TIPS & IDEAS
(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,
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.