Tweens & Teens
How does a parent who has not effectively set limits in the past set a limit now?
Composure is the key. It is difficult to set limits when you are in an upset state. Limits set from an upset state feel like, and usually are, attempts to control children instead of structuring them to be successful. Setting the limit is not the most difficult part; the most difficult part is maintaining a composed state when children begin to challenge you. Understand that “challenging you” is part of their job as they learn their limitations. Our job, and the key to setting effective limits, is choosing not to be offended by their hurtful words and behaviors, nor fall into our own guilt. Setting a limit doesn’t mean you are angry or trying to deprive your child of any pleasure. Setting limits is about helping them to navigate through decision-making. It is similar to bowling; until you are a certain age and skill level, you need the bumpers in the gutters. With lots of practice and gaining strength, the bumpers (limits) can be removed and you can make sound decisions on your own. The CEO of the brain—that part that allows us to set goals and achieve them, focus attention, see from a variety of perspectives, and stick to our values in the face of temptation– does not fully mature until 24 years of age. Understanding this helps parents understand the importance of limit setting. It is also essential for parents to understand that you cannot set a limit and take care of someone’s feelings at the same time.
So, your new steps for setting limits are as follows:
Deliver lecture: What was our agreed upon time? You want me to trust you, but how can I trust you if you are not going to do what you say you will? You want to be treated like and adult, but you act like a child. Your brother tried the same mess when he was your age. And don’t even think about giving me any of that nasty mouth of yours. One more word about losing your car privileges, and you’ll be grounded for the rest of the month.
Deliver consequence and empathy: Our agreement was 11pm, and you came home at 11:30 without calling. I worry that you are not safe when you disregard our agreed upon curfew. Next time, you will not be able to drive the car. You can choose between being dropped off and picked up at the party, or not going at all. Then I will know you are safe and you will get home at the correct time.
Child challenges with “attitude”: This is unfair! It was just 30 minutes. What do you mean safe? You are always safe, safe, safe. I am not a child. You just act this way because Dad is gone.
Offer Empathy: It’s hard to lose your driving privileges. You can handle this. (End the conversation with assurance.)
Also see my Setting Limits without Guilt audio lecture for additional assistance.
Should I negotiate with teens? When is it appropriate?
There absolutely is an appropriate time for negotiation. Negotiating happens during “ice cream” moments. During the crisis itself, there can be no negotiation. Even if you have second thoughts, negotiating during the heat of the moment is counterproductive because one or both of you will likely be emotionally triggered. Useful negotiating can only happen after a cool down period if you feel things didn’t go the way you hoped. (You hoped your teen would willingly accept the boundaries you set, and they hoped you would change your mind.) Often times the “24 hour” rule needs to be utilized. Twenty-four hours after the upsetting situation happens, you and your teen can come together to discuss what went well and what didn’t. The emotionally charged event is behind you, and hopefully it is easier to speak from and hear each other’s perspectives. (Ultimately, the consequence may or may not change.)
Everyone advises parents to “pick your battle.” How do you know which battles to pick? I think the advice to “pick your battles” reflects the notion that teenagers will challenge the limits set and the consequences delivered. There can be no battle if you are not willing to argue. If you can stay calm, offer choices, repeat them calmly and walk away, then there will be no battle (just an outraged teenager trying to engage you in one).
Often, choices can help alleviate the need to pick your battles. For example, if you want your teen to come home at midnight and you believe it will be a battle, simply say, “Tonight are you coming home at 11:30 or 12. Either works for me.” If you are ok with them being on Facebook for an hour say, “I know you have some homework to finish, so will you choose to be on Facebook for 30 minutes or an hour tonight?”
Should teens participate in defining the rules and consequences?
Absolutely. We call the rules agreements for that very reason. This allows you to share the power while maintaining your maximum safety expectations. For example: When setting the agreements for the amount of time you spend on Facebook a night, start by visually creating a fence around the issue in your mind. As a parent you want to assure that your child will not rush through their homework so they can get on the computer and chat with friends. You also want to be sure that they are not staying up all hours of the night. Modeling is very important during this process. Have a docking station where everyone puts his or her electronics at 9:00pm. We all need to unplug and recharge. Let them know what the broad guidelines (fences) are and then discuss the details such as when are the important times to them within that timeline to chat with friends. Once they have shared when it is most important to them to be online, the next step is to decide together the duration of the chatting.
The amount of consequences that will “need” to be delivered will be significantly decreased when they are part of the process of what is expected. When the agreements are created together, the amount of “policing” the agreements will also be considerable less.
The most important piece of consequences are choosing not to create them with or without the child during the highly emotionally charged times. Waiting several hours or even until the following day and then discussing the agreements and that they were broken is more productive then “nailing” them. Consequences are opportunities to learn. Most beneficial learning experiences happen when you are in a relaxed, alert state. This relaxed, alert state does not just magically happen. In order to achieve successful consequences, we as adults must first consciously discipline ourselves to respond to upsetting situations instead of reacting to them.
What do you suggest for parents who feel that their parenting style and rules are very different from the community norm?
You are the “Safekeeper” for your child. Safety is the always the core of your decision-making, and no other person knows your child better than you do. When we talk about “safety,” we are talking about physical, emotional, academic, social and financial safety. The boundaries and consequences that you create with love for your child will yield positive results for your child. If the boundaries and consequences are created as a team and problem solved together, the frustration experienced by you and your teen will be minimal, regardless of how strict those boundaries are. If, on the other hand, you dictate what your teen must do, you model “bullying” qualities. Your teen will respond by becoming completely submissive or revolting. Either trait results in the teen not using the problem solving state of their brain. When we have “obedient” children they are generally doing it “because we say so.” The potential problem is that as they grow up, they will easily become obedient to peers. This is sometimes referred to as caving into peer pressure. In many cases, parents say to their teens, “What were you thinking, would you jump off a bridge if they told you?” If you do not actively engage your teen in the problem solving process of setting boundaries within your home, teen’s response to this could be, “I was not thinking because you did not teach me to think, you taught me to obey. I’m just choosing not to obey you now, I’m obeying my peers.” Sharing power with your teen does not mean you’re lenient. It simply means you are teaching and modeling how to manage all the opportunities that life offers together.
Many people feel that teens are going to test some risky behavior anyway, so should parents create safe environments for the testing? Does that condone the behavior?
This seems like a personal value question. The law states that it is illegal to drive alone at 15 years old, drink at 21 years old, to text while driving in some states, etc. If you choose to break the law and allow the behavior, it is difficult for a teen to understand which laws we must obey and which laws we can choose to create our own limits with. There are many ways to teach impulse control to your child without allowing them to drink before the legal age. If your hope is that they will learn to drink responsibly when they become the legal age, skill set is the same as the one that helps you restrain yourself from becoming over indulgent with shopping, food, video games, etc. The science of the brain explains that impulse control is not attained through stamina training. Impulse control and decision-making skills are acquired through healthy prefrontal lobe development.
What are some obvious rules for teens – bedtime, drinking, co-ed sleepovers? How do the rules change for each age? Each adult’s moral compass or inner guidance system dictates what is appropriate for each child at each age. Helping teens regulate school and social experiences is a full time job. The most valuable tools you have in your tool kit are not the rules you create. The most powerful tool you have is your relationship. If parents spent half the amount of time talking with their teen about his or her interests (sports, drama, friends, schools) as they do talking about how they are going to “catch” their teen, “get them to” do something or “make them” do something, life in the house would be easier. Discipline is like a country western dance. The slow-slow represents relationship we must establish with our teen. This relationship provides connection, and connection is essential for cooperation and willingness. The quick-quick represents actions we need to take in moments of upset (drinking, cell phones, curfew, skipping school).
Certainly, as teens grow up, we offer them more responsibilities. However, there is no timeline about when we “should” offer extended opportunities to teens. The teen’s actions dictate which responsibilities they are ready tackle.
Can you share some examples of good consequences? And how long to impose them?
Consequences are about teaching, not punishing or rescuing. We recall how parents handled it “back in the day” when a child threw a ball through the neighbor’s window. Our parents would march us over to the neighbor’s house and have us tell them what we had done. Then we would have to pay for the window. We didn’t have a job, so in order to pay for the window, we would take on additional chores, rake yards, etc. While we did these jobs, we were missing TV time, special events with the family and playtime. The core of the learning did not come from missing the activities or suffering (though, these things weren’t particularly fun); the learning came from the uncomfortable feeling we had as we walked over to the neighbor’s house. In our fast paced society, we have robbed children from truly experiencing consequences because we want them to be swift and effortless for us. The most beneficial consequence is a natural consequence. We should focus, not on the consequence, but on how we deliver the consequence. Each time we deliver a consequence while emotionally charged, we give the kid a free “pass.” When we are yelling and threatening, they respond by saying we are picking on them, “It’s not fair, I hate you!” The consequence essentially becomes about our upset, not their behavior. When you are calm during your delivery of a consequence, it is very difficult for the child to be angry at the message because we are generating a state of calm in them as we explain what will happen. State consequences in a voice that is clear, calm and assertive, as opposed to shouting it from the mountaintop. Create consequences that are respectful, reasonable, and related to the offense (Late for curfew? Curfew gets moved up an hour for the rest of the month. Returned the car without refilling it with gas? You lose car privileges for the week.). As long as you can calmly reflect that your consequences meet those guidelines, you have started in the right direction.
When do you confront a teen whoís giving you attitude and when do you ignore it?
The attitude that a teen offers is often a reflection of the feelings they are experiencing and not able to communicate constructively. When a teen rolls her eyes, she is really saying, “I am very frustrated,” but she doesn’t possess the maturity to express her feelings in a socially acceptable way. Our typical reaction to a teen’s attitude usually teaches them to withhold their feelings rather than teaching them to navigate through or manage them. How many adults do you know who have the skills to share their frustration with someone face to face in a socially acceptable way? How many adults do you know who politely speak to the person they are frustrated with, and then go to another adult to complain about the situation? We are not teaching our children how to navigate through their upset (or attitude), we are simply asking them not to get frustrated, irritated or upset. This expectation is not realistic. Instead of ignoring the attitude, choose to compose yourself and tell yourself something different. Instead of saying, “Here we go again,” try, “She is really irritated and doesn’t have the words to let me know.” Overlay the attitude with empathy. For example the teen says, “This is just stupid. You’re such a bitch,” you could respond, “You were hoping you could get poor grades and continue to stay out late. It’s hard. You can handle this.” Later, after the child is calmer, tell him or her, “Calling names in this family is not helpful. When you feel all that anger say, ‘I disagree,’ and take some breaths. We can do this differently. It doesn’t have to be ugly.” A tug of war game is a great visual representation of the attitude that a teen gives. The teen throws out the rope by saying something disrespectful. As the adult, we either decide to pick up the rope and pull (get offended and argue our point) or stay composed and let the rope dangle there. When we pick up the rope, it is always followed by the teen tugging back with more hurtful statements. When we choose to stay composed, we leave the teen with the discomfort of his or her feelings.
Choosing to not take their words personally requires us to understand their attitude is their way of calling for help. Some words to get you started in this process are:
You seem _________.
The real change is when you can apply the Q-Tip method (Quit Taking It Personally), see your teen’s attitude as a call for help, seek to connect instead of control, and speak from your heart. It doesn’t make all the issues disappear, but it sure allows you to sleep better at night.
What do you recommend when parents disagree on limits and consequences?
Stop, take a deep breath and regroup. When parents disagree, they are typically focused on what they don’t like about the other spouse’s thinking. With this approach, a line in the sand is drawn and nothing productive is achieved. Understand that each person’s perspective is created from a personal experience from their past. Ask the question, “Do I want to be right or do I want to feel heard?” The only person you have any control over changing is yourself. When you choose to let go of justifying why your view is the correct view and truly open your mind to hearing your partner’s perspective, all of a sudden you are both communicating instead of building your case.
An important way to get on the same page is to start with a focus on what you want your teen to do. Each person can agree on what behaviors they expect. Do you want teenagers who feel safe enough to call home if they find themselves in a tough situation (drunk at a party)? Do you want your teenagers to accept responsibility for their actions, both successes and mistakes? Start with the big picture, phrase things with a focus on what you want to see, and work your way down.
Do you think parents should drink in front of their teenage kids? Taking part in legal activities for adults teaches children how to manage the activities for themselves. Drinking is certainly one issue in which you can model personal responsibility. Driving a car is another opportunity to teach. Some adults drive above the speed limit or text while driving. This models inappropriate ways to handle the opportunities extended to adults. Modeling the appropriate ways to handle our activities teaches teens how to balance the responsibilities of adulthood.
I think Iíve made a bad parenting decision. How do you know when itís a bad decision and how do you back down?
Allowing your teens to realize that you make mistakes is a gift to your teen. No “backing down” is necessary. Instead, model for your teen that sometimes time can give everyone a new perspective. Often, the reason for our new perspective is because we have left the highly emotional states of our brain and returned to the thinking state where reflection is natural. An enormous amount of pressure is placed on teens when they are taught that you must make the correct decision the first time. It is absolutely necessary to model for them that we make the most informed decision in the moment, but that we can adjust our decision later when other information is revealed.
Do parents generally follow the patterns their parents established with rules and consequences?
Yes, the choices we make when parenting are directly related to our personal past. It is possible to consciously become aware of those experiences and choose to parent with a different style. This does not come from blame, shame or guilt, but from a conscious awareness of what is currently happening in the present moment. Much of parenting is spent on worrying about what might happen in the future or punishing yourself for not doing it correctly in the past. Much time is wasted with what should be happening and what you wish would happen, as opposed to assessing the currently situation and deciding what you are going to do. It is key to stay present in the moment, learn active calming techniques so we can remain calm in stressful moments, recognize how our past affects our emotional triggers, and consciously choose to do it differently.