It will come as no surprise that in my work as a middle school therapist, I come across kids who test boundaries, break rules, and make poor choices. It is also not uncommon to meet with parents at a loss for what to do and how to regain control.
Raising an adolescent is one of the most challenging jobs a parent will have. Suddenly you go from raising a sweet and affectionate child to managing a moody and rebellious teen. You might wonder what happened to the child you once knew. You also might find that the parenting strategies you once relied on no longer work.
While it is not all bad, it is easy for parents to get overwhelmed by the social, emotional, and behavioral changes that happen during adolescence.
Many parents don’t reach out for help until things have gotten out of control. When I meet a family for the first time, I am often meeting desperate parents who have tried everything in their bag of tricks to improve things, to little or no avail. By that point, the family has become quite entrenched in negative patterns.
During the first session or so, I explore with the parents the strategies they have used to address any concerns. Often parents report that they yell, lecture, threaten consequences, or try to rationalize with their teen. I follow up by asking which strategies have worked and which have not. No surprise, yelling often leads to escalation; lecturing doesn’t garner the desired response, and how can one rationalize with an irrational teenage brain?
Despite their desperation to change things, many parents tell me that they don’t often follow through with any threatened consequences. And why not? “Because they’ll be mad at me,” I’m inevitably told.
I am often incredulous. Of course teens will be mad when there is a consequence, especially a meaningful one. Trying to prevent a teen from being mad at you is like trying to prevent a baby from crying. Good luck.
So why this avoidance of angering a teenager? I believe the reason is both selfish and selfless. First, what parent wants to deal with a sulking, bitter, angry teenager? No parent I know, including me. And it is understandable for parents to want to be loved by their children. We sacrifice so much and work so hard to love and care for our kids. It is validating to get that love in return.
We are programmed to want to make our children happy. This desire often translates to avoidance of anything that makes our child upset, including enforcing consequences for negative behaviors.
Why would we want to make our child upset when there is enough adversity in the world? Let me tell you.
Despite how they may act, teens need rules and boundaries so they can both test them and feel protected by them. Creating structure and having predictable responses helps teens learn to self-regulate. It also helps them learn from their mistakes.
Rules and consequences are important for every child. Despite how they may act, teens need rules and boundaries so they can both test them and feel protected by them. Creating structure and having predictable responses helps teens learn to self-regulate. It also helps them learn from their mistakes.
Raising a teen is like bowling with bumpers. Sometimes the bumpers take the form of support and validation and sometimes they’re in the form of rules and consequences. Regardless, they serve to gently guide teens down a healthy and successful path. Not having rules and consequences is like removing the bumpers before your teen has developed the skills to function in the world.
Allowing your child to express anger in a safe environment also helps them to develop emotional intelligence. If you are constantly shielding them from frustration, anger, or sadness, they may not learn how to regulate these emotions or how to express them in socially appropriate ways. It is important to remember that parenting isn’t about being liked. Giving in on rules and consequences makes it harder for teens to engage in a world where there are rules and consequences.
So what can you do?
- Set realistic rules and consequences: This helps in many ways. First, it’s easier to enforce and stand behind rules you believe are logical and reasonable. Second, if you set realistic rules, your child may be more likely to abide by those rules. Realistic consequences are also important. Don’t threaten something you can’t enforce. Kids notice when parents are inconsistent in enforcing consequences and will take advantage.
- Don’t feel guilty, and don’t take it personally: Again, many parents avoid giving consequences because they fear their child will be upset—specifically with them. Remember, as long as your rules are realistic and your consequences fair, you are helping your child learn not only how to make better choices but to regulate their emotions. Be prepared for guilt trips from your child. Losing their phone privileges or being grounded is upsetting to them, so expect them to try anything they can to get you to change your mind. Know that their guilt, tantrums, and bad behavior is often nothing more than an attempt to get you give in. Once they learn to expect consistency from you, the pleading and manipulation will likely stop. They will come to understand that when you set a rule and a consequence, you mean business.
- Model healthy emotion regulation: Help your kids learn healthy ways of managing emotions. Give them space and permission to feel angry and disappointed when they are faced with a consequence for their behavior. These upsetting feelings will help them to make better choices. You can validate their feelings and suggest coping strategies without giving in.
- Start young: It is important to start young in helping kids learn about rules and consequences. I often see parents who didn’t have to do much of that because there were few problems when their kids were little. As a result, they were often lenient the few times their kids did make poor choices. However, things change when kids become adolescents. Not only are the stakes higher, but the pushback may be more intense if they don’t understand their behavior has consequences. While it is not impossible to change your parenting strategy after your child has come to expect no consequences, you will likely face a bumpier road.
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