I received a request the other day from a friend who is a mom. She asked if I could write some of my thoughts about parenting, boundaries, and consequences, and the transition to summer schedules for teens. As I was thinking about this, I ran across a couple of internet feeds about the Tiger Mom and the drive many American parents feel to be “Perfect Parents!” I am a parent with two sons, one in his forties and one in his teens. I have been a teacher, therapist, and parent for forty plus years. My wife is a retired elementary school teacher. We have had discussions about parenting and expectations hundreds of times. Often we disagree or have a different focus in our angle of attack regarding parenting and discipline issues. Generally, we make compromises and find a path in the middle that allows both of us to survive without feeling completely crazy and ineffective. (Also, for us, it helps to be less angry and frustrated to have a partner who is an interchangeable parent, even if we don’t do everything exactly the same way.)
Occasionally, I have new clients who are thinking about getting married and want a few sessions before they commit to one another. I always ask them “Do you want or intend to have children? And, “Have you discussed your parenting and discipline philosophy?” I cannot emphasize too much how important that conversation can be. It establishes the playing field for managing children and for dealing with discipline issues when they eventually arise. By the way, they always arise! This conversation gives you the tools to get started early on setting patterns with children early on in their development. Many of us idealize the parenting role and unconsciously fall into parenting either as we were parented or we just go with the flow until there is a crisis.
My general recommendation to parents is to begin even when the child is pre –verbal. Give verbal messages to the child that are congruent with the non-verbal messages that you give. If you are angry with the child, let them see anger on your face and tell them that you are angry. If you are happy or proud, let the child see this and hear the words come from you. I believe these messages begin to communicate to the child that the child is making choices and those choices have consequences. Create a safe holding environment by never shaming the child or raging at the child. Begin to have definite boundaries around what are unacceptable behaviors and what are preferred behaviors. The goals are to create an atmosphere within a family that says to a child, you can begin to have control over your surroundings. You can impact the way that people respond to you, you can navigate and negotiate within the world to try to get what you want. You are not a victim. Life does not randomly happen to you outside of your own behaviors and choices. I know that preverbal children cannot understand all of this, but the point is to begin to model the behavior that you want children to experience, and to communicate the message that they have operant power.
Children, as they mature, become players in their own right as members of a family and a community. They act and react to manipulate the environment to increase their rewards, maximize their payoffs, and minimize their displeasure. In other words, they become more skilled humans! The challenge for parents is to create an environment that clearly identifies rewards and punishments. Then reflect to the child that the choices they make, in terms of behaviors, will impact the consequences they receive. Naturally, there are challenges for parents in this. Among these challenges is that children are different. There is not a one size fits all kind of consequence that manipulates each child accordingly. One child may not care about dessert, therefore do not use loss of or gain of dessert as a consequence for that child. Another may not care about TV or driving the car. Additionally, to compound all this, sometimes the response or desire of the child changes over time. What works today may not work tomorrow because they grow, evolve, and change. Parents need to monitor the response of their child and to increase/decrease/change the consequences as deemed necessary regarding both rewards and punishments. Remember the law of averages. You don’t have to win every battle, just most of them. No one ever tells you that parenting is this hard!
Most of the parents I have worked with, especially those of teens, consistently say to me that nothing works. They feel that they cannot come up with consequences because their kid does not care about anything. My response to that is twofold. One is to not believe what the child says. They will always say “I don’t Care! Instead, give the consequence and watch their behavior to see if it changes. The other is that sometimes consequence choice is about the needs of the parent. In these instances, it just needs to make you feel better, more like you are doing your job, or you believe that these things are additive and the child who you reward or punish today will be a different child next week or next year. What you have to believe in is a global picture, over time.
As children age you loose the ability to micromanage them. Families must begin to build a box with firm lines and boundaries, creating a structure that allows the child to experiment within that box as much as possible. Trial and error, win or loose, succeed or fail, the child must suffer failure and encounter negative consequences in order to learn and grow and master their primal emotions. They have to grow into self -ownership, and they will not do that without getting hurt. As a parent, you want to cushion the hurt and limit it, but not avoid it. This is one thing that you cannot take care of for them.
So, in short, if you are looking ahead to a long summer with a typical teen, I recommend these things: Make a list of A, B, C, level consequences that both parents can agree on. Identify the behaviors that match the severity of the consequences. Inform the child and make it clear that these things happen as a result of behaviors that they choose which then trigger the consequence. Remind the child that they are making choices and choices have consequences. Don’t forget to be the parent! Quit talking and ACT. Quit preaching and ACT. Quit saying, “How many times have I told you?” and ACT. Don’t threaten, don’t shame or guilt, ACT. When the child presents you with the trigger, pull it. Establish and implement the consequences and monitor whether or not the behavior changes. Quit micromanaging. Don’t fight over bed times and when to go to sleep with a teen, set some measuring stick like attitude/tone of voice, “dirty looks” , grades in school, etc. and provide consequences for those.
Finally, as to summer schedule transitions, DO NOT allow your teen to sleep all day and stay up all night playing video games. Keep them on a schedule which fits for the family. Require them to get them up and send them out. Don’t let them sit and watch TV all day. Don’t let them show attitude and be hateful. Provide consequences, establish rewards and goals. NEVER give a payoff on credit! As adults, we have learned that choices pay and cost. As a parent, can you afford the cost of not giving your teen consequences???????