When parents resort to threats and escalation, it’s a sign that they have lost perspective and are caught up in their own feelings. Criticism, warnings and punishment may create superficial compliance, but are ineffective at increasing positive behavior and actually reinforce power struggles and aggression. Authoritarian approaches also backfire in the long run because they impede self-reliance and natural motivation, as well as set the stage for anger, secrecy, shame and rebellion. (Limits and consequences are different than punishment in that limits aren’t driven by anger or the intent to induce suffering).
- Positive parenting alternative: “I know you put a lot into soccer. In high school, I had trouble balancing school with sports and the audio-visual club – though, like you, I was disappointed when I didn’t get the grades.”Here Casey’s dad recognizes and values what Casey’s doing right and what’s important to him — a strategy that promotes positive behavior and develops teens’ identity. Commenting on his commitment and effort in soccer sets a positive, receptive atmosphere. Instead of using his power, or warnings, to get his son to behave — Casey’s dad bonds with him and reduces shame by making himself vulnerable too. His dad articulates Casey’s predicament regarding self-discipline, prioritizing, and time management, but does so in an an accepting way that shows faith, respects Casey’s autonomy and helps him “own” the conflict.
3. Misdiagnosing apparent lack of effort as laziness, overfocus on performance and grades.
To be effective in helping, we must accurately diagnose the problem. Executive function deficits, depression and anxiety are all issues of capacity that impact effort but have little to do with laziness, lack of values, or defiance. Disciplinary approaches using fear, logic, lecture, or punishment are unproductive, and create additional stress in children already paralyzed by inability to meet expectations.
Parents need to notice when kids are overwhelmed, provide emotional support, and assess what’s wrong. With kids who have executive function deficits, parents can also help by being like a good administrative assistant — lining up supports and providing practical help to make things more manageable. Academic and executive function coaching should be outsourced, and not be parents’ primary domain.
4. Poor timing of conversations.
Engaging teens when either of you is angry, though tempting, is ineffective since the prefrontal cortex, which processes information, is offline during high stress. Further, angry struggles not only increase resistance but normalize out of control reactions. Communication is more successful preemptively and, when respect is conveyed for a teen’s autonomy by explicitly asking for their collaboration.
“I know we often get into a struggle about homework and computer time around now. When would be a good time over the weekend to put our heads together and figure out a plan that works better?”
Here the mom thinks ahead, strikes when the iron is cold, and uses as leverage respect and a more peaceful relationship between them – something important to teens. Teens need space after a rough experience, as we all do, and when they come home from school. The best time to talk is during quiet, neutral times such as: before bed, at dinner, during activities together, and in the car (but not to and from school).
5. Talking too much/lecturing rather than listening and being curious and asking non-judgmental questions.
The most important resource parents have with teens is the relationship, which functions behind the scenes to hold, contain, and help steer but not control them. In conversations, teens should take up more of the interaction and parents’ messages should be brief and calm.
All kids want to do well, but teens struggle with competing needs. Look for evidence in general of the part of teens that share your values, and reflect this back to them as Casey’s dad did. When parents quickly come down on a side, it hijacks teens’ internal struggle and makes the part of them that agrees with you go underground. Then, rather than “owning” their conflict and sorting it out, teens’ internal struggle becomes disguised as a battle between you and them.
Anxiety and emotional blind spots can make us inflexible and oblivious to what’s really happening with our teens. But we can learn to recognize the signs of being entrenched in an unhelpful mindset such as: intense feelings, preoccupation with grades, rigidity, rumination, urgency, reactivity, and repetitive, unproductive cycles. Positive, empowering parenting involves learning to step outside ourselves and shift our perspective, paying attention to our kids’ emotional state.
The reward is knowing that teens who feel accepted, respected, and listened by parents to fare better and are the most protected from harm. Further, when parents offer guidance (and limits) while supporting teens’ autonomy, teens learn initiative, independence, and the ability to solve problems on their own.