By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
When the teen years rival armed combat how do you survive your teen unharmed?
Sometime between eleven and thirteen that cute cuddly kid turns into an unrecognizable scratching clawing creature. Once in a while, the parent gets away unharmed but not often. Parents say they don’t know what happened to their child. They don’t recognize this kid. So what happened?
How do you survive the teen years and is there a life after teens? Here are some ideas; maybe we could call then rules for those years.
1. Don’t try to hold the lid on the boiling pot.
You have spent a decade on more raising a generally civilized child, as the teen years approach and the emotions boil parents often make the mistake of clamping down. Suddenly the cute little daughter who everyone likes – well – the everyone’s who like her, are no one you would want around. The result is trying to keep her in. “No dating till you’re thirty,” the parent says. Then the battle ensues. Parents try bolting the windows in her room shut, but like a magician, she somehow gets out. Parents put kids on monitoring. Call me every hour. The kids retaliate with more excuses than a congressman.
Controlling a teen, especially an older one by force is likely to wear you out and have no effect. Sometimes parents efforts to make the kid behave turn into violence. Sometimes the parent resorts to hitting the child, always a bad idea. You may discover you no longer have it in you to go ten rounds with a younger and stronger opponent. I have seen parents seriously hurt by their kids. The other, more serious problem with using force on a child is it teaches them to use force and there is no end to how far this will go. So rather than trying to keep the steam in the kettle by holding the lid down, try directing the steam where you want it to go.
As the teen approves adulthood parents may need to learn to discuss and even negotiate things with their offspring. I am not saying let the kids take over the house, but you do need to teach them how to handle more adult responsibilities. By sixteen or seventeen you should have taught your child the difference between right and wrong. If you haven’t it is probably too late and someone with more control than you will need to take on the job, someone like the police or parole. You need to keep up hope that the child will survive, unharmed, the episode of moral amnesia that so many of them experience.
2. Do not try to overprotect them!
You spent ten or more year protecting your child, every “good enough parent” does. Suddenly the experts tell you to stop trying to protect them. I know they will be sixty and you will still feel protective towards them but the teen years are the time for loosening the restrictions, not tightening them. You had to let them ride their bike without your hand on the seat, now you need to let them try some more adult things.
Every night in crisis centers around America we see kids whose parents have always been supportive or permissive, who suddenly engage in a life or death struggle for control with their teen. Kids who had no curfew now chaff as the parents set limits. Parents worry about drugs, alcohol, driving and mostly sex. They try to keep their kids safe by keeping them away from the risks – that won’t work.
One day they will turn eighteen and then they will be allowed to make all their own decisions. Some kids start before that. There is no magic cloak of maturity you can give them on that occasion. You need to begin now teaching them how to be responsible adults and one way they learn that is to try things and see what works and what doesn’t. Increasing rules and restrictions may feel like it is protecting your child but it may also be delaying the growth of maturity.
3. Notice when your child does something right.
Many kids report the only time their parents notice them is when they are correcting them. Constantly finding fault with teens is not likely to make them perfect. It often results in kids who are highly anxious, afraid to do anything because they are sure they will never be able to do it right, or you get kids who give up trying. If the only way to get your attention is to mess up, they will mess up on a daily basis. They are after all giving you what you are requesting. You will get more of whatever you attend to.
Now I am not suggestion hollow praise here. Kids can see right through praise that was given to increase self-esteem but which they see as just something everyone is able to do. What I am suggesting is that you need to pay close enough attention to your child to know when they do something noteworthy and then let them know that you noticed and approved of that.
4. Be their parents, not their friend.
Kids should be kids and parents should be parents. Sharing your drugs with your child does not make for a good relationship. It makes for a child who does not know how to observe boundaries. And even worse are the parents who flop back and forth. Once day you want to be the kids best friend, maybe even keep a secret from the rest of the family, the next they come down on the kid with all their force because the kid is not doing what they want.
5. Know the difference between rewards and punishments and bribes and abuse.
Lots of people in our society don’t seem to know this one. From the way we see celebrities and politicians acting you would think they are the same thing. They are not.
Rewards and punishment should be directly related to the person’s actions. For adults, this is easy to explain. If I show up for work on time and do my job I get a check. If I am late, I get docked some pay. If I keep coming in late I may lose my job. Parents get this confused and send the child to their room for getting bad grades. Bad grades should get more study time. Going to your room should be a punishment for not behaving around others. See there is some connection between the two.
Do I need to say that some of the punishments I see require me to report the parent to child protective services? Don’t ever let the punishment get out of proportion to the action. When it does it can turn into abuse. This is especially true of physical punishment and name calling. Calling your child stupid will not improve their grades; it will make many of them stop trying.
6 Pick your battles
Parents, especially of late teens begin to get desperate. Time is running out to teach your child how to behave, especially if you have a strong feeling they should behave exactly the way you want them to. So every day becomes a battleground. The chances that your child will turn out perfectly are not especially good. They all have their flaws. So do their parents. Unless you really like to fight, day and night, I suggest you reserve your line in the sand efforts for the really big things. Which is more troublesome, your teen’s messy room or their drug habit?
Like all advice, these rules are easier to say than to do. My hope is that this is helpful to someone out there. If you have comments or suggestions please comment on this blog.
So there you have them, 6 rules for surviving your teen.
Staying connected with David Joel Miller
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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.