Parenting expert Diane Levy provides some background explanation, tips, information and advice about problems raising teenage children (girls and boys), child behaviour, and parenting teens in New Zealand.
Raising teens is theoretically simply an extension of everything you have done for the first 12 years. Emotional support is needed just as much – if not more – and holding boundaries to keep them feeling safe and secure is more important than ever as they become increasingly competent and independent.
However, given the addition of hormonal upheavals, increasing connection with support and pressure from their peers and a media and marketing world that targets them unmercifully, we find ourselves having to call on every parenting skill we have developed up till now – and then some!
Do everything you possibly can to get to know the adults who are raising your children’s friends. This is easiest while teens are still dependent on you for transport.
At the beginning of the intermediate and the high school years it is still absolutely expected and accepted that, when you drop your child at someone’s house for the first time you will go in and make yourself known to the other parent/s. Don’t just introduce yourself, but also write down your name, address and phone number, give it to them and trust they will reciprocate.
This is one of the best safety nets you can have for your teen: the ability to phone another parent to check arrangements and to find out whether it is true that everyone is allowed to do some particularly hare-brained activity.
Be the centre of the daisy
This is the idea that our children make bigger and bigger excursions out into the world but return to their parents periodically for nurture and comfort. As our children grow up, they look more and more independent and may not appear to need us, but believe me, they do.
Teens do best when they know exactly where the centre of the daisy is. If it were up to them, parents would be permanently at home and available ‘on tap.’ This is not something we are always able or prepared to do, but it behoves us to be mindful that our teens need us at the beginning and end of their day and any time they have a problem to discuss.
I’m not suggesting you sit still in your living room on the off-chance your teen needs you. I do recommend, however, that whenever you are absent, that your teen knows exactly where you are and you find ways of connecting with your teen a few times a day.
Parents as role-models
Teens have an extremely sensitive nose for discrepancy, which they translate as ‘unfair.’
Remember they are observing and learning as you model behaviour around eating, drinking, smoking, sexual behaviour, being responsible and being reliable, and although you can get away with a certain amount of ‘I am the grown-up and grown-ups are allowed to do this,’ we must remember that we are being watched.
There’s no point ‘fibbing’
We lose enormous credibility with our teens when we interrogate them to obtain ‘answers’ we already know. It you know where your teen has been or what he has been doing, don’t ask if he was there, receive the evasive answer, follow up with, ‘Are you sure?’ and then accuse him of lying because he was seen there. This will just result in a horrible scene with accusations flying everywhere.
Don’t leap in with punishment
First, give him the benefit of the doubt. ‘I assume there is a perfectly reasonable explanation. What is it?’ Pause and wait for the reply. Your job is to keep the problem with your teen, not to solve it with nagging, whining, pleading or punishing.
Often, the reason is that your teen didn’t have the skills to change the arrangements and keep you informed. Keep the problem with him. ‘What can we do next time so that it doesn’t happen this way?’
More often, it is likely that your teen has not told you because he knows you would say no, so has gone ahead doing what he wanted, hoping like crazy you wouldn’t find out. His bad luck: you did.
The temptation is to leap in with grounding. But be aware that grounding has all the problems of any other punishment. First, you have taken over the problem. Secondly, some children wildly resent punishment. It gives them just the excuse they need to shift the responsibility for everything that goes wrong in their life onto you. Thirdly, you get 10 days say, out from the episode and you no longer feel that angry. You want to be out and about instead of being a jailer – but there are still six weeks to go.
The alternative to grounding
What you want is for your teen to have temptation or opportunity put in front of him and be able to resist it. Until he can resist it, you are going to have a hard time letting him out into the world.
So give him the problem. ‘I am concerned about the next time you ask me if you can go out. How would I know that you are going to be where you say you will be?’ Leave the problem with him. Tell him to come and find you when he has a good, safe plan. We are simply using the teen version of:
With luck hopefully, and with a bit of space to sort things out, your teen can start to plan the steps he can take to regaining your trust and come up with a better plan for his next social activity. If he is not ready to do that, he may not be able to go.
‘You can’t stop me’
Many of us have teens who have waves of getting out of control, including announcing, ‘I am going and you can’t stop me.’
He has a point. Of course you could hold him back with threats or handcuff him to the bed. But these methods involve punishing and your taking on the problem. They keep your child irresponsible and incompetent and will not do much for your relationship with your teen.
What is the alternative? The reality is you cannot decide what your teen will do, but you can decide what you will do. Very quietly say, ‘You are right. I cannot stop you. However, you need to be very clear that you are going without my permission.’ Surprisingly, this is very uncomfortable for a teenager to hear. We tend to forget how important we are to them. What we are doing here is creating a situation of emotional distance.
He may storm out. Don’t chase and yell after him. Prepare to have a ghastly time while you await his return. He will return – maybe that day, maybe the day after. It is really hard, but just leave him to think it out. When he does return, be rather cool and indifferent. Leave lots of space.
Sooner or later your child will be ready to come closer emotionally. And sooner or later you will be ready to connect with him. Allow him to drift back into the family circle. It is over and you don’t need to punish him. He needs the experience that his actions may hurt people and that they may take a while to warm up again. This is a valuable life lesson.
Information without interrogation
Although we get very annoyed when our children won’t ‘own up,’ interrogation to force confessions is not the best way to teach our children responsibility.
One of the best ways of getting information is by driving two or three teens somewhere in the back seat of your car. You can glean amazing information this way, as they assume you are part of the mechanical structure of the car. Beware though. If you get carried away and join in their conversation, your source will instantly dry up.
Whenever possible, try to be the parent who does the picking up after the party. I know it is a drag and I know how hard it is for old people like us to stay up that late. However, if you are the parent of a teen who asks you to park down the road so they can walk into the party without a parent in sight, picking them up afterwards gives you a legitimate excuse for going in. And don’t be sucked into texting or cell-phoning them outside a party so they can come out. It is amazing how much you can learn from observing who is sitting on the footpath edge, who is weaving down the driveway and who is puking in the bushes.
Don’t help them do bad things
If you don’t want your children doing dangerous things, don’t be the one who inadvertently provides them with the opportunity or the example:
- Don’t drive them to parties you know are going to be dangerous for them.
- Don’t let them go without checking on the supervision and the safety precautions.
- Don’t fund your teenager’s drinking and drug habits. Have a clear accounting system for how much money you give them and roughly how it is spent.
- Don’t be the one to set up unlimited opportunities and unlimited financing.
- Don’t expect your teen to be able to withstand their peer group if you can’t withstand yours. If you are mixing with adults who are doing anti-social or illegal things, you’re on very shaky ground when you tell your teens not to.
And if temptation proves too much?
And what if you do smell alcohol, nicotine, pot or unwholesome-but-unidentified? Humiliating your teen in front of his peers is not likely to enhance his good judgment. Yelling and grounding for life will not improve your relationship.
We need to be more vigilant and to recognise that it may be too much for a teen and temptation to stare each other in the eye and expect the teen to resist the temptation and walk away.
You are better off – and far more honest – to say calmly, sometime the following day, ‘You have been drinking too much / smoking / using illegal substances. You know you are not allowed to do that.’ Now is the time to join with your teen to help solve the problem of how he or she can enjoy socializing with peers and still be safe. Try saying, ‘We need to come up with a way that you can have a good time and I can trust that you will be safe. What are your ideas?’
It takes a whole village…..
Make your home and your supporting circle of family and friends a place where your teens will find a listening ear, a place to test their courage, a place to discover who they are and what they stand for and a place to increase their competence.