Teens are famous for making dumb and impulsive decisions. They predictably exhibit emotional intensity that defies logic and context. We as parents typically get the brunt of this. Whether we’re cleaning up a mess they made in the community or at school or dealing with a verbal or physical onslaught at home, our options are limited in the moment.
The real challenge and opportunity to influence positive change for our teens comes immediately after and in between their bad moments.
If you’re like most of us, you may feel like you’ve tried everything: grounding, threatening, taking things away, ignoring, or just trying to be loving and understanding. You’re also likely on the receiving end of so much advice, much of which is contradictory. One person is saying that you need to be more strict while another is telling you to let it go because this is just what teens do. Arggh. It can be so overwhelming and frustrating.
Are you setting them up for success as an adult? Are you causing more harm than good? Are you enabling? For most of us, the answer is yes to all of it at different moments because we’ll never get it just right. But the better question is, how can we spend more of our efforts responding to their challenging behaviors in a way that helps them develop the skills they’ll need to be happy and successful adults.
For the last 15+ years, I’ve had the privilege of listening carefully to the failures and successes of thousands of parents and teens, I’ve identified a structure and framework that is not only backed by research and social science, but is also helpful in a real and practical way.
Part of this approach is adapted from a model called Collaborative Problem Solving. It’s based on an assumption that kids and teens are doing the best the can at any given moment (aren’t we as well?). When your child struggles, it’s because they’re likely lacking certain skills such as impulse control, empathy, stress management and/or frustration tolerance in that moment. Our job as parents is to help them grow these skills while their brain is still uniquely malleable and primed to learn.
The Two Common Approaches That Don’t Work.
Let them just figure it out.
Maturity and time will take care of some of it, but if we rely on them to just “figure it out” we’re rolling the dice in a dangerous way. For too many teens, their methods for figuring things out on their own equates to getting “parented” by peers and media. They often learn to cope by self medicating with drugs/alcohol, internalized anxiety that later turns into depression, abusive and unhealthy relationships, technology addictions, developing very little distress tolerance along the way.
Be firm, zero tolerance with tougher consequences.
This is the other extreme which is definitely the best way to get your child’s behavior to change quickly. But, it comes at a cost. If your primary approach relies on authority, control and power, you will gain a compliant child (for now) but lose a thoughtful, empathetic and curious problem solver later.
Of course, the answer lies in the middle. Think connection before correction. Your child needs you to connect with them first and correct them second. Most families get stuck because there is too much correcting happening and not enough connecting (it can also go the other way of course). But we also have to learn how to correct in a way that teaches and supports autonomy.
Below is an example of what a productive conversation might look like. You can start by saying that you’d much rather have a thoughtful and honest conversation like this than take away their phone.
Before you attempt to talk with your teen, identify three positive attributes that you admire/love about your child. If you can’t do this, then any attempt to connect will be dead on arrival. We all have our moments but we can’t stay stuck thinking our child is a sneaky, lying, entitled little shit or a budding sociopath destined to be a homeless drug addict.
Here are some steps:
1. CALMLY, ask your child to share their perspective about what happened and assume you don’t have the whole picture. Listen and ask follow up questions. Validate their point of view even if you disagree.
2. Share where you were coming from and how you were impacted. Expect them to validate that even if they disagree.
3. Apologize sincerely if you crossed a line, it’s ok if they can’t do the same yet.
4. Come up with a better and different (not perfect) plan that you both can agree on moving forward.
5. Help them think of a way to do something kind/helpful to you or anyone that’s been hurt or impacted. If you hurt them in some way offer to do the same.
6. Follow up and give lots of credit and praise if they’ve stuck with their agreement or if you see them genuinely trying. If things aren’t being followed through then it’s time for another conversation. Remind them that they can have their device back as soon as you’re able to have a conversation. It’s on them to get their stuff back in a couple hours or a couple days. If you’re really stuck and behaviors are getting worse and more dangerous, you must prioritize getting family counseling and/or individual counseling for your teen.
This process takes more time and patience up front. Your teen will likely struggle with it at first because they may not be good at having these types of conversations and problem solving sessions. They may also not trust that you’re going to actually listen to them and take their perspective seriously. This process teaches and models empathy, self reflection, problem solving, conflict resolution, and strengthens the connection between you and your child. All of this promotes grit and resilience as well. Grounding and taking things away typically leads to bottled up anger and shame which results in more sneakiness and disconnection.
I hope you decide to give this approach a try. If you do, approach it as a skill like any other that you’ll get better at with deliberate practice and time. It’s up to you as a parent to take the lead on this and not expect your teen to reciprocate at first. A great book to help you stay on track and go in more depth is called Raising Human Beings by Ross Greene.
I’m going to be talking about this much more at my next workshop coming up on May 8th! I’ll be offering specific examples and concrete strategies that will bring this to life. This workshop will help you have more connection and harmony in your family with less anger and hostility. I really think you’ll find it helpful.
For more information and to register click here.