Beer cans in a closet, pot in a glove compartment, groundings or curfews ignored, abusive language… not necessarily all new challenges to deal with but many parents feel powerless when faced with disciplining a son inches taller than they are or a daughter who’s buying her own clothes and gas. This becomes even more challenging in the summer prior to college when the teen invokes the “I’ll be on my own soon” mantra that supposedly negates your authority.
While some aspects of discipline change as your child moves into the 16- to 18-year-old range, it is important to realize that these teens still need the security of enforced limits and that they are still dependent upon you in many ways, despite their adult-like appearance or independence. This process is made easier if you have been able to maintain a reasonable connection with your teenager. The more engaged you are in his or her life, the more likely some of these issues can actually be talked through with positive results. A key to resolving conflicts here, in fact, is treating the teen more as an adult and asking her to reflect on the problem and come up with her own solution.
A 17-year-old daughter was supposed to pick up her younger brother from day camp. Twice she had been so late that the camp had called the mother at work. Thank goodness for cell phones. The mother was able to track down her daughter who claimed (!) to be on her way but had an excuse for being late each time. This mother, who has a history of intimate conversations with her daughter about many issues, simply said she could not get another call from the camp because it was putting her son at risk for renewing the next two-week segment. She expressed the feeling that her daughter was not being responsible here and felt that she should have some consequence for creating this mini-crisis.
Although the daughter still tried to excuse herself, she gradually acknowledged that, at the very least, she was not allowing enough time in case something did go wrong. The mother told her she was old enough to come up with a reasonable consequence for messing up here rather than have the mother simply discipline her. The daughter was able to conclude that she owed a debt to her brother for making him wait and be upset as well as to her mother for upsetting her and having to spend the extra time dealing with this. The daughter’s solution was to agree to take her brother out for a Saturday afternoon, rain or shine (which might mean missing a beach day), which would include a couple of activities of his choice. That would also give her mother some extra free time.
Of course it often won’t be that easy. The daughter might have been belligerent, saying the mixups weren’t her fault and refusing to work out a solution with the mother. In fact, she might argue how she is doing her mother a big favor by picking up her brother and it is really very inconvenient for her to do this each day. This is where some parents feel they have few options and often back down with just a scolding or a grounding that frequently isn’t enforced.
It’s important not to stop being an authoritative parent. When the effort to work out a joint solution fails, then it requires that the parent create a consequence that she has some control over. In this case, the mother was taking the train to work to allow her daughter to have access to the car. This allowed the daughter to go to her job, pick up her brother, and still have the opportunity to spend time with friends during the day. So let’s imagine how this mother might have dealt with an uncooperative daughter.
In response to her daughter’s lack of accepting responsibility, the mother chose to take the car back for a week and make temporary alternative arrangements to have her son picked up. The daughter was shocked at losing access to the car. “How will I get to work? I’ll lose my job.” The mother said that it was up to her daughter to resolve that problem, noting that to use the car brings with it a higher expectation of acting responsibly. Many times parents won’t do something like this because they take on the responsibility of making sure their child can get to work. Once you do that, you have lost too much leverage. And it’s not how the real world works.
A 17-year-old boy, in a fit of anger, punched a hole in his bedroom wall. The parents insisted he pay for the repair and he refused. He was bound for college in the fall and was putting all his money away for personal expenses at school. He didn’t care if there was a hole in “his wall,” conveniently ignoring the fact that it was his parents’ home. They had put money aside to pay for his books. So he was told that the repair money would come from that and he would either have to get more used books or use his savings to make up the difference.
Another 17-year-old son had twice been found to have beer cans in the back of his car. He insisted he hadn’t been drinking nor had his friends been drinking in the car, both rules that had been agreed upon prior to his buying the car with his own money. Since the parents did not believe his explanation, especially in a context of increased moodiness and less responsibility about his schoolwork, they felt some firm response was required. For the next two weeks, they wanted the car’s use to be limited to just going to school and back and no friends could be in the car. “But it’s my car,” said the son, “and there isn’t anything you can do about it.”
However, as is often the case, the parents were paying for the insurance. They were very firm with him, saying that it would only take one call to their agent and the car would have to come off the road. The son didn’t think they would actually do this – usually he had been able to intimidate his parents. But with the support they were getting from a counselor, they convinced him they were serious and he accepted the limits. That also led to further discussions about the negative changes they had seen in him lately and ultimately led to his agreeing to see a therapist.
In a more extreme action, a single mother whose son worked, owned his own car, and paid for his own insurance, had grounded him for being destructive to property in the house and verbally abusive toward her. But Friday night came and he walked out the door, saying there wasn’t anything she could do about it. Using a tough love approach that was being encouraged by her therapist, the mother was able to find a locksmith willing to come to the house that evening and change the locks. Her son banged on the doors and then went to a friend’s for the night when his mother refused to let him in and threatened to call the police if he didn’t stop. He avoided her until Sunday, then came home and asked to talk to her. They discussed how he needed to accept that if he was going to live in the house and be a member of the family, then he had to live with his mother’s rules. If he had a gripe, then it had to be worked out and not acted out. He realized he loved his mother and wanted to continue to live with her, apologized, and managed to be more reasonable in his behavior.
These are a sampling of examples of how parents can, and need to, assert themselves with older teenagers. But sometimes the relationship with one’s teenager is so frayed and volatile that negotiations just continually break down and the teen remains very defiant, possibly running away or becoming more violent. In these situations, parents need to seek outside help from family therapists and, sometimes, the courts. If you are afraid of your teenager, then you must seek help.
A key thread running through all this is that your children will continue to need active, involved parenting right on into their adult lives. It doesn’t stop somewhere in the middle of high school. Recognizing that gives you some leverage to enforce the rules that remain in place even as your children get older. But you must be willing to not be coerced into taking too much responsibility for protecting your child from possible consequences, even when it might impact a job, participation in a sport, or grades. It’s simply part of the never-ending process of your child learning to be responsible for his or her actions.