Does a teenager grace your life? Perhaps more than one?
If you have a particularly, let’s say, gifted, or perhaps spirited teen, if you find that you’re losing more sleep now than you did when they were colicky babies, if you have taken them to experts and still you feel frustrated, here are some tips for you.
These recommendations come from a manual by Russell A. Barkley, Gwenyth H. Edwards and Arthur L. Robin called Defiant Teens (New York: Guilford Press, 1999). Don’t run out and buy it: this is a book for clinicians. I will suggest some parent resources below.
1. Stop blaming yourself or your partner for your teen’s behaviour. As children age, more and more of what you see in their behaviour is genetically based. You still have an influence, but it’s not that big (if you have a teen, you know what I mean).
2. Of that small amount of influence you still have, most of it is that your teen still wants you to pay attention to them. Yes, they blow you off and tell you that they’re not listening. Yes, they tell you that you don’t know anything. Yes, they seem to do exactly the opposite of what you say to them. But if they are doing the opposite of what you say, then they are listening to what you say and watching what you do. Show them first and foremost that you pay attention and that you care.
3. Catch them doing something right. Remember The One Minute Manager? Positive reinforcement and warm positive regard and attention are the most important gifts that you can give to your spirited teen. And take care: if you have had a particularly long run of defiant behaviour from your teen, so that you’re feeling run down and not particularly charitable, cheer up and reward them when they finally do something right. If you miss when they do something right, you lose the chance to reinforce the behaviour that you want from them.
4. Don’t give them too much attention when they are misbehaving. Because teens are looking for attention from their parents, if they discover that they can at least sometimes get you to look at them when they do something bad, this is tremendously reinforcing. They’ll do more bad things just to get you to pay attention. Instead, pay attention when they do something good (see above).
5. But don’t ignore them when they misbehave or don’t comply with your directions. And don’t overreact. The secret is to use immediate and consistent mild punishment. Don’t ground them for six months. Don’t take away their phone forever. Don’t pitch the Game Cube in the next yard. Do something small and unpleasant – something that is easy for your to control, that doesn’t take much effort. You can call up the phone company and report your kid’s phone “lost” and then “find” it three days later. You can withdraw driving privileges temporarily. You can fine them a small amount of money. Whatever you do, make it consistent, predictable, unpleasant, and easy for you, the parent, to administer.
7. Don’t argue with your teen. And don’t repeat yourself. Sweeten the deal: “If you do your homework by 7pm I will take you for ice cream.” Be clear with consequences: “If you don’t cut the grass by 5pm then you cannot have the car tonight.” Then shut up and follow through. Act, don’t yak.
8. Recognize when you are in a nonproductive and escalating argument with your teen – and be the first to cease hostilities. Walk away. Calm down. Come back later with #5.
9. Over time you will find yourself doing too much of #5 and not enough of #3. Go back and do more #3.
10. Read a book on peacemaking or on listening to children (see below). Take a course in problem solving or conflict resolution. Find a good therapist for support. Educate and take care of yourself. Then you can take better care of your teen.
In my own parenting, three things set me free. First, I realized that no matter what I did, my kid wasn’t going to like me. So I was free to do what I thought was right and not worry about whether they liked me for it. Second, I realized that I could like my kid, and still say no. Sometimes we get caught into thinking that we have to stay angry at someone when we’re setting limits with them. Too much work. I love my kid. I like her. And I still won’t let her have a sleepover this weekend because…
Third, I came to realize that all the experts in the world are just consultants. I’m in charge of raising my teen. I can take or leave almost anything that anyone tells me – as long as I’m not breaking the law or harming my kid. So with you. Same rules. You’re in charge.
Books that may be helpful:
• The Arbinger Institute (2006). The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Arab and Jew run a teen recovery program together in Arizona. This book is about the weekend that they spend training the parents in peacemaking. Excellent read.
• Haim G. Ginott (1961). Between Parent & Child. New York: Avon Books. Still in print, reprinted in 2003. Buy it on Amazon. Old but excellent resource on how to pay attention to your children
• Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (1980). How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk. New York: Avon Books. Also still in print, another excellent resource.
• Thomas Gordon (1975). Parent Effectiveness Training. New York: Plume Books. Also still around, recently updated
• Russell A. Barkley (2005). Taking Charge of ADHD: The complete, authoritative guide for parents. New York: Guilford Press. A lot of teen defiance is related to ADHD-like symptoms, something I’ll discuss another day. Whether your child has ADHD or not, Barkley’s material is useful if you have teenagers
• Brad E. Sachs (2005). The Good Enough Teen: Raising Adolescents with Love and Acceptance (Despite how impossible they can be). New York: Perennial Currents. HarperCollins. Absolutely the best book I have read about teenagers, their parents, and the circle of life
• Thomas Phelan (1998). Surviving your Adolescents: How to Manage and Let Go Of Your 13-18 Year Olds, 2nd Edition. Glen Ellyn, Illinois: ParentMagic. It’s worth a read, particularly for the “deadly sins” he mentions that you should always avoid with your teens.