I could not even dream of last year when Julie was so unwell and so dependent that I had no lunchtimes, nor ever ten minutes alone. How I relish this now!

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I have recently diagnosed myself as having a mild case of prosopagnosia: difficulty recognising faces. It doesn’t mean that I go round greeting lampposts or kissing strangers on railway platforms! I have no problems with my family or close friends, but outside quite a select group, it can be a bit hit and miss. If you have a distinctive body shape, or facial feature, or you always wear the same jumper, I will probably recognise you most of the time, but otherwise I might not, especially if you make the mistake of turning up out of context. To explain what I mean using celebrity faces: I can recognise a picture of Cher, for example, but I have difficulties with Kylie Minogue.

I’ve known about this for years: I didn’t really have to do the online test to prove to myself I had a little problem. I had worked out for myself that it was not names that failed me, nor remembering the people themselves: it is specifically that the face does not reliably provide the key to the person in my brain.

Prosopagnosia affects perhaps 2.5% of the population and like many people I have decades of embarrassing memories! I can only say sorry to the many people who have bounced up to me in the street calling my name enthusiastically, only to be met with a blank stare. Sorry to the nice chap who sat next to me at a concert and talked to me throughout the interval about both my family and my work: no, I have never worked out who you were, and this has often haunted me. Worse, can be the attempts you make to correct for the deficit: 20 minutes into a conversation, only for the other person to look slightly stunned, “You must have mistaken me for someone else!” Well yes, I couldn’t work out who you were so I had relied on cues in your conversation, which turned out to be red herrings: you were actually my Pilates teacher, not my son’s form teacher. There are some people who, to this day, I am not quite sure if they are the same person who has cropped up in two different contexts, or two different people: how can I ever ask? Hey, guy who works at the desk two along from me, are you also the person who used to attend a group therapy session with me three years ago? Aaaggggh! And then there are the films that are rendered incomprehensible, because the plot hinges on recognising that the man in scene 6 is actually the cop we saw in scene 4 but in a different jacket…

I only did some research, and learned the name of this condition, after my daughter Julie unexpectedly announced that she was having difficulty identifying people at college. “It’s really embarrassing, Mum, some of the staff and other students must have known me in the main school, but I just don’t recognise their faces. I can’t work out if they’ve taught me before, or if I’ve had classes with them. I can’t recognise them!” I’ve never discussed my own problems before with anyone, so Julie’s admission came as a surprise, and completely unprompted. I was glad to find out that it was nothing worse than the problem I had struggled with myself for years!

It’s not a big deal for me, though I do tend to avoid certain social situations, but it’s hard when you’re 18, and already have other deficits caused by illness. It makes me wonder how something as simple as a problem with face recognition can feed into lasting difficulties with social interaction. Julie and I are working together to try and work out some strategies that might help her, and they might help me too: studying people’s faces for a little bit longer, trying to pick up on distinctive features on or off the face. I’ve been known to recognise people from their hands for example: it’s amazing how many people wear distinctive rings. And longer term, I’ve always been the one at work enthusiastically championing photo boards and name badges!

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I’ve been a “special needs” parent for a while now – since my son was about seven, and my daughter thirteen – and I’ve got the T-shirt. I’ve been to special needs conferences, I’ve battled through the statementing process and I’ve got the school SENCO on speed dial. All schools use terms like “special needs” or “different needs” liberally these days, and a large secondary school will have a small armies of additional adults called teaching assistants (TAs in the lingo), helping individual children.

So it’s sobering to hear what my children think of the word “special”, after a lifetime growing up hearing the term bandied about by adults, especially in relation to them themselves. One of my children had to fight to be included in the “special needs” camp and win funding for her very own TA; the other child has spent the last few years fighting to keep out of the “special needs” category, struggling to evade the SENCO’s grasp.

It can come as no surprise to anyone who knows children (or who was ever a child) to find out that “special” has joined that list of words that are changing use rapidly, and generally heading south. Just as Obama wise-cracked about “the Special Olympics” (and then had to hastily apologise ), you can bet there’s a teenager near you telling another teenager that they’re “a special”. Is it only a matter of time before “special” goes the way of words like “spastic”? When I was a child the word “spastic” was perfectly respectable (as in The Spastic Society) before sliding into taboo.

So no kid wants to be “special” these days, but of course as teenagers they are also anxious to find out what it is that makes them different from everyone else. This may be partly because we educate them in such huge cohorts – my kids are at a school over 1500 strong. Even though they seem to prefer to do everything in packs, they are simultaneously hunting for that elusive personal signature.

This is a challenge for any kid who has ever been labelled “special”. They can embrace that label and identify themselves by it, but that’s not always a very successful strategy. If you decide to be assertively Aspie, for example, that only works as long as you feel that having Asperger’s Syndrome is generally positive. You might feel enthusiastic if you credit it with giving you mathematically superior powers, but more reluctant if you think it puts off prospective sexual partners. Reject it, and you redouble your efforts to find another way to define yourself.

20140207-144033.jpg I’m trying to take a step back: step back from caring so much for my children, step back from doing so much for them. I think it’s a good thing for me and for them.

I didn’t think it would make much difference when Julie turned 18 (not so long ago) but it does. She may have been in adult mental health services for a while, but now she is legally an adult in every sense, it has made a difference. I realised something had changed when the school mentioned that they wouldn’t need my consent any more to take her on trips. (I still have to pay for them of course!)

It is a struggle though. This morning, as the rain lashed down, I had to really fight to stop myself offering Julie a lift to school. It is only a mile, and she is a very capable cyclist, but the urge to protect her was very strong. I had to remind myself that she is able-bodied and at her age I was not just cycling to school but travelling to the other side of the country to start university. It would be kindness to drive her there in the car, but it would reinforce the belief that she cannot cope without me.

The problem is, if you don’t stop looking after them, they don’t learn to look after themselves.

Another watershed: the self-harm is still going on, but not quite to the same degree, and now I ask her to dress the wounds herself if she can. Julie had to go to A&E more or less every three or four weeks through the whole of last year, but at the moment each incident is less severe and we can often treat it at home. I want her to learn to do this by herself: know where the antiseptic is, and the plasters, and recognize when it’s too serious for her to handle alone. It’s a huge shift, and a hard step for me, but it is important. It may mean that we run a risk of poor treatment in the short run, but in the long run the risk of having a fully grown adult dependent on her mum is much more insidious.

Joe has been away for work this week, and it has been a good excuse to try and drop some of the habits of doing so much for the kids. Instead I’ve asked them to help me round the house, doing the washing up and emptying the bins more often. I am already beginning to imagine the day when they are more competent than I am – I shall be quite happy to be laughed at!

"A NEW NORMAL" by Celenia Delsol (c) 2021

M.A. Counseling Psychology & Grief Recovery Specialist

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