After telling people I work with teenagers I often get the response, “Oh I could never do that” or “What do you even talk to them about?”. I actually feel fortunate to have been able to work with teenagers for as many years as I have. You might wonder why I feel that way but I have been privy to their unique and often fresh insights. Some are what you might expect and others are downright surprising. The ones that shock people the most are:
“I thought I would get a worse punishment.”
“I’m surprised I could go out after that.”
“I would have taken my phone away.”
Or my personal favorite:
“They always threaten to take away my [phone, car, etc.] but once they calm down they never do.”
Ok parents. You heard it straight from the source. We are falling down on the job. They are expecting us to give them consequences and take away their most prized possessions and/or restrict their whereabouts. Moving forward this is what we need to do:
- Discuss consequences and establish rewards.
Yep. You need to spell out what might happen if expectations are not met. In a previous post I wrote about how to create house rules based on values, expectations and teenager input. So if you expect your child to maintain a B average and they don’t, they aren’t allowed to use their phone in the evening. Even asking your teenager what they think is a fair consequence will be a great way to get buy-in. You’d be surprised how much stricter they would be if they were doling out the punishments. And for the rewards it could be the use of the family car on weekends or something specific like tickets to a hear their favorite band.
- Enforce consequences and rewards.
This is huge. You must follow-through on what you say you are going to do (see above: my personal favorite). Your child is expecting it even if they say something to the contrary. Even if they protest, whine, pout, slam doors, give you the silent treatment etc. you need to give the consequence. It sends the message of consistency and as a parent you can be counted on. It creates the structure that they are craving (even though their behavior may say the opposite) during a time of their life when their life may feel a bit chaotic or overwhelming. And often if a consequence is discussed beforehand (eg. “curfew is 11pm and if you are late without letting us know, you are grounded next weekend”), the teen can use it as a way to get out of unsavory situations. The threat of a parent’s punishment will give teenagers the opportunity to make a better choice. They can blame you for being strict and save face in front of their friends. And of course, if your teenager gets great grades, follow-through on getting those summer festival tickets you promised. If you don’t, it reinforces that it’s ok not to do what you say you are going to do, modeling the exact behavior you are trying to discourage.
- If you give consequences or rewards, expect an emotional reaction from your teenager.
Yes, your teenager may be angry with you. He/she might even say they hate you. But if you are a consistent in your parenting, your teenager will come around and know deep down you did exactly what you said you were going to do. As uneasy as it makes us feel as parents, a teenager having some conflict with their parents is typical. Developmentally, they are supposed to be rejecting their parents at this stage of their life because they are figuring out their role and identity. No one likes conflict, but try not to take your teen’s resistance personally. Try to think of it as part of the stage of trying to be independent and they are rejecting your limit-setting. Of course, if you get those tickets for your teenager to Lolla or Pitchfork for doing well in school, you might also get a strong positive reaction from your kid that you might not have seen before (or in awhile).
Julie Safranski, LCSW is a Chicago psychotherapist. She enjoys working with teens and their families in helping them communicate in a way that they both can understand each other. She can be reached at email@example.com.