As children enter “teen-hood,” they may present many new challenges (to put it nicely)
to their parent. There are so many times that you just want to say, “What ever made
you SAY or DO that?!!!!”
Acting on every single thing that you don’t approve of just doesn’t’ seem to work and
can lead to very difficult times in your parent-child relationship.
In this section, we’ll offer some suggestions that parents of teens have reported as
finding useful. (These suggestions were gathered from a series of group meetings with
parents of teens.)
This is the rallying cry for many a parent of teens! After trying several different ideas,
many people conclude that you can’t respond to every single thing that you don’t like.
You need to decide:
- How many things am I complaining about all at the same time?
- Which of these is most important to me?
- Which of these is most important to my child’s present life, health/safety?
- Which of these would make the biggest difference here in our home or
outside the home if it were to change?
Make a priority list as to what you really most want to change first and what items
you could actually learn to live with for a while, if necessary. Then devote your
attention to your top priority item.
In a recent episode of a family TV show, Mom 1 was trying to explain to
Mom 2 how to handle her teen stepdaughter. Mom 2 had tried to be her
stepdaughter’s friend so she was very hesitant to ask the daughter to do
anything. She just wanted the daughter to like her. Yet, things were not going
well and she complained that in truth, the daughter was driving her totally crazy.
Mom 1 explained that having no rules wasn’t making this child like Mom 2 any
better. She explained she had learned from having her own teens that it was
important to “pick your battles.”
At this point the teen charged into the room. She loudly threw down her
backpack and other belongings in the living room and was about to charge out the door again when Mom 2 asked her
very calmly to pick up her belongings and put them away in her room.
At this point the girl began cursing Mom 2. Mom 1, who was standing nearby observing the entire scene, reminded Mom 2 to “pick her battles.” Mom 2 suggested that leaving belongings around the house right now might be tolerated for a while longer, but cursing and disrespecting Mom 2 verbally should not be tolerated.
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2. WHAT'S THE CONSEQUENCE?
So you’ve selected the problem behavior, now what are you going to do if
it occurs again. Remember the consequence you select has to be one that
you can actually enforce, not just an idle threat. Your teen will know if this is
really something that you won’t be able to actually carry out. Make sure that
you have considered possible obstacles to carrying out this consequence
and you have decided how to handle these obstacles, should they occur.
Continuing our example from the TV show, Mom 2 has decided that cursing and
disrespecting her is not to be tolerated. She says impulsively, “You’re grounded!”
The teen laughs. “You wouldn’t ground me,” she says.
Because Mom 2 has never done such a thing before, the daughter can hardly
believe her ears. Mom 2 gets a bit weak in the knees but with coaching
from Mom1 she follows through and insists that the teen go to her bedroom.
However, Mom 2 still needs to decide what “grounding” actually means.
- Does it mean staying in the bedroom for a few minutes, 1 hour, etc.?
- Does it mean losing privileges such as going out on weekdays after school and/
or weekends with friends and if so, for how long (e.g. a week, a month, etc.)?
- Mom 2 needs to decide these details before she threatens a consequence that
she hasn’t totally figured out. The consequence she has announced to her
daughter is one that she and her daughter must live with. How will this change
her daughter’s life? Will she be a better student because of it? Will she still
have some chance to socialize with friends? Also she needs to consider whether
anyone else is going to have to support and participate in this decision. For
example, did her husband agree to this consequence beforehand? Will he agree
Before you announce a consequence for the behavior, make sure that you have thought
through what this consequence will involve and possible obstacles and barriers to
carrying it out. These obstacles need to be carefully thought through so that when you
present the consequence, you can be confident of your ability to actually carry it out.
Remember, your teen will sense idle threats!
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3. WHO IS GOING TO CARRY OUT THE CONSEQUENCES? WHO MUST UNDERSTAND AND SUPPORT THIS DECISION?
Okay so now you’ve decided on your top priority for action. (That is, you have “Picked
Will you be carrying this decision out alone? Or is there a partner that needs to also
be consulted about this and be supportive of this consequence? Have you and your
partner discussed this consequence and considered any barriers or obstacles you will
face in carrying this out.
In our TV example involving the mom who told her daughter she was “grounded” after
the daughter began verbally cursing her, the mom acted on the “spur of the moment”
without thinking through the consequence she announced. As it turned out on the TV
show, the daughter was quickly able to talk her way out of the consequence as soon as
Dad arrived home. She recruited Dad as an ally. Dad did not want to see his daughter
receive this consequence and downplayed what had happened to his wife. This left
Mom to regret her decision. Mom realized later that if she couldn’t get Dad to agree
with the consequence, the teen was always going to be able to work her way around
any consequence she announced.
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4. COMMUNICATE THE BEHAVIOR AND ITS CONSEQUENCE TO YOUR TEEN.
Now it’s time to talk to your teen. Parents offer different ideas based on how to go about
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- PRESENT THE DECISION YOURSELF
Some parents suggest taking the straight-forward approach of informing their
teen that this is the decision and this will be the consequence. They try to make
sure to present this decision at a time when they are able to talk privately with
their teen in a quiet place. It might be in the late evening at bedtime. It might be
car time, when they are driving their teen to school, a friend’s house, a sporting
event, etc. In any case they want it to be a time when they can have their teen’s
full attention without the usual distractions.
- FAMILY MEETING TO INFORM OF DECISION
Some suggest a family meeting. They want to be able to discuss the behavior
that is most of concern during a time when everyone can try to talk about it in calm voices rather than during the heat of the moment. State clearly what
the behavior of concern is and what the consequence for it will be. While the
teen may argue, it needs to be clear that the decision has already been made.
- FAMILY MEETING TO INVOLVE THE TEEN
Some parents take the approach of discussing the problem together with the teen
and deciding as a family what the consequence will be. So once the parent(s) have
taken Step 1 of “Picking their Battles,” they skip straight to this step. Some report
that this approach has been very helpful for their families in that it involved their teen
in the decision-making process, allowed everyone including the teen to express
their views about the problem, and ultimately encouraged their child to take some
responsibility for their actions.
- SET UP A CONTRACT
Some parents suggest the idea of setting up a contract with the teen. The contract
specifies the behavior of concern and it also specifies the consequence that the
family agrees should happen. In addition to the negative behavior, some of these
same parents stressed the importance of introducing a positive behavior on the
contract as well. The positive behavior is something the family would like to see
happen. It might be something the teen already does occasionally and would be
appreciated if he did it more of (like help with some specified chore) and the positive
consequence for this behavior (e.g. a chance for something the teen would like to
5. BE PREPARED TO CARRY OUT THE CONSEQUENCE SHOULD THE BEHAVIOR OCCUR
Once you’ve decided on a consequence that you and your family determine is
reasonable, be prepared to carry it out should the behavior occur again. This
demonstrates to your teen that you are serious and can be trusted to carry out what you
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6. TRY TO EMPHASIZE IT'S THE BEHAVIOR THAT YOU DON'T LIKE; IT'S NOT THE TEENS THEMSELVES
Too often parents get caught up in all the things they would like to change about their
teens. As one parent recently said, “The problems seem to overwhelm you sometimes.
I think at those times I forget to focus on the things that my kids are doing that actually
aren’t so bad at all. In fact they’re really good!” Another parent commented, “We
shouldn’t be afraid to let our kids know that we care even if they don’t always seem
ready to reciprocate.”
Try to find things that you like about what your teen is doing. Be sure to let them know that you’ve noticed those things and that you like what you see. At the same time that
you’re working on something that you don’t like, try to find at least one thing that you
really like and make sure to comment on that. You might even try to work out a positive
consequence (something your child would like) for doing more of something you would
like to see happen. (Remember that positive consequences come in many forms, not
just in material things. Time spent with a parent doing something both of you enjoy is only one
of many examples of a good consequence that sometimes gets overlooked in our busy
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7. AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, NEVER GIVE UP! YOUR CHILD NEEDS YOU.
Teens are at an extremely vulnerable time in their lives as they struggle for the
independence of adulthood and yet still have a lot of growing up to do. We know
from current brain research, they are also still developing reason and logic during the
adolescent years, so if you’re concerned about some of their logic and some of their
decisions, we have to consider that their brains are still developing.
It can be frustrating at times. However, as parents of teens everywhere will assure you,
you are not alone!
A group of parents of teens we once convened agreed, “You have to keep trying. You
may not get it right the first time, or even the second time, but don’t give up!”
Perhaps one high school age teen said it best. When asked what advice he would give
to parents of younger teens, he said, “Keep talking. Sure we say yeah, yeah, yeah. It
may seem like we don’t care and we’re not listening. But don’t stop talking and showing
that you care. We really are listening!”
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