Eight ways to tame your over-the-top teenager.
A year ago, I drew upon a couple of decades of hands-on experience to offer up a very personal list of do’s and don’t’s for anyone considering the move to a home office. At the time, I felt I had exhausted my lone area of expertise. However, according to friends and family, I probably had one more article in me. I am a parent of two girls—now 18 and 21—who made it through adolescence relatively unscathed. Or at least, I made it through their adolescence relatively unscathed. They graduated from high school, I didn’t punch out their boyfriends, and as far as I know they did not end up in a Girls Gone Wild DVD. These days, that qualifies me (and my wife) for some kind of gold star. We really did do our best to make sure those wonder years covering 13 to 18 didn’t turn into blunder years. We read books and magazine articles on emotionally intelligent parenting. We discussed and debated parenting tactics out of earshot of our kids. We sought the advice of experts in the field.
We watched all kinds of TV shows—from the ones where therapists help teens and their parents work out knotty issues to the ones that exploit crummy parenting and creepy teen behavior to amp up their ratings. Based on this expansive knowledge base, we went down the cafeteria line and put together a parenting strategy that seemed to have a reasonable chance of success. For example, we resisted the almost constant urge to throttle our teen daughters, and tried instead to engage them in intelligent conversation. In other words, we tried things that didn’t work particularly well. Happily, some things did. And both daughters emerged from the dark tunnel of adolescence with a few door dings, but no major frame damage. My wife and I followed at a safe distance, resisting the temptation to hop in and indulge in back-seat driving. Along the way, we discovered what worked for our family, ourselves and our two very different teenagers. We also learned that there are no shortcuts in that tunnel—you have to make sacrifices, and put in the time, the emotion and the money, sometimes when you think there’s nothing left to give. Presented here, then, is a plan that worked well for at least one family—our family. We didn’t always stick to the plan, but whenever we strayed, we managed to find our way back. It was based on sound professional research mixed in with a little trial and error, and ultimately modified with that dose of reality that sometimes eludes the academics. The take-away is that addressing the challenges of teenage behavior requires an open mind, an open heart, the willingness to keep trying until you get it right…and the humility to realize that thinking you got it right is a sign that something is almost certainly about to go very wrong.
- Praise Positive Behavior Have ever you noticed that the behavior most likely to draw your attention is the behavior you seem to see the most of? There’s a reason for that—we’re reinforcing it. The problem is, all too often we drop the hammer on negative behavior and bad habits, picking transgressions apart in minute detail. Far less frequently, we shower attention on positive behavior, and when we do we aren’t always specific about why it’s positive and how it brightens everyone’s day. In these cases, don’t assume your teenager knows what he or she did right. Praise their positive behavior and explain what makes you happy or proud about it. Start with the small stuff, like picking up dirty laundry or turning off the lights after leaving a room. Offer small rewards, like choosing the music on your next car ride or stopping for an impromptu slice of pizza. Over time, this positive reinforcement will produce steady improvement. Be careful, however, not to go too far and overpraise every little thing. Keep raising the bar. Your kid’s not stupid. Eventually, he or she will catch on.
- Pick Your Battles You can’t rewind adolescence, and there is no restore procedure to turn teenagers back into the kind, considerate children they were 10 years ago. A certain amount of aggravating, self-centered behavior is part of growing up, so the best advice here is don’t sweat the small stuff. Be clear in your own mind between things that are merely annoying and things that are totally unacceptable, like shoplifting or vandalism or drinking and drugs. That other stuff—bad hair, bad makeup, bad clothing, bad music, bad friends, bad grades, bad language, bad time management—is all about your child testing limits (yours and society’s). Stand your ground on issues of safety and security, and do your best to guide them through the superficial stuff without badgering (or strangling!) them.
- Understand the Timeline Teenage behavior is part of a continuum in the maturing process. Just as you would not judge a three-year-old for shoving a Cheerio up his nose, don’t be hypercritical of a 15-year-old who is obsessed with her body image or wardrobe. This is a time of intense social, physical and emotional change. For instance, teenagers honestly believe they are smarter than their parents. So roll with it—don’t take every opportunity to show them how wrong they are. Yes, we know they are idiots when it comes to comprehending cause-and-effect, and they are often incapable of seeing past their own navels. But they have to start navigating life on their own. The best we can do is furnish them with a GPS and hope they don’t swerve into a lake on the road to adulthood. For what it’s worth, remember that, as teens in the 1970s and 1980s, we were operating in a comparatively rule-free environment and most of us emerged in tact.
- Stand Your Ground Setting clear behavioral boundaries and then establishing specific consequences for violating those boundaries is one of the toughest aspects of parenting. Everyone needs to be on the same page when a teenager blows it, and parents must support each other when that inevitable time comes to follow through on the promised punishment. If you threaten a big take-away but then fail to stand your ground, your authority will be seriously undermined. Worse, you may be sending the long-term message that consequences are for other people, not for your kid. Never forget that teenagers are like bloodhounds—they can smell the stink of weakness on a parent. What’s an appropriate punishment for a major violation? Well, what’s most important to your teen? Figure that out and let your child know that it will be taken away. The obvious stuff is phone, computer, video game or TV time. With all the advances in smart phone technology, you can now crush all four by taking away one device! If your teenager is driving, eliminating that privilege can be extremely effective. If you are indulging a special interest or activity—such as a sports team or camp—you can put that out there as a potential punishment, too.
- Set Them Free Teenagers crave independence. They want to make as many of their own decisions as possible, and resent parental interference. Difficult as it may be, parents should be willing to give their adolescent children just enough rope to test their choices and experience the consequences—and then yank them back if necessary. Unfortunately, allowing young people this kind of freedom can
result in extremely negative outcomes, such as tangles with the law. However, these experiences also tend to drive home important life lessons that teens might not take on faith from their parents. The big upside of giving teens independence is that, if they make good choices or draw good conclusions, they not only experience a sense of victory, but also know that they are making their parents proud—and that is a huge boost to their self-esteem.
- Walk the Walk Telling teens they need to behave a certain way—and then not living up to that behavior as a parent—is inviting all kinds of trouble. First off, it gives kids the courtroom evidence they need to throw back in your face when you criticize them for dangerous or inconsiderate behavior. Your son may forget to shower for three days, but he’ll remember every last thing you do wrong. Secondly, it completely ignores rule number-one of parenting: Kids do as we do, not as we say. So when you say no cursing, don’t curse around the house. When you say be respectful, don’t belittle your partner or spouse. No one’s perfect, but the more consistent you can be, the greater the impression will be on your teenager.
- Rights, Privileges & Respect These are concepts with which the adult brain often struggles, so it’s no surprise that teens tend to get them really jumbled up. One of the key challenges of parenting is helping adolescents sort out what’s what. If you don’t, you’re likely to end up with an indignant and venomous teenager on your hands. In our society, a child has the right to be sheltered, fed, clothed and schooled. A child also has the right to expect safety, care and compassion in the home, and to civil communication with caregivers. Beyond that, if you ask most parents, everything else is a privilege. Ask a teenager, however, and the list of entitlements is somewhat longer. Most believe they have the right to a phone, a video gaming system, an allowance, transportation, a bedtime of their own choosing and unfettered access to friends. It’s worth a parent’s time to subtly (or, if necessary, not so subtly) delineate between rights and privileges, because rights are something that cannot be taken away, while privileges can—either as a form of behavior modification, or if those privileges are abused. Is respect a right? Parents and kids both might be tempted to answer Yes. But what’s true outside the home carries some weight in the parent-child relationship: Respect is not automatic; it’s something you earn. As parents, we are shocked and offended by disrespectful behavior. What we fail to see is that teenagers are even more wounded when they are belittled by their parents. Sometimes, you just have to sit your kid down and say, “Hey, I’m your parent—I am doing my best to make a home for you, and that buys me some basic respect. We need to see a real effort from you to contribute to this family, and you will have our respect, too.”
- Never Give Up Taming a volatile teenager is no fun. If you’ve ever been tempted to chain your kid to a radiator, don’t worry. You’re
hardly alone. Sometimes all you want as a parent is just to get through one day without an explosive or heartbreaking moment. So it’s critical to understand that, when kids enter this dark tunnel, there is truly a light at the other end. If you’re lucky, you can take that journey with them, guide them through, and keep them on the right side of life’s double-yellow line. Just remember to do so in a separate vehicle. And keep several car-lengths between you.