Growth can be either outwards or upwards, and that applies to families as much as anything else. A growing family may be one that is adding to its numbers as new children come along, and that can be within one family unit, or a much wider extended family. We can also see ‘growth’ as development over time, as we watch our family’s children grow up and eventually begin careers and families of their own. Both kinds have their delights, and their challenges.
The size of a family unit is an intensely personal decision. For some, one child is all they’ve ever wanted, while for others, a family is lots of children. And rest assured, you’ll get the products of both kinds either damning or praising what they got! We’ve probably all met the only child who would have really liked a brother or sister or two, and in contrast the only child who is utterly delighted to have been ‘the only’ and had the undivided attention of their family.
Likewise, there’s the big family where the kids are totally chuffed by the company they’ve had, and the relatively diluted attention of their parents: then there’s the ones who felt short-changed because there were so many kids they never got much personal attention, and they got pushed around by their siblings. And that can happen within the same big family! People vary, in their genetics and their personalities, and what suits one may not suit another. It’s probably a simultaneous curse and blessing for most parents. Since we can’t give them back, or create more than we have, we take what we get and work with it as best we can.
Watching individual children grow is another bittersweet experience. There is the joy of watching increasing independence, and the slight sadness of losing the person who once put huge trust in you. There is also the concern about whether what you’re watching is how it should be. Fortunately, for the majority of parents, the bumps and scrapes, squabbles and teenage angst resolve themselves and they watch their children develop into happy, mostly stable souls with a few embarrassing or outright dangerous experiences behind them and a future ahead. For some, it’s not quite so easy, either due to physical issues, which can sometimes be severe, or often invisible, but much more common, psychological problems, which may have physical or biochemical causes beyond anyone’s control. Such problems may represent a challenge, but can sometimes be associated with considerable creativity and productivity in later life if they can be recognised and handled sensitively.
Dealing with even a ‘normal’ teenager can be harrowing. The quote marks are deliberate because adolescence is, by its nature, not entirely straightforward. The brain is undergoing intense changes, the biological clocks tend to come a bit unstuck, and many, many parents are familiar with the struggle to get their teenager out of bed, let alone have said teenager display any kind of motivation to get on with life. Anger is common on both sides, and mutual feelings of misunderstoodness are par for the course. In the midst of this, it can be pretty hard to spot something unusual, and probably even harder to have the confidence to ask for help. It’s also common to have friends and relations dismiss fears by saying “stop worrying, they’re just being a teenager – my Jane was just like that and she’s turned out fine.”
Often, that may be correct. Sometimes, it’s not, and it may not be due to drug or alcohol issues – that’s a whole separate problem! Sometimes parents are confronted with changes in personality and behaviour that can be proved not to be due to drug or alcohol use, which make them worried – sometimes even the teenager’s friends can see something a bit odd going on. Those are probably the times when calling for a bit of gentle professional help is very sensible: discussing matters with a GP who knows the family well, or a capable clinical psychologist who specialises in dealing with teenagers is not a case of daft over-reaction.
It’s a sensible precaution, which may well end in “yes, everything really is fine, you don’t need to worry.” In others, the conclusion may be that in fact some help is needed. Often the help may be nothing more than a bit of lifestyle advice and a general understanding within the family of what is really influencing the person’s behaviour. Sometimes merely knowing that the behaviour is not deliberate can make a big difference to how everyone else responds. In a few cases, the problem may be bigger, and may require medical intervention, but even then, understanding what’s going on may be more than half the battle.
We have become an isolated society in many ways – in the very mobile world we inhabit today, many of us have lost the close links to our parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins that used to be common even a generation or two ago. Yet the reality of the saying that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is still there: we need to be able to talk to each other, compare notes, reassure each other sometimes, or indeed agree that reassurance is not appropriate in some cases, and work together to acknowledge problems and help where we can. That help can take many forms: moral support when hard realities have to be faced; practical support by keeping the garden going or cooking meals for a family too distressed to deal with the mundane things right now; and sometimes just providing an uncritical shoulder to cry on and a recognition that family life can be difficult.