I FELT SO USELESS AS A DAD
By Janet Tappin Coelho
HUNGOVER teenager Claire Sparrow didn’t think twice when she finally came round.
After vomiting in her filthy bedroom, she clambered out the window… once again leaving her hardpressed mother to clean up the stinking mess she’d left behind.
But this was just a mild, though frequent, example of the 15-year-old’s couldn’t-give-a-damn attitude.
Her stressed parents Dean and Sandy had been forced to deal with their child’s drunken and drug-fuelled outbursts for 18 painful months, during which time Claire had been expelled from school, was using cocaine and brawling.
When Dean eventually had to call the police to restrain his violent daughter, he finally realised that things had to change. By that time, his wife had become suicidal, he was in therapy and their marriage was just about on the rocks.
In desperation, he turned to Channel 4’s Brat Camp, which takes anti-social youngsters and attempts to turn them into responsible, loving children again.
It was their last resort and little did they realise how much it would change their lives… “We felt like we had nowhere else to turn,” says Dean, an insurance broker from West Hordon, Essex. “Our life had become unbearable and we really thought that Claire was going to end up in one of two places – dead or in prison.”
But when they were told that Claire had been accepted for the show, there was a shock in store for Dean, 43, and 42-year-old Sandy.
This year, the format had changed. Now parents were expected to endure the harsh regime in the US wilderness, too, as part of Family Brat Camp
And so the Sparrows were one of four families chosen to go to the Aspen Family Camp, in Idaho, for three weeks of hardship and bonding.
“It came as a bombshell when we found out we had to go, too,” says Sandy, who is also mum to Nick, 13, and nine-year-old Ben.
“It was difficult making the decision but we were at our wits’ end with Claire’s behaviour.”
According to her family, the trouble began when Claire was 13 and started to rebel against her parents, who insisted that she came straight home from school.
Instead, she hung out with her mates until late.
“I felt suffocated,” says Claire. “I just wanted a bit of freedom to spend time with my friends. But I was hardly ever allowed to.”
Now, in hindsight, Sandy – who works in admin at the same secondary school Claire used to attend – readily admits that they could have tackled things differently at home.
Claire’s outbursts were also fuelled by her love for a local lad who ended up dumping her. “I couldn’t get over him and the way he treated me,” reveals the youngster. “I lost confidence and felt humiliated and worthless.
“Drinking and smoking dulled how I felt but, when they didn’t work, I just took it out on those closest to me – my family.”
On countless occasions, Claire lashed out at her father, kicking, punching, biting and spitting at him.
She also ran away more than a dozen times, sleeping rough when she’d exhausted places to stay.
“I never stopped loving her but I hated what she had turned into. She was a vile monster,” says Dean, who took to counting down the days to Claire’s 16th birthday so he could kick her out. “I felt useless as a father and ashamed that I couldn’t control my daughter.”
The family turned to social services and child psychologists.
Dean even went to a psychiatrist to help him deal with his anger, self-doubt and inability to discipline his child. The couple’s marriage almost hit the rocks, with Sandy threatening to take the boys and leave Dean to cope with Claire.
Sandy says: “For a year I cried my heart out every single day for my child and the mess we were in.
“She destroyed me as a person. I was miserable all the time and exhausted from it all. I often thought about taking my own life.”
The Sparrows finally reached their limit earlier this year and turned to Brat Camp, where they’d soon find themselves enduring a different kind of hardship.
After arriving in Idaho, they found that they had no showers, no flushing toilets and no clean clothes. Shelter was a make-shift tent, they had to live on a diet of porridge and water, and trek more than 100 miles on a wilderness trail with heavy rucksacks to complete the programme.
Each family was given a guide who led them through the desert and set a series of challenges, both physical and psychological, that they had to complete together.
The exercises were key to rebuilding the breakdown of communication and respect within the family.
And they equipped them with the necessary skills to make a fresh start.
“It was very demanding but I was prepared to do anything to get my family back together again,” says Sandy. And with Claire off the alcohol and drugs, it wasn’t long before the Sparrows began to break down the barriers that had built up between them.
“We were forced to talk about our feelings, to write them down and read them to each other,” recalls Dean.
“It felt awkward at first but it made us open up to each other.”
“That was the part I hated most,” admits Claire. “I found it hard to talk about how I felt because I had kept my true emotions locked away for so long. Before, all I could express was anger. But at the camp I found myself telling my parents how much I loved them.”
And she wasn’t the only one to learn valuable lessons. Dean confides: “At the camp, I learned as a father to give Claire space to make her mistakes and to take responsibility for her own actions.
“I was certainly guilty of spoiling her and trying to sort things out when she messed up. So instead of getting in the car at 3am to pick her up because she was too drunk to find her way home, I should have left her there and said: ‘Claire, I love you but this is something you have to sort out on your own.’”
For Sandy, being able to say “no” to her kids and mean it – instead of backing down under pressure – has been a crucial parenting skill she has taken home with her.
Back in Essex, both Sandy and Dean now describe family life as “bliss”.
“Claire is unrecognisable from the angry girl she used to be,” says grateful Sandy. “She has given up the booze and drugs and now we’re closer than ever. It feels like we’ve got out little girl back and it’s great.
“Every day I pinch myself because I can’t believe how happy we are as a family.
“I laugh and joke around with Claire and really enjoy her company. She is forever telling me that she loves me and gives me lots of hugs and kisses.”
Sandy admits they feared Claire may return to her old ways when they got back home. “So before Claire left the camp, she agreed to go to a detox unit if she began to abuse drink and drugs again. But the experience had already showed her that she could change if she really wanted to… and she did.”
With a genuine look of shame, Claire says: “I’m really sorry for the pain I put my family through. I blame myself mostly for my bad behaviour but I’m glad my parents came with me, so we could work things out together.
“My relationship with them is amazing,” she adds happily. “I’m a real daddy’s girl and love spending time with them.”
Out of school now, the teenager has got herself an admin assistant’s job in a telecom company and is studying for an NVQ traineeship.
“My family, including my brothers who had to do without mum and dad for a few weeks, made a huge sacrifice for me,” Claire adds with determination. “I owe them a lot and I have no intention of ever letting them down.