Your two-year-old won’t get in the car? You may try a little persuasion, but you always know that as a last resort you can scoop him up, strap him into the car seat, and be good to go, even if he protests. But it’s a whole different story when you have a teen who may well be taller and stronger than you.
“Now you have to rely on your teen’s willingness and ability to make good choices,” says Julie Freedman Smith, co-founder of Parenting Power, a Calgary parenting education company. “If you relied on coercion or force to get your kids to do things when they are younger, it will blow up in your face with teens.”
What’s needed at this point is a shift in attitude, suggests parent educator Judy Arnall. “You need to move toward negotiation and building the kind of relationship that makes them want to co-operate with you.” The heart of that relationship, she says, is being willing to listen to them and help them when they need it.
Anne Weeks, mother of Lucas, 13, and Calvin, 11, says parenting her two boys has nudged her negotiation skills to new highs. “If I ask them to do something, and they flat-out say no, I try to think of something else. If you don’t want to set the table, could you pour the drinks and bring those to the table? Or if it looks like we’re having a bad night, I might say, ‘OK, I’ll do it this time; tomorrow it will be your job.’” She finds there are some tasks, such as grating cheese, that Lucas is almost always willing to do. “I don’t think I’ve grated cheese in years,” she says.
More ways to get teens doing what you need them to do:
Say yes more than no “Parents who do more for kids have kids who do more for them,” says Arnall. “Try to say yes to them more often than you say no, and that will come back to you.” Freedman Smith suggests you try to couch a “no” in terms that sound less than a complete refusal: “If they want to go to a party or event you’re not comfortable with, rather than saying a flat-out no — which will send them stomping out of the room vowing never to do anything you want — say, ‘Hmm, this is what concerns me about that idea. What do you think?’ Have a real discussion about it so they understand why and can perhaps come to the ‘no’ answer on their own.”
Hold family meetings The family meeting is an opportunity to address issues as a group, says Arnall. “In our house, we have a whiteboard where anyone can write down something they’d like to discuss at the family meeting,” she says. The benefit is that the discussion is not happening in the heat of the moment; it’s at a calmer, more relaxed time.
Reconsider rules “Often the rules are ones the parents made when the children were younger or that parents remember from when they were teens,” says Freedman Smith. “But they might not be appropriate anymore. Your family rules should come out of your family’s values and beliefs, and should fit your child’s age and maturity.” Arnall adds that parents of teens are often too rigid. “At this age, there needs to be more give-and-take. The more you try to force teens to do something they consider unreasonable, the harder they dig in their heels.”
Ask rather than demand “When it’s a real question, a request, then you have to be prepared that your child might say no,” says Arnall. So make it easy to say yes, she suggests, by offering options and asking when they might complete the task (rather than insisting it be done now).
Stand firm when you need to “If you’ve been flexible on other issues, your child is more likely to co-operate when you say ‘This is really important to me,’” says Arnall. What’s important will be different from one family to another, adds Freedman Smith. “You also want to show them that responsibility and privilege go hand in hand, so if your child has been given some freedom, but not handled it well, you need to stand firm on putting back some restrictions.”
Feed the relationship Sometimes that involves literal food. “If we have to spend a day running errands and they’re starting to moan and groan about it, we’ll go for hot chocolate and doughnuts,” says Weeks. That half-hour or so chatting together in the coffee shop goes a long way to fostering co-operation. “When you are connected, your teens are more likely to want to co-operate,” says Arnall.
Keep working on connecting with your teen and you might get the kind of lovely surprise Linda Clement did a few years ago when her daughters were in their early teens. “I’d decided to do a seven-course Thanksgiving dinner for our extended family,” she says. “I fully expected I’d have to prepare and serve it all myself. I did the first course, and as I started back to the kitchen to prepare the next one, both girls got up and started helping me. I hadn’t said a word to them, but they just pitched in and helped with the rest of the meal. It was kind of a magical moment.”
The teen brain
Freedman Smith says: “The hard thing about teens is that they look, smell and talk like adults, but the research shows that they don’t have adult brains. There’s a lot of development going on at this age, and we can’t expect adult reasoning and mature behaviour. They are just not capable of it.” Because of this, teens still need their parents’ love, support and guidance (as well as plenty of patience!) — even if they think they don’t.