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Annabel Langbein, Teuila Blakely & more star Kiwi mums share their home truths

The ladies talk teens with our Guest Editor Kate Hawkesby

We hear a lot about how rocky the teenage years are. The media trots out “troubled teens” stats and the messages are so often negative.
Yet those of us with kids have no choice but to parent teens at some stage! And unlike when you have a baby and people queue up to give advice, there’s little of that as our kids enter the monumental transition to adolescence – arguably the biggest time of their lives and one of the most challenging for parents. Snatched conversations at the school gate are often our only chance to trade information with other parents. So it’s a treat to get to sit down with some of this country’s most dedicated mums, who know all about juggling crazy, busy lives with raising teenagers ... and they’re still smiling!
For 46-year-old MP Paula Bennett (mum to Ana, 29, and stepmum to 15-year-old Willoe) and 41-year-old actress Teuila Blakely (mum to Jared, 23), being teenage mothers themselves meant they basically grew up alongside their teens, learning a lot along the way. Annabel Langbein (mum to Sean, 24, and Rose, 22) raised hers as she was working and travelling for her culinary
career, while 49-year-old Karen Olsen (mum to Amelia, 16, and Campbell, 14) juggled a busy television career, still managing to run her two teens around to all their sporting commitments. So how do they do it? With a good dose of humour, common sense and a bucket-load of talking with their teens. And here’s the good news – all teenagers aren’t bad!
Kate can relate! The busy mother of five (far right) understands the tears, trials and triumphs of parenting teenagers.
What’s the best bit about raising teens?
Annabel: Watching them grow into young people who are coming to discover their own identity and sense of self.
Paula: I love that they’re full of angst and emotion and feelings – girls especially. They tell you what they’re thinking or feeling every single minute of the day it feels like! Laughing at them is important – it’s great fun. It should be an adult sport.
Karen: Yes, they’re so much fun and they’re funny! And we can do so much with Amelia and Campbell. Ours still actually like hanging with us, which is remarkable.
Teuila: I loved learning to relate on a whole different level too. I enjoyed the social change – their conversations improve! It wasn’t so long since I’d been a teenager myself when Jared was a teen, so I could identify with the stages he was at.
What surprised you about your teens?
Karen: What they can achieve, their confidence – I’m in awe of them. I never had that level of confidence at that age – their sense of humour, how self-assured they are.
Annabel: I was surprised at how different mine were. Two kids raised the same way from the same family, yet so different as teenagers. My daughter was quite challenging (like me as a teen, actually –I’ve apologised to my mother), but I can see why they get sent off to that Year 10 camp! It’s the age of rejection. Girls can be quite mean to their mums, actually. But it was a short-lived phase, thank goodness.
Paula: It doesn’t feel short-lived at the time, though. It’s hard to keep up with them because you’re genuinely worried most of the time – you worry about their decisions.
Teuila: I was stoked with how much my son came to me with stuff. He’s a talker (like his mum!) and we’ve always had that open line of communication. Was there anything you loathed about them?
Paula: Oh, I don’t like teenagers a lot of the time. Let’s be honest! But then to be fair, they probably say they don’t like me either. That friend influence can be a worry and I hate that grunt instead of an actual answer.
Karen: I love everything about mine. I couldn’t imagine my life without them. The only thing I can think of which is challenging is maybe how early I have to get up to get them to everything ... all their sport!
Teuila: It’s the toughest time for a parent. When they’re young, it’s like you’re the teacher and they just do as they’re told. But from teens on, you’re the one learning the most. Teens are all about compromise – they test you greatly.
Paula tries to have rules but not be judgmental – she says it’s important to share a laugh with your teens.
Was there anything you loathed about them?
Paula:Oh, I don’t like teenagers a lot of the time. Let’s be honest! But then to be fair, they probably say they don’t like me either. That friend influence can be a worry and I hate that grunt instead of an actual answer.
Karen: I love everything about mine. I couldn’t imagine my life without them. The only thing I can think of which is challenging is maybe how early I have to get up to get them to everything ... all their sport!
Teuila: It’s the toughest time for a parent. When they’re young, it’s like you’re the teacher and they just do as they’re told. But from teens on, you’re the one learning the most. Teens are all about compromise – they test you greatly.
What was your biggest worry?
Annabel: What might or could happen to them ... alcohol, drugs. Every kid’s gonna make a bad decision, but we always gave them an open line – no questions asked. If you’re in trouble, call us.
Karen: I worry about the situations they might find themselves in. You know, drunk drivers – other people really, not them, but other people. My kids are sensible. I trust them to make good decisions.
Teuila: When Jared started socialising, I worried about his safety, him being out at night, where he might be or who he was with, like most mums do, I’m sure.
Paula: I always just said I wanted to get through the teenage years with them alive, number one, without a criminal conviction, number two, and with choices in life. I think that about the country’s teenagers too, to be honest. They can have second chances in education, paying off debt or the wrong job, but they need to be alive and without a criminal conviction.
Annabel: ‘We always gave them an open line – no questions asked. If you’re in trouble, call us’
What’s the best stage of the teenage years?
Annabel: I loved late teens –they were through the other side! By 17 to 18, they’ve worked a lot of stuff through. They’re past the hormones and the peer group pressure – they’re less vulnerable and they’ve worked a lot of stuff out.
Teuila: I’d actually say younger teen and older teen stages were good – it was the mid-teens that were tough. I think the most challenging stage is 15 to 18. They’re developing so much independence, they’ve learnt to say no, they don’t listen to you any more. But I think we can also be too hard on our teens and not appreciate that it’s actually all a phase and they do grow out of it.
Paula: I found early teens the easiest. Later on they’re driving, drinking, going to bars – late teens has more complexities with it.
Karen: I’ve loved every stage so far!
What differences have you noticed between teenage boys and girls?
Karen: My daughter’s more organised. She has a lot on, but she manages it all. She works hard and is dedicated. My son is a bit more “whatever”. But he still manages to do it – it’s just he’s quieter about it. I probably know more of what’s going on with my daughter. Girls are a bit more open.
Annabel: I feel incredibly lucky because we’re all so close. I find them both very nourishing. My daughter Rose is very like me, so I understand her. I can sense if something’s not right and they do say you’re only as happy as your least happy child, and that’s true! But ours talk to both my husband and me equally.
How hard or how easy is it to have a relationship with your teenager?
Karen: Communication is the top priority for us and respecting them as people – respecting their opinions and showing an interest – so we have a very easy relationship.
Teuila: My son and I are super-close. We still hang out and I love that he still makes time for me.
Annabel: We’ve always travelled a lot with Sean and Rose, and had fun with them, so we’re all actually great friends.
Paula: I was actually a terribly behaved teen myself. I mean, I got pregnant at 17, for crying out loud! So I try to have rules but just never be judgmental. I got some advice from a policeman once who said, “You’ll get one shot at it.” When she rings you from a party she wasn’t supposed to be at, how you handle it that one time will dictate how her teenage years are handled from then on. And that happened. I had to just stay cool and calm because every part of you wants to yell, and you just can’t. You have to say, “Hey, it’s cool you called me.”
Teuila: ‘We can be too hard on our teens and not appreciate that it’s actually all a phase’
What parts of teen life these days do you just not get?
Karen: The phone obsession. The online Fifa obsession.
Paula: What they consider to be human contact. The text thing. Thinking texting is an acceptable form of communication, like if you are in the same house and you text from upstairs that you want something. Hello? I mean, really? I don’t respond to that. The screen thing drives me nuts. I worry about what they view as a relationship when so much happens online or on a device with no human contact.
How strict are you with them? What’s the biggest rule in your house?
Annabel: We decided early on to pick our battles. Because there will be lots of them. So what it came down to for us was: Is it dangerous? Is it illegal? Is it unkind? But we let them take their own responsibility for stuff. We never really said,“You should” or “Why haven’t you?” We didn’t chase them on things like homework – it never seemed right to have an expectation for them as a parent because that’s your ideas, not theirs. Your only job is to make them feel confident. And we spent so much time around the kitchen table. That’s the most important piece of furniture in your house. We sit and we talk.
Karen: Our rules are really just things like not too long on devices and sitting up as a family for dinner at the table every night – no phones, no television, just talking. We go round and discuss our days, the good and the bad parts, and they always have something to say, so because we talk a lot, we don’t need a lot of rules.
Teuila: Basic boundaries are important for boys, I think, but I’ve always been flexible because I was raised really strictly in a very inflexible environment, so I just knew it was important to be flexible and work with him, not against him. I never said he couldn’t drink, for example, but I did say he had to tell me what was going on so that I knew, and I think because he knew he could do stuff, he never went off the rails.
Paula: I’m stricter now with my stepdaughter than I was with my own daughter because you live and learn. You realise the world won’t fall apart if they don’t go to that party. It’s actually really hard to be strict when you’re a sole parent on your own. Yes, I had rules. Yes, they broke most of them.
Karen: ‘Communication is the top priority for us and respecting them as people’
When they’re teenagers, do they need you more or less?
Paula: More.
Karen: More. Exams, friends, parties, conflict, drinking – more stuff to deal with.
Annabel: More. It’s incredibly difficult to be a teenager these days.
Teuila: They require you less on the day-to-day goings-on, but they require you more emotionally.
What was your biggest focus with your teens?
Karen: Knowing their friends and their friends’ parents and who they hang out with.
Teuila: I focused on Jared just finishing high school and being in a position to study at university.
Annabel: Giving them a good toolkit, a really good toolkit, to make them feel strong.
Paula: Keeping them alive!

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