Staying Connected to Our Teenagers: Part 2
Judith Rader, MA, LMFT
September 18, 2006
A previous "Tip of the Week" article explored the important role that parents’ validating their teenagers’ thoughts, beliefs, and opinions plays in staying connected to their sons and daughters. Since feelings are the essence of how all human beings know themselves, teenagers experience this validation as acceptance of who they are. This, in turn, encourages teens -- who are developmentally driven to embrace new ideas and beliefs, to feel increasingly emotionally safe in opening themselves up to their parents, and sharing their emerging sense of self.
There is a second, equally important way that parents can focus on staying connected to their teenagers. This step does not involve teenagers’ feelings – but rather their behaviors. And this step does not involve parents’ validating; but rather it involves parents’ taking a firm, non-negotiable stand. For just as parent-teenager relationships are strengthened when parents provide validation and acceptance in the realm of their teens’ feelings and beliefs, so too are they strengthened when parents take a firm stand (i.e., do not waver) with regard to their teenagers’ behaviors.
When Daniel’s mother receives her son’s report card indicating that his low grades are attributable to his failure to hand in homework, she tells him, “I’m not happy with how you prioritize your after-school hours.” He scornfully responds, “It doesn’t matter. I hate those classes anyway. I can handle things, and I don’t need you interfering.” Daniel’s mother throws up her arms, and leaves the room.
Gina’s father comes home from work to find his daughter’s empty soda cans, dirty dishes, and snack crumbs on the family room sofa. Meanwhile, he remembers that she left the lights and TV on in the family room overnight. When he addresses both these issues with his daughter, Gina responds angrily, “Boy Dad, can’t you ever give me a break? I’ve got a lot on my mind with school and my part-time job.” Gina’s father rolls his eyes, and changes the subject.
Sixteen year-old Tyra has begun ignoring her mother’s designated weekend curfew. And recently her mother noticed the smell of alcohol on her daughter’s breath. When confronted, Tyra defensively replies, “Nothing’s going on, Mom. And your curfew is ridiculous. Everyone else is allowed to stay out later than I am.” At which point Tyra storms out of the room; and her mother says a silent prayer that both she and her daughter will get through the next few years.
The above instances depict teenagers assuming entirely too much power with regard to their worrisome conduct. In all three instances, the parents unwittingly encourage their child’s bad behavior with lukewarm, ineffectual responses. Meanwhile the relationships become increasingly distressed as some form of parent-child resentment and distancing ensues.
There are three major categories of behavior – responsibility, respect, and safety -- that parents must attend to in order to guide their children towards maturity. Daniel’s instance speaks to the issue of responsibility. The primary responsibility task of teenagers (and all children) is to learn – to the best of their ability. The degree to which teenagers attend to this task has important implications for their personal future, as well as the future of society. Meanwhile, teens must embrace a second responsibility task -- that of participating in some household chores, lest they develop a sense of exaggerated entitlement (i.e., a sense that they exist to be served by others). The degree to which our teenagers develop a sense of inappropriate entitlement similarly has implications for their future, as well as society’s future. Thus, the importance of insisting that our teens contribute to the household by regularly performing a few chores (such as setting the table, walking the dog, or taking out the garbage). While it is utterly predictable that on any given day our teenagers may complain about their chores, parents should avoid getting pulled into that discussion. Instead, parents might simply agree that chores can be “a pain” (i.e., validate their teen’s opinion), but then insist that the chores be completed.
In instances where our teenagers fail to attend to these responsibility tasks, parents must back up their words with firm consequences. Examples would be: no TV until Daniel completes his homework and shows it to his mother. Or, no keys to the car for a Friday night out until our teenager completes his chore of loading the dishwasher after dinner. Or, no ferrying our teenager and her friends to the mall until she follows through on her chore of giving the family dog its Saturday morning walk.
Gina’s example addresses the issue of respect. Teenagers routinely test respect in two important areas: 1) behaviors that adversely affect others (such as dirty dishes left on the kitchen counter, shoes left to trip over in the middle of the living room floor, lights carelessly left on overnight that increase parents’ utility bills); and 2) disrespectful communication -- including aggressive tone, volume, and/or language. In situations where teenagers behave disrespectfully, parents must firmly apply consequences -- lest their child get the unfortunate message that it’s okay for their untidiness (laziness, inattention to detail, etc.) to “spill” consequences into other people’s lives. In Gina’s instance, her father needs to pursue his daughter, and firmly insist that she clean up the couch before she moves on to her next activity. Meanwhile, parents must firmly insist on respectful communication to avoid their teenagers inferring that they can impose their will on others through aggressive language, tone, and/or volume.
Finally, Tyra’s example speaks to the issue of safety. Parents simply cannot cede this issue to their children, lest their children become emboldened to “try on” increasingly provocative and dangerous behaviors. The burgeoning field of brain research (with the advent of MRIs and PET scans) is shedding light on just how vulnerable teenagers are to risky behaviors. Two of the main responsibilities of the brain’s prefrontal cortex are to control impulses and consider consequences. And it appears that during puberty, teenagers’ immature prefrontal cortex is undergoing dramatic growth that will not be completed for several years. So our teens are ill-equipped to sufficiently manage impulses and gauge consequences at a critical time when their increasing independence from parents pushes them to contemplate new, risky behaviors such as drug and alcohol use, speeding when driving, violating curfews, and engaging in sex. Since the teenage brain clearly lacks the ability to adequately internalize the function of impulse control, it is vital that parents effectively become their external brain in those instances where their daughters and sons demonstrate the need for interventions and structure to keep them safe.
The role of parents is unmistakable in both helping teenagers become respectful, responsible adults, and in helping them stay safe. But how exactly does this interaction with their children serve to keep parent and teenager connected?
Curiously, while our children will “fight” or otherwise test our rules, discipline, and consequences in the moment, all indications are that they ultimately appreciate and, in fact, feel contained by our caring interventions. Yes, teenagers are driven to rebel, or otherwise experiment with new behaviors. However, their rebellions must be kept within certain limits to avoid truly irresponsible, disrespectful, and unsafe behaviors. And indeed, on some level teenagers seem to understand and appreciate that they actually need their parents’ limits to push up against, lest their rebellious actions (aided and abetted by their immature impulse management) spiral out of control.
One way to understand teenagers’ serious acting out (for example, drug and alcohol use, cursing at their parents, or school truancy), is that, on some level, they are “upping the ante” to see at what point they will ultimately get their parents’ attention in a meaningful way. They are effectively “crying out” to have their parents connect to them in a way that will restrain their behavior – and keep them safe (or keep them from becoming too disrespectful or irresponsible!). Since teens experience their increasingly provocative behavior as increasingly anxiety-producing, they are strangely relieved when their parents finally intervene/”connect” by providing needed restraint in the form of meaningful discipline and limits. And so, while teenagers may feel annoyingly stymied in the moment when parents enforce firm discipline and limits, they curiously also experience the intervention as a caring, connective gesture
Firm discipline is a way of parents communicating to their teen, “I care so deeply about you with regard to both your safety and your maturing into a responsible, respectful adult, that I am willing to risk your upset in the short-run. And I will resist being disconnected/pushed away from you.” The good news for parents is that on some level, our teenagers intuit this message. And as they mature and look back on their youth, the message becomes increasingly clear.