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Extract – Things They Don’t Want You To Know: 11 Lessons for Raising a 21st Century Teenager

Things They Don't Want You To Know

Introducing this essential book on how to raise a teenager in the 21st century. Written from a teenager’s perspective, this is a unique field guide for parents about the secret lives of today’s from mental health to self-harm, drugs to sexting – and how you can help them and yourself through these turbulent years without losing their trust. It’s time to open up the conversation, don’t be afraid to talk! Here’s an extract from Things They Don’t Want You to Know by Ben Brooks, the bestselling author of Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different.

If you’re reading this, you probably have children, and these children may be in the process of growing taller, sulkier, and hairier around the genitals. This blossoming also happened to me. I know it happened to you too, I’m not stupid[1], but mine occurred fairly recently and so probably bore more of a resemblance to what your angelic offspring are currently going through.

While in some respects, teenagers today are just as hopeful, hopeless, and hard-headed as any of the generations that have come before them, in other ways they are the first cohort of their kind. They are the first not to know life without super-fast internet and ubiquitous smart phones. They are the first not to understand what it ever meant to live unconnected by the ever-present web of the digital realm, and we are only just starting to see just how deeply its effects are being felt.

The world has changed, and the experience of coming-of-age within it is changing too. We used to talk about children growing up too fast, though we barely acknowledge this anymore. It has become a given. How long can you stay a child when all it takes to research ‘anal creampie’ is a few flicks of the thumb? How do you keep young people safe when even their most raucous friends’ disgusting jokes pale in comparison to the extreme ideas lurking behind computer screens?  How do you keep any of the world’s horrors at bay from a kid with access to the internet?

The last decade has transformed adolescence, and that is why I’m writing this book.

I want to help you understand what it’s like to be a teenager in an age of self-harm, selfies, and sexting. I want to help you help your kids. I want to do this because I know how hard it was and how much easier it could have been for me.

As my transition from pre-pubescent caterpillar to pizza-faced butterfly unfolded, I watched my parents panic and flounder with questions they were unprepared for. Is the computer killing his brain? Is Grand Theft Audio making him want to pistol-whip prostitutes? Does he have friends? Is he watching porn? What does he do on that phone? What are those cuts up his arms? Why are his pupils so big? What are we supposed to do?

My parents inherited child-rearing tactics from their own parents and quickly realised that these had become useless. Anything physical would mean a call to Childline, followed by high-pitched threats of legal action. Grounding doesn’t mean much if your friends live in your phone. Taking the phone away doesn’t mean all that much either, when you’ve got a laptop upstairs. And you’re not taking the computer, mum, because otherwise I won’t be able to do any homework, will I? And is that what you want? For me to end up getting three GCSEs, doing media studies in Plymouth, moving back home and living with you until you die?

Anyway, how do you punish someone who’s already so miserable?

You’ve probably read that levels of anxiety, depression, and self-harm amongst young people are at an all-time high. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that suicides among girls are 16-24 increased by 83% in the six years leading up to 2019 and NHS figures show a 48% rise in anxiety and depression in British children over the past fifteen. Yet you’d be hard pressed to argue that these kids aren’t the most tolerant, socially aware, and generally well-informed group of pubescents ever to grumble about being woken up at seven every morning. Young people are drinking less[2], smoking less[3], and having less risky sex than the generations that came before them[4]. They are generally less afraid of being open about sexuality and mental health than their forebears. They’re even punching each other less than they used to.[5]

So what’s happening?

I’m not entirely sure. I am not a scientist or a sociologist or even a person that wakes up before noon, but I did survive being a teenager at a time when porn replaced the birds and the bees, new drugs were invented faster than they could be banned, and over a third of kids announced that their future dream job would involve telling a webcam what they’d eaten for breakfast.[6]

The internet taught me how to shave and dance and have sex. Most nights I fell asleep cradling a phone. At sixteen, I started taking fluoxetine, switched to citalopram, tried olanzapine, and settled on beer. My first girlfriend lived in the computer. My drug dealer lived in the computer. My sense of self-worth was almost entirely dependent on the computer.

It’s possible I wasn’t an average teenager, if there is such a thing, which means my experiences might serve more as a warning than anything else. Then again, it’s also possible that your offspring are just better at hiding things than I ever was.

You may be shaking your head at this point. But I know my son / daughter, you might think, and they are kind and clear-headed and they don’t keep anything from me. Well, I’m glad. Sceptical, but glad. The number of times I have heard ‘my Oscar would never do that’ is directly proportional to the number of times I have witnessed, first-hand, your Oscar doing exactly that. Not in any sinister way, just because a part of growing up has always meant establishing an identity separate from your parents, and this generally involves a certain amount of lying: ‘I won’t leave our postcode, there’s nothing in my pocket, and I’m staying at Archie’s tonight.’ (Still, there are parents who insist their children are unrelentingly honest with them. Apparently, it doesn’t take long to forget how it felt to be a teenager.)

The problem with ignoring the fact that kids are going to gravitate towards certain things – drugs, sex, stealing Mars bars from supermarkets – is that they are going to get guidance about it from somewhere, and if it isn’t from you, it might not point them towards the wholesome conclusions. For example, if you have a son, you’re probably not going to tell him not to try and fit his entire fist into a girl during his first sexual encounter, but porn[7] is going to positively encourage him to do that. Later, when he attempts this desperately sexy manoeuvre on an unsuspecting young woman, she’ll likely hit him and/or end up developing a small vagina complex as a result of having seen the very same porn.

What’s the solution? You probably haven’t (until now) imagined your son considering fisting, let alone thought about how best to break it to him that it isn’t how we do things in the real world. Confronted with the unexpected, parents, teachers, uncles and aunts panic, and often respond in ways that make things worse.

When my parents discovered a diary in which I was chronicling self-harm, my deepest secrets were hand-delivered to a flustered geography teacher (more on this in Chapter 9). While I was downing activated charcoal in a post-overdose hospital bed, I was lambasted with furious accusations of selfishness and idiocy. Drinking – on the other hand a true marker of adolescence  – went almost entirely unpunished, because here was something that was knowable, familiar and therefore made sense while being caught with a carrier bag of nitrous cannisters was an offence punishable by two weeks’ banishment from home.

I don’t blame my parents. Apart from drinking to giggly oblivion, these teenage pastimes were not things that they had any experience of. Their confusion led to anger, frustration, miscommunication, and a certain amount of unnecessary pain. It was a shame. It hurt. It put me beyond the reach of help when I needed it most. Once trust in your parents evaporates, it can be a difficult thing to restore, and that’s a dangerous lifeline for a teenager to try and cope without.

When my contemporaries’ kids reach their acne years, hopefully there won’t be such a gulf. They will have had their own experiences with sending nudes, being dumped on messenger, and talking about mental illness without acting like it’s a recent invention of attention-seeking children. They will be able to offer advice. They will, perhaps, understand[8] because although every generation feels a world away from the one before it, you’d struggle to deny that the arrival of the internet hasn’t done a great deal to widen that gap.

Until then, the aim of this book is to tell you something about how I grew up, something about how everyone else is growing up, and try to offer up a few suggestions for how best to ease the friction of it all. If this generation of kids is having trouble, they’ll need a hand from the adults around them, which is unfortunate because young people aren’t always thrilled about asking for help. The best I can do is tell you what would have worked for me, my friends, and the kids I interviewed for this book. (Rory, Kelly, Simon, Samson, and Erica are some of the fake names I invented for some of the kids that I spoke to while trying to get a fuller picture of teenage life today. They ranged in age from thirteen to seventeen and came from different parts of the UK, as well as slightly further afield.)

Alongside their mumbled testimonies, I checked statistics, read books, and tried to decode incredibly dull studies in an attempt to see whether any of it applied to reality. Sometimes it did. Sometimes it didn’t. But the eleven lessons that follow are my best attempt at setting out how it feels to grow up today and what it might be helpful for you to understand if you’re going to help the ones you love reach adulthood relatively unscathed.

So this book is for confused parents. It’s for anyone who is custodian of a teenager currently feeling lost, alone, depressed, horny, in need of another body, or like they want to relocate to another planet. And it’s also, indirectly, for the young me, and for Katie Connor[9], who, after that video leaked, had to move to a school three counties away.

Will it help?

It might do, somehow. But it will not be a parenting guide written by someone who was already stockpiling Werthers Originals when computers first started infiltrating our homes. It will be a look at modern life through the eyes of a teenager, by someone who recently graduated from that club and is more than happy to take you on a tour of the sites that most parenting manuals would rather pretend don’t exist. There is porn, there are hallucinogens, and kids do call each other cumstains on the internet. None of those things signal the end of the world but to remain completely unaware of their existence can mean you end up getting blindsided if they ever do crop up. And blindsided people rarely make wise choices.

Anyway, you have nothing to lose, except for the money spent buying this book and the time it takes you to read it. If it doesn’t help, there will at least be a few pages about the medicinal properties of various herbal teas and a handful of reading suggestions to make sure there are some useful take-aways between this introduction and the acknowledgements.

I am not a teenager anymore. I survived my adolescence, just like you did, and just like your kids will. But it is possible to hit twenty with a minimum of scarring, no criminal record, and a functioning relationship with your parents. At least that’s what I’ve heard.

Things They Don’t Want You To Know publishes 25th June 2020. You can pre-order it here today.

[1] Yesterday I found out Atlantis wasn’t real.

[2] In 2018, the Epidemiology and Public Health department of UCL found that, between 2005 and 2015, the number of non-drinkers age 16-24 rose from 18% to 29%.

[3] 2019 NHS Digital data showed 16% of 13,000 11-15 year olds had smoked a cigarette in their lifetime, down from 49% in 1996.

[4] The Office of National Statistics figures show teenage pregnancy was halved in the 16 years leading up to 2016.

[5] According to a study by University College London and the University of Liverpool, the number of 14 year olds having punched or kicked someone on purpose fell from 40% to 28% over the past 10 years.

[6] A 2017 First Choice survey found that 34% of kids wanted to be YouTubers when they grow up.

[7] You may not think your child has seen porn. In which case you are probably wrong. A 2019 BBFC study found that ¾ of parents think their kids hadn’t seen porn, while 66% of 14-15 year olds said they had. The other 34% were probably lying, by the way, because they thought it might get back to their parents.

[8] It’s also possible that everything will continue to change exponentially, and the next generation will wrestle with biotech, matrix style brain uploads, and the ethics of boning aliens.

[9] Not her real name. There will be no real names in this book, except for mine and those of various rappers.