TIPS & IDEAS

Parenting Teens
(It’s a matter of freedom)
Dr. Nancy S. Buck

The teen age years are a source of high anxiety and distress for many parents. With teens having more freedom and autonomy, parents worry about the choices their children make without wise supervision and counsel from parents. Many parents tell me that their children are “good” but the world is such a perilous place they fear for their children. Often in the parents’ attempts to protect their children from these dangers, they try to hold children closer to home. What parents discover is the tighter they hold their children, the stronger many children fight against these controls and restrictions.

Recently a mother wrote to me overwrought having discovered that her sixteen-year old daughter was smoking with her friends. Not surprisingly this mother’s reaction was to restrict her daughter’s freedom by grounding her from any free time away from home. She also insisted that her daughter give up the friends and spend no time with these offending girls. The problem with this solution is that it will not succeed. Many teenagers will serve their time of the punitive sentence. But what’s to keep the daughter from spending time with these same friends while in school? The daughter probably has access through texting and e-mailing as well. Unless this mother is willing to spend all of her time, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, accompanying and supervising her daughter everywhere, there is no way the mother can be sure that her daughter is following her restrictions.

The solution? Accept the reality that you cannot control your child’s behavior. You can only influence it. You have never been able to control your child’s behavior, it just appeared otherwise. When your child was younger and you asked your son to stop shouting in the library or your daughter to come inside from playing when you asked, your children followed your request. This set you up to think that you could make your child do what you asked. Perhaps sometimes you had to threaten or punish or promise a reward or bribe for your child’s cooperation. These strategies seemed to work so you believed you were able to control your child.

But the reality is this process only worked because your child went along with the requests. Perhaps the fear of the stick or the promise of the carrot helped inspire your child’s cooperation. But even then you were only influencing your child’s behavior and choices.

Now, as a teenager, your child wants freedom and power to defy or cooperate more strongly than fearing your stick or hoping for a promise of any reward. This means that you, the parent, are experiencing the growing pains of realizing you never were in control, you only had the illusion of control all along.

You always had the ability to influence your child’s choices and behaviors. And this has not changed as your child has become a teenager. Your child wants to please you and she wants to please herself. When pleasing you interferes with pleasing himself, he is stuck in a dilemma. Punishments or rewards threaten your teenager’s ability to meet her needs for freedom and power. These needs are driving your child’s behavior most strongly during adolescents. So attempting to control using punishments, restrictions, or bribes are especially counterproductive during adolescence.

Instead attempt to influence your child by providing positive, successful and responsible ways for your child to meet his needs for power and freedom. Approach your child with calm, assertive, adult conversation.

Here are some examples of what this concerned mother could do:

  • Explain your upset and concern about your daughter’s smoking choice both in the short term – the expense, smell and illegality of an underage person purchasing cigarettes – as well as the long term – psychological and physical addiction leading to ultimate health challenges.
  • Express your upset, sadness and anger about your daughter’s choice (remember to do this calmly and assertively, not with the drama of the upset and sadness).
  • Express your desire for your daughter to stop.
  • Acknowledge your inability to keep your daughter from making all sorts of choices you wish she wouldn’t.
  • Acknowledge that your daughter is increasingly in charge of herself, her life and her life choices with the accompanying consequences.
  • Acknowledge your belief and evidence that your daughter is responsible and makes many good, healthy, loving and responsible choices.
  • Remind your daughter to accept and respect the family rule that there is no smoking in the family’s home.
  • Commit to stop nagging, asking about, and indicating your disapproval if your daughter decides to continue to smoke.
  • Commit to continue to work with your daughter as you face this as well as the probability of more differences between you.
  • Commit to continue to discover ways that enhance and keep your relationship good, positive, loving and close while you work through your differences.

Ultimately your goal is to maintain a loving and respectful relationship with your children, even when they behave differently from what you want. Aiming for an unconditional loving relationship means you love your child even when they make choices you wish they wouldn’t. Your love has no conditions. When you do this, you have a much greater chance of influencing your child, his behavior and his choices. There will still be times when she does something you wish she wouldn’t, he chooses something you wish he wouldn’t. But as you get to know your adolescent more, talking and working things out calmly and respectfully with one another you will also hear how you are making choices your child wishes were different. Parenting your teen is an exciting, eye-opening, challenging and rewarding developmental growth period for both you and your child.


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