Explain the limits and rules in your home ahead of time. Limits should be fair and consistent, and as much as possible have natural consequences. Natural consequences are the ones that happen with little or no involvement from you. If your teen needs to keep up her grades to stay on a sports team, for example, then bad grades will naturally end up in a consequence-getting cut from the team. You don’t have to say a word. This experience teaches your teen a powerful lesson. It also tells her that you trust her ability to learn it without a lecture from you.
Your child should know the rules for everyday behavior and expectations, and these rules should mostly stay the same from day to day. “I expect you to do your homework after school before you get on the computer” is a lot clearer than “Be responsible”. If you act like you don’t care about their homework on one day and then yell about it the next, your child will feel confused, anxious and angry. Plus, you’re not likely to get the result you want.
It’s important to have realistic expectations of teens. Predicting the consequences of their actions, allowing enough time to get everything done, putting chores before play and ignoring the temptations of their peers are all things that teens find very hard to do. New research shows that teens’ brains are actually different from adult brains. The parts of the brain that let adults make thoughtful decisions, or put work before excitement, haven’t fully grown yet in teens. Structure, frequent reminders and help making decisions are realistic ways to look at teaching your teen to make responsible decisions.
Lying is often a huge source of conflict with parents and teens. Many teens lie to avoid work (“Sure I did my chores!”), avoid punishment (“The report cards haven’t come out yet, I guess”) and gain pleasure (“No, there won’t be boys or alcohol at the party”). This behavior is common, and that means that parents shouldn’t get too angry or worry that their teen will grow up to be a bad person because of occasional lying. However, this doesn’t mean that parents should put up with it, either! Let your teen know that you expect him or her to tell you the truth, and if caught in a lie they will be punished for the lie as much as the act itself. If you do catch a lie, make it clear that this is unacceptable. But remember that even with these consequences, your teen may still try to lie at times. Constant lying, to the point that you don’t feel you can trust that your teen is safe, is a problem that you should get counseling to help.
Anthony Wolf, a psychologist who writes frequently for the parents of teens, suggests that parents talk with their teen about punishment-free situations. For example, parents may want to ask teens to call home if they have been drinking and need a ride home. The parent agrees to pick up the teen, anytime, with no questions asked and no lectures. These “bargains” should be made for situations in which the possibility of harm (i.e., drunk driving) is too great to risk the teen lying to avoid punishment.
Dr. Wolf points out that parents often assume their rules aren’t effective if the teen doesn’t follow them completely; for example, when a teen come in at 12:00 instead of 11:00. Dr. Wolf argues that the rule actually is working; otherwise, the teen would come in any time! Something is reminding that teen to return, but the need for independence, and not wanting to put responsibility before fun, are keeping him or her from following the rule completely. This is frustrating, but parenting teens is all about staying patient with small issues while working toward the big goal-a safe, independent young adult. Like lying, parents need to remind teens that being late is unacceptable, and give a consequence. Most teens, even though they might say the consequence doesn’t matter, dislike displeasing parents and will feel the “pull” of the rule. Sometimes it takes a lot of confrontation and consequences to make it worth it to the teen to remember to come home, but parents should also be willing to settle for some compromises when a teen is making a genuine effort to improve.
This should happen as soon after the event as possible. Remember, teens don’t always do a great job of linking their behavior (I was late) to an effect (Mom is mad and I’ve lost a privilege), so if you wait too long to address the problem, your teen might be genuinely confused or upset at your behavior coming “out of nowhere”. On the other hand, don’t confront your teen if you are too angry to be responsible for your words or actions. As the adult, you are responsible for keeping a confrontation within the bounds of respect and safety. If you are so angry that insults, swearing or violence might occur, you need to either stop the conversation or postpone the confrontation until later.
When you are calm, explain the rule and how your teen broke it. Listen to any valid explanations, but do not get caught up in excuses or arguments with your child. Teens have lots more energy than adults! Often, teens think that if they can just argue long enough, the parent will back down out of exhaustion. Don’t let this happen. A good rule of thumb is, never explain yourself more than twice. After that, you can safely assume that your child is no longer trying to understand you or to make a new point, but trying to wear you down.
Don’t get caught in the trap: “You can’t prove it!” With reasonable evidence, it’s OK to trust your judgment about what your teen has been doing. “You’re right, I can’t prove that you have been smoking pot. But your appearance, behavior and the situation all make me believe that you have, and without evidence against it, I am going to act as though I am right. If I am wrong, sorry. You are not allowed to smoke pot and, as a result, you are grounded for a month [or whatever].”
Trust your instincts as a parent. Remember, no one knows your teen better than you do!
Get Out of My Life! But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? A Parent’s Guide to the New Teenager Anthony Wolf, PhD. Farrer, Straus, Giroux 1991
“What Makes Teens Tick?” Time Magazine, May 10, 2004 pp. 56-65