After becoming the pin-up for working mothers everywhere, Allison Pearson returns with a brutally honest take on navigating the teenage years.

It was 2002. I Don't Know How She Does It, my novel about a woman trying to juggle a career and small children, had just been published and I was at a reader event when a woman came up to me.

"I hate to say this," she said with a bitter laugh, "but what you've written about is the easy bit. Just wait until Kate Reddy has teenagers."

I had no idea what she was talking about. Literally no idea. My two children, Evie and Tom, were 6 and 3 back then. The baby era of broken nights was, if not behind us, then soon coming to an end.


That summer, we finally potty-trained the small boy, who gleefully ran naked round our London back garden, peeing everywhere except in the potty I chased after him with. "It would be easier to house-train a puppy," grumbled my husband.

Evie had recently learned to read and entered the magical - for busy parents - world of Harry Potter, where she lost herself for hours. If I thought about it at all, I assumed that this parenting lark would carry on getting easier as the children got older and became more independent.

Seriously, what was I thinking? Fast-forward a decade and my daughter and her friend are holding a fancy dress party at our house in Cambridge.

My husband did try to veto the plan - "I don't want a house full of drunken teenagers doing drugs and trying to have sex with each other!" - but I am worried that our daughter, like every other 16-year-old girl of her generation, is anxious and under too much pressure - from schoolwork, from social media, from things I barely understand.

Why not let her have some fun for a change? So the party went ahead. A version of it appears in How Hard Can It Be?, the sequel to I Don't Know How She Does It. "Emily's party" definitely has factors in common with Evie's party.

For instance, my husband's precious Jane Austen collection had several pages torn out for roll-ups - and much worse. He did mount Custer's Last Stand at the front door, trying to confiscate alcohol and prevent uninvited guests coming in.

The supermarket vodka smuggled in, the teenage couples swarming remorselessly upstairs, like extras in a zombie film, looking for a place to copulate.

Me asking Evie if it was necessary for the "disco" to be quite so loud and being told that no one had called it a disco "for, like, 100 years, Mummy". That much is factual.

Other bits are horror stories I'd heard from people with kids the same age. Such as the couple who thought their son's 18th birthday party was safely over, woke at 3am to hear noises coming from their wardrobe, opened the door and discovered Romeo and Juliet shagging on the mum's Joseph coat.

As a novelist, I am part-magpie, part-cannibal. I hoard all the glittering anecdotes, saving them up until they find the perfect place in a book. I am relaxed about cannibalising my own emotions and experiences (the closer to the bone I can bear to go, the more powerful the connection with the reader).


So, I am bloody and graphic about Kate Reddy's menopause, because any embarrassment is mine alone.

For my family, it's different. The lonely marriage in How Hard Can It Be? is definitely not my relationship, although Kate's growing disillusion with her husband, the sense that time is running out and she is living for everyone except herself, was based on scores of conversations I had with middle-aged women.

Emily and Ben are close in age to my own kids, but they are not the same people. Unlike poor Emily, my daughter has not shared a picture of her naked backside (the dreaded "belfie") with a malicious friend and seen it go viral. But she so easily could have; that's the point.

One reason I felt compelled to write this sequel is because social media has wrought such vast, often pernicious changes in the lives of vulnerable adolescents like my own.

Parenting Teens in the Digital Age - the title of the book a despairing Kate consults - is much harder than being a parent at any previous time in history.

Children might be in their own bedroom, but there is no respite from the 24-hour connected-ness to the peer group, which can bully or induce envy and self-loathing.

We are up against forces unimaginable to our own mothers and fathers. When she first discovers Emily's bare backside is bouncing around the worldwide web, Kate aches for that time when her daughter was little and she could still fix any problem.

"How am I supposed to protect her from things I can't see or hear?" she asks. "Am I so out of touch that distributing pictures of one's naked arse has become socially acceptable?"

The generation gap has always been there, but this chasm between adults (who just about know how to use Sky) and their tech-savvy offspring is new and scary.

An American friend who had parental controls put on all the technology in the house found out that her clever daughter had not only downloaded "How to Bypass Parental Controls", she had paid for it with her mother's credit card. That went straight into the book.

"I feel like a stone age person living with Steve Jobs," wails Kate Reddy. Which parent in the 21st century doesn't? Marvelling at their mother's cluelessness, my kids often chorus.

"Are you from the past?" Yes, I admit, I am. And sometimes things were better, more innocent, back then.

When my kids tell me that "dick pics" - look away now, Granny! - are commonly exchanged between boys and girls, I shudder and wonder what kind of love life you end up with if your first sexual experience is with a pixelated penis.

Sarah, a friend with older boys, said she had forced herself to have "The Conversation" with her sons. She told them that stuff they saw on porn sites was not representative of what young girls wanted to have done to them. It was good advice. I followed her example and told my son to please treat women with respect.

Pretending your little darlings are uniquely immune to these things is deluded. I will never forget how upset I was when my daughter's form tutor asked if I thought Evie might be depressed. When I insisted that she wasn't, he said, "At least a third of her year are depressed or self-harming."

Sadly, vigilance about mental health has been added to the roster of maternal responsibilities.

In the novel, Kate, who is preoccupied with work, as so many of us mothers now are, fails to spot the warning signs that Emily is in trouble.

It may be that today's teenagers have a vocabulary to express emotions that we lacked when we were growing up, but you can also blame the Epidemic of Anxiety on pressure of exams and social media. In so many families I know, a teenager is on anti-depressants.

No middle-class child is allowed to be good enough anymore. When she was doing exams, my lovely bright daughter broke my heart. "You don't understand, Mum," Evie explained. "I'm not the cleverest, I'm not the prettiest, I'm not the sportiest, I'm not the anythingest."

Emily says that to Kate in the novel. It felt important to write it down, this anguished cry from a generation of amazing yet painfully self-conscious young women who look in the mirror and see only imperfection.

My daughter had a phase of taking hundreds of selfies. From online makeup tutorials, she learned how to contour and define that fresh young face until she had the glamour of a showgirl twice her age.


"They're supposed to be the freest, most-liberated generation of girls who ever lived," Kate says to her friend Debra.

"Then, just as equality's in sight, they decide to spend every minute slapping on makeup and posing for selfies and belfies like they're courtesans in some fin-de-siecle brothel. What the hell happened?"

A novel cannot provide the answers, but at least it can ask the right questions. I Don't Know How She Does It was brutally candid about the guilt of the working mother.

"It was like, 'Allison's been looking through my kitchen window'," one CEO said to me recently. "It really helped me get through that difficult time."

Thousands of women claimed that bonding over Kate Reddy's struggles was life-changing. It enabled them to be more open in the office about being a mum and, eventually, changed company policy too. Perhaps How Hard Can It Be? can do something similar for parents, and for unhappy teenagers, too.

As a society, this is a conversation we urgently need to have. When, at 16, my daughter was very ill and in hospital - stress-related stomach problems among girls are on the rise, the doctor said - I sat by her bedside and made a vow.

"If you will just get well, my love, and come home safe, I will not put pressure on you. I will not care what bloody results you get. I will thank God for my wonderful girl." It was a hard lesson and I have never forgotten it.

My own in-house junior critics read Mum's new novel last week and made approving noises. They thought the ghastly teenage party was "awesome". Mainly, they're hoping it will be made into a film so they can hang out with cool celebrities, like the last time.

I could not be more proud of the original, loving young people they have grown into, but that woman was right all those years ago - just wait until Kate Reddy has teenagers.

The truth is, in the digital age, all parents are on a journey in the dark, without maps or torches. I hope my novel helps light the way.

How hard can it be? by allison pearson (harpercollins, $35) is out now.



Yes, she may have gone and got a heart tattoo on her ankle, but at least it's not a ring through her nose or a tongue stud. It's only worth having an argument if you really mind about something. Anything else, count to 10 and stay quiet.

They need to feel they can talk to you if necessary. Boys, in particular, can become monosyllabic after puberty. Car journeys, with a grumpy teen in the passenger seat while you drive and don't try to make eye contact, are a great time for confessions to slip out. Some of my best, most rewarding chats with the kids have been in the car.

Any pet will do, but a creature that offers uncritical adoration to young people who are highly critical of themselves is ideal. Dogs are amazing stress-busters and bring a family together when things are fractious. One mother I know, whose son no longer felt comfortable hugging her, bought a puppy. "I thought I could cuddle the puppy and Ben could cuddle the puppy and we'd end up cuddling each other."
It worked!

Easier said than done, but try to make some rules you can all stick to. No mobiles at
meals. Devices out of the bedroom before sleep - the stimulation of blue light can cause short sleep, which has been linked to depression and

Your child will not want you to follow them on Instagram or Snapchat. Try to find a willing babysitter or university student who'll keep an eye on their posts and alert you to anything worrying. This worked brilliantly for us.

When you're being sworn at or doors are slammed, it's easy to forget that your mutinous, gangly teen is still a child. They don't mean half of what they say. You are the source of unfailing love so they can test that stuff out on you. Look on it as a sort of weird compliment.