With the semester over and two teenagers in the house again (Andrew returned from his first year at college last week and Patrick is finishing up his freshman year in high school), it’s time to get back to the Joyful Parenting series. The teenage years are the other bookend of parenting, and it’s hard to say which is more challenging, the early or late years.
Two books that helped us the most during the middle and teenage years are Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic, by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka (William Morrow, rev. 2006) and Transforming the Difficult Child: The Nurtured Heart Approach, by Howard Glasser and Jennifer Easley (Nurtured Heart Publications, rev. 2008). The former was our bible during pre-school and elementary school. We didn’t learn about the latter until middle school when our son’s school adopted the Nurtured Heart Program, but it has done wonders for easing tensions during the teenage years.
Below are some quick tips from the trenches for surviving the teenage years, most of which are equally applicable to the middle years, especially if you have a child with a high need for freedom and independence (i.e., if it’s one of their top soulful values). If you’re not sure if your child has this need, then they probably don’t – both our boys were fiercely independent from the time of their toddler years – but you will probably need some help on this front during the teenage years anyway.
#1: It’s not about you. My husband Brian was raised in Texas, where the idea of respect for authority was ingrained at an early age, enforced by corporal punishment. So when my sons tested their freedom by ignoring what we had asked them to do, Brian took it personally, as a sign of disrespect. This made for some highly contentious battles over what the boys would or would not do, with both sides digging in their heels and sometimes literally yelling toe to toe and nose to nose, especially during the early teenage years. After working through this in family counseling, we’ve learned to take the boys’ rebellions as dispassionately as possible, delivering consequences when needed but trying to stay as calm as possible even in the face of high emotions. My favorite tip, and I can’t remember now where I heard it, is to pretend your child is your neighbor’s child. This takes practice and may require some development work for the parents, especially if the arguments trigger your childhood baggage.
#2: Set clear boundaries and consequences, and enforce them consistently. This is a classic parenting rule, but its importance is even greater during the teenage years. We find that life in our household is fairly peaceful as long as we all know what the rules are and enforce them consistently, but our boys go ballistic if we suddenly change the rules. This often happens when past precedence becomes an informal “rule” that we never intended. There is a large hole in Andrew’s wall from one of those occasions. We have at times kept a list of rules and responsibilities on the refrigerator and checked off when the boys have met them. This can be particularly helpful when transitioning to a new set of rules as your family’s needs change over time (see #4 below).
#3: Accept that sometimes your child will choose the consequences and hit the tree. Occasionally we wind up getting into a game of one-upsmanship, where we try to get our children to do what we want by continuing to raise the consequences in hopes that they will come around, and they dig in their heels and refuse to do what we want regardless of how we increase the consequences. This game can quickly reach the point of ridiculous, where we’ve taken away a month of privileges and have no more consequences to give for any future transgressions for a whole month. We’ve learned to gently stop each other during the one-upsmanship contest with a reminder that the consequences are already sufficient for the transgression and it’s time to back off. Sometimes we’ve had to renegotiate the consequences later because we’ve realized that we let them get to ridiculous levels before stopping. This doesn’t undermine your authority as long as you explain to your child that you are only willing to renegotiate because you made a mistake, and the renegotiated consequences are still sufficient to avert the behavior in the future.
Some time ago I heard a great metaphor about consequences and I can’t remember where I heard it to properly cite it. There will be times in your child’s life when you can see that they are driving straight towards a tree and they are oblivious. If you try to stop them by standing between them and the tree and waving your arms, they will simply accelerate and drive right over you to hit the tree anyway. So unless the tree is life threatening, it’s better to stand back and let them learn their own lessons and help them pick up the pieces afterwards (without saying “I told you so”!). I know from personal experience that this can be incredibly difficult when your child is making bad choices that will affect their future. Nonetheless, it is essential to giving them room to grow into independent adults, with you ultimately being a mentor rather than a director.
It’s perfectly fine to tell your child that, based on your past experiences, you believe the path they’ve chosen will lead to some unpleasant outcomes. You can then ask if they are interested in hearing about some alternatives to consider. Just don’t be surprised if they don’t want to hear about them or choose to ignore them. Over time, though, they will eventually come to value your advice if it’s offered in a way that allows them to maintain ownership over their choices (see #7).
#4: Renegotiate boundaries periodically, especially when tensions become high. As your child grows, his or her needs will change and he or she will be able to handle more responsibility on their own. It’s important to recognize when the boundaries need changing and be willing to have a family meeting to brainstorm new approaches and get everyone’s input on them. We use the level of tension in the household as a guide for where we need to focus attention and make changes. Often there are certain “sticky” times when frustrations, and voices, habitually get raised. With our sons, getting out of bed and to school in the morning has been a long-time sticky point with sleepy-headed teenagers. We’ve had to experiment with many strategies over the years to find ones that work, and try again when conditions change and previous strategies stop working.
This renegotiation is also important for allowing your child to take on more responsibilities as they get older and are preparing to leave home. As a professor, you’ve probably seen the students who go wild when they reach college because they never had any freedom at home, and you wouldn’t want your child to become one of those statistics. With both our children, we reached a point where they were expending more effort in fighting us about doing their homework than in actually getting the homework done. That’s when we knew it was time to give them responsibility for when and how their homework gets done. We still ask them if they need help and set up meetings with their teachers to help negotiate when things aren’t going well, but the final result is up to them. Sometimes this has involved hitting the tree (see #3), but in the long run they need to take ownership for charting their own academic path.
#5: Work to create more positive interactions than negative. This is a key point in the Nurtured Heart Program and it helped our family relationships immensely. It’s easy to fall into the trap of only focusing on your child’s negative behaviors, which can inadvertently train them to behave negatively just to get your attention. A rule of thumb I heard somewhere (perhaps in the Nurtured Heart book) is that you should try to find 2 positive things to say for every negative thing, building up a bank of positive interactions to offset the inevitable negative interactions and maintain (or rebuild) a positive relationship with your child.
Positive interactions can be as simple as thanking your child for making it downstairs in the morning, remembering their lunch, or following any rule successfully, no matter how minor. We also schedule sacred family times when we bank larger stores of positive interactions. Teenagers may protest spending time with you, but if you establish such times as routine and scheduled, with consequences if they don’t participate, and select activities they enjoy (or at least tolerate), you’ll find that you all enjoy these times in the end. Below are our sacred family times, but you’ll need to find what works for you.
- Dinnertime: We all eat together at dinner whenever schedules allow (usually 5-6 days a week), and each person answers one of four questions: (1) What did you learn today? (2) What mistake did you make and what did you learn from it? (3) What did you try hard at? and (4) What did you have fun doing today? The first three questions help instill a growth mindset towards life’s challenges (see Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck for more on the importance of this), while the last one is to remind us to make time for fun.
- Pizza and a movie night: Once a week, usually Friday nights, we have pizza and watch a movie or a couple shows, taking turns choosing what we watch. This gives us a history of pop culture jokes and stories to share in the future.
- Weekly family time: Each weekend, we spend some time together doing an activity, rotating who gets to choose the activity. These days, we usually wind up playing board games together for an hour or two. We’ve learned that there’s nothing worse for quality interaction than having one person disgruntled because they hate the activity, so we try to choose something that everyone enjoys (or at least tolerates).
- Vacation family time: At holidays and during the summer, we make time for sightseeing trips and visiting extended family. Again, try to choose something that everyone enjoys, or can at least tolerate without getting too grumpy. Long summer vacations can get more challenging in the later teenage years when kids have jobs or other activities, but even a day or weekend trip can make a major difference in banking positive interactions.
#6: Give unconditional love and respect. Especially in the teenage years, children can be disrespectful and sometimes downright hateful to their parents. We enforce consequences for their speech and actions, but remind them that they are lovable regardless of their behaviors by giving plenty of loving, patient, and respectful treatment back to them. Keeping a sense of humor about their shoddy behavior also helps immensely – we have a running joke about thanking the aliens for periodically kidnapping our teenagers and leaving pod children when they have an unusually well-behaved day. Of course we’re human and sometimes get caught up in the emotions of the moment and lash back, but we always apologize and make amends when we do. Teaching your child to forgive themselves when they’re not perfect is also an essential point to model.
#7: Remember that it will get better. Everyone who has survived the teenage years tells me that their children eventually become loving and productive human beings again, and they will probably do so more quickly if you can follow the suggestions above. We’ve seen a huge change in Andrew just during his first year away from home. We’ve worked hard to listen to his ideas and challenges in a supportive way and ask him how he plans to address the challenges rather than telling him what to do. This often requires a good measure of self restraint to avoid giving our opinions, but it’s paying off as he’s now more willing to talk with us and consider our ideas than he ever was before.
Please share your favorite parenting tips from the middle and teenage years in the comments.
June 1, 2013