Here are a handful of potentially helpful ideas about being a parent of a teenager. The stars indicate that there is additional information at the end.
1) Don't argue with your teen.
When you realize you are arguing, tell your son or daughter that you would like them to summarize* their perspective, so that they can be sure you have heard what they are saying. Then, if you don't have a reasonable response, tell them that you will need some time to think about whatever it is, and that you will get back to them before the day is over, or by the next morning, if the argument happened in the evening.
2) Learn how to negotiate with your teen.*
It is up to you to figure out what is negotiable and what isn't. For example, if your teen wants permission to smoke in the house, and you think this is unacceptable, then this is not negotiable. NO, is the answer. If your teen wants to go to a party with friends you do not know, this may be negotiable. You may need to know more about the location, whether a parent will be there, etc. If you need more information, ask for it. If it spells trouble, your answer is NO. If it seems OK, then your answer may be YES, but given some limits, like getting home at a certain time.
3) When you set limits*, stand by them.
If you find that the limits that you set are impractical or unreasonable, then revise the limits. Limits may be negotiable after your teen has demonstrated cooperation and responsibility.
4) Support your spouse in determining consequences for breaking family rules.
Establish the rules, guidelines, or limits in private. If you are not sure what makes sense, ask other parents or check with the teen's guidance counselor. Do not contradict your spouse in front of your teen. The only time you may need to intervene is if the other parent is being abusive or irresponsible.*
5) Start with firm expectations.*
Be conservative in the beginning as your teen asks for more freedom. As your teen demonstrates that they can handle the freedom responsibly, you can ease up on the reins. Starting strict and easing up as freedom is earned is much, much harder than trying to tighten up after irresponsible behavior.
6) Learn what being a teenager is like these days.
Times have changed and so have the limits of acceptable behavior. Fashions are almost totally different. For instance, body piercing and tattooing are fashionable these days. You might think that this is totally unacceptable, but you may want to rethink this. Some piercing and tattooing may totally disgust you; however, some may be more acceptable than others. A belly button ring may seem trivial when compared to a tongue piercing. See if you can negotiate. If you determine that you can't in good conscience, then don't!
7) Do not accept unacceptable behavior from your teen.*
Yelling at you is not OK. Swearing is not OK. Breaking curfew is not OK. Disrespecting others is not OK. Determine what your limits are and tell your teen when they cross the line. Determine consequences for offensive behavior.*
8) Give consequences instead of punishing.
Consequences should follow from the infraction. If your teen comes in late, then require that they come in earlier the next time they go out. Do not "ground" your teen for more than a couple of days, if at all. Not allowing contact with friends is abusive and demeaning. If the friends are urging your teen to do something illegal or unsafe, then you may need to step in, but this can be tricky. If you forbid your teen from seeing a particular friend or set of friends, most likely your teen will do so secretly.
9) Do not be a detective!
State your expectations of how you want your teen to behave. If an infraction is brought to your attention, then determine consequences. For instance, you may set a rule that your teen will not drink alcohol or use other drugs. If your teen comes home high, then restrict their freedom. If your teen comes home and you suspect they may have been drinking, etc., but you don't know for sure, do not interrogate them. You might say, "I think you have been drinking, (or whatever else you suspect) but I don't know for sure. I hope you are making wise decisions." and leave it at that. Interrogation drives their behavior underground and cuts off meaningful communication.
10) You want your teen to be safe at all times, but this can never truly happen, unless you lock him/her up at every opportunity.
Every parent has fear about his or her children getting hurt or dying. Unfortunately, no matter what you do, you will not be able to prevent such things. Your fear will motivate your teen to be secretive. It is not a parent's job to prevent painful experiences. As your teens grow older into adulthood, they will make choices that you do not agree with. Your job is to share your values, but not to impose them.
* Stopping an argument and asking your teen to summarize
When you attempt to stop what you perceive has become an argument, you will probably meet with resistance. Your stopping will be perceived as a power play to avoid listening to what your teen has to say. Power is not bad. You are the parent, and you need to exert your power as a parent. Your stopping your participation in an argument is an expression of responsible power. So stick to your guns, so to speak. When you explain to your teen that you are stopping arguing, he will most likely reply that there is no argument, just a discussion. This can be the basis for another argument and must be avoided. (Later, you may discuss the differences between arguing and conversing. This is metacommunication and may not be comprehensible for less mature teens.) If, and only if you have your teen's attention, ask her to take a moment and sum up what they want. If she is unwilling, then tell her that you are willing to get back together later to talk. Do not continue the conversation until she sums up her point of view.
Holding onto your power as a parent is very difficult. Holding onto your power and maintaining respect for your teen is even more difficult. There are a number of skills involved, such as detachment with love, remaining cool under fire, postponing decisions when you are unsure, stopping anything when you feel uncomfortable, maintaining your perspective in spite of another's criticism, and backing down, changing your mind when you realize that you have been misinformed or mistaken in your judgment of the situation.
* Negotiating with your teen
Negotiating is a very important conflict resolution skill. Agreeing to negotiate about an issue is tantamount to saying, "I want to come up with a solution that is acceptable to both of us." Before you negotiate, be absolutely sure that the issue before you is negotiable- in other words, that you will offer your teen a choice. If you are not sure, it is always ok to stop negotiating and either come back to the table later or stop the negotiating process altogether. Do not negotiate if you are unwilling to live with the solution agreed upon by both you and your child.
Determining whether something is negotiable is an ongoing process and depends on your values and the responsibility demonstrated by your child- more specifically, the maturity level of your child. Negotiation is about offering choices. Negotiating with a 10 year old is quite different from negotiating with a teen.
The same kinds of skills mentioned above are required. Expect immaturity. That is what being a child is all about. Your willingness to engage in this process is about teaching your child how to grow up. You are helping your child mature.
Setting limits is about determining what is ok and what is not ok. We set limits when we determine what we are willing to do and what we are not willing to do, what we are willing and unwilling to put up with, and how we willing to be treated and how we are unwilling to be treated. Consciously or not, we set limits much of the time in our relationships. Leaving the toilet seat down is OK. Leaving it up is not OK . . .
In the context of parenting, setting limits is about informing our teens just where the line in the sand is. This is OK. Stepping over the line is not OK. Goodness and Badness have very little to do with limit setting, keeping within limits, or overstepping. You might say, "It is not OK to come in after curfew."
A very important note here: Staying within limits is not about being good. Conversely, breaking rules is not about being bad.
If you understand this concept, you will save yourself an incredible amount of grief as you are raising your child. Children learn about the world by exploring. Part of exploration is testing limits. Sometimes your child will simply overstep limits in an attempt to find out more about the world. Sometimes your child will test limits to see what you will do in response. Both types of exploration are natural and normal and should be encouraged.
On the other hand, your parenting job requires respectful authority, structure and direction. Your job is to set up rules and guidelines that promote holistic growth: physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, and behavioral. Some rules/guidelines may be flexible while others may not. A respectful parent meets his teen's misbehavior with calm yet firm resistance. In addition to the resistance or "No, that has gone too far," your job also requires that you offer alternatives, such as, "If you show me that you can abide by the curfew, you can stay out an hour later in a month.
Abusive or Irresponsible Parenting
Abuse ranges from very mild to very severe. If your communication with your teen is neither nurturing nor respectfully structuring, then it is probably abusive. Mild to moderate abuse includes raising your voice, spanking, calling names, putting another down, predicting that your teen will fail, neglecting, not listening, ignoring, chronic teasing, expecting adult thinking, feeling, and behavior from an adolescent, severely restricting social interaction, punishment that does not fit the offense, arbitrarily maintaining authority and power, and failure to apologize when you have made a mistake or been offensive. More severe abuse includes hitting, threatening to hit, yelling, swearing, not speaking for long periods of time, suggesting that your teen will never grow up, picking and removing friends, sexual touching or innuendo, chronic sarcasm, and acting recklessly or inappropriately in front of your teen.
If your co-parent is being abusive, it is your job to end the abuse in whatever way possible.
Abusive parenting is unacceptable. Likewise, abusive behavior from your teen is unacceptable. Theoretically, adolescents are quite capable of being polite, helping with chores around the house, dealing with conflict, and expressing anger or annoyance without offending others. Theory becomes real when parents have helped their teen gain this level of maturity. Even if your teen does not demonstrate the above skills, it is your job to expect respect--not total submission, but respect of the golden rule variety.
About the Author: Ken Edelston MS is a life and business coach. He has extensive experience in counseling teens, adults, and couples. For over 20 years, Ken has specialized in treating the effects of addictions, parenting adolescent issues, and conflict resolution. His coaching practice focuses on helping individuals, families, business persons, and couples identify ineffective patterns of behavior and then exploring and implementing real change.
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