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Motherhood Matters: How to control a teenager

By Allyson Reynolds

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, July 28 2014 9:25 a.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, July 28 2014 9:25 a.m. MDT

You can't actually control a teenager, but you can influence them. Allyson Reynolds explains how.

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Most mothers of teenagers understand they won’t be able to control their children forever, but it can still be a little disconcerting when that natural pull for independence begins. So how do you continue to have control over your teenager while still maintaining a positive relationship that will last into adulthood?

Know the difference between control and influence.

The truth is, you can’t control a teenager, not in the sense that you can control a younger child. When children are young, parents control almost every aspect of their lives, from what they eat to whom they play with to when they go to bed. Teenagers, on the other hand, naturally are seeking for more independence as they transition into adulthood, so it’s not only OK but good for them to start taking control of their lives through making their own decisions.

If we try to control our teenagers in every little thing, we can unintentionally set them up to either rebel or become unable to control themselves once they leave home. To avoid this, we have to start letting go of control and focusing more on our power to influence them — and our influence can be tremendous.

Be their ally.

The last thing you want to do as the parent of a teenager is to set yourself up as the bad guy — the person they want to rebel against. Even if my kids want to rebel, it would have to be against something other than me, because they understand very clearly that I am their ally.

I’m not talking about treating them like peers and not children; I’m talking about having the kind of relationship with them that helps them believe the family rules and boundaries are there to help them succeed and be happy. The key to developing this kind of relationship is to connect before you correct: Spend quality time together, show interest in what they are interested in, listen to them and their point of view, acknowledge the positive things they do at least five times more than the negative. When teenagers feel you are their ally, they are much more receptive to your influence.

Make rules and consequences that are reasonable, related and respectful.

As an adult, I have a hard time with rules that don’t make sense and with people who are unreasonable — that makes me want to rebel! And our teenagers are the same.

One example of a rule and consequence that is related and reasonable regards teens and phones. If your teenager is getting poor grades because he is getting repeatedly distracted by his cellphone, you would simply take the phone away every day after school until he gets his homework and studying done.

But what matters most is how you do it — that’s where the respect comes in. Explain to him you know he wants to get good grades, but you recognize that his phone is a huge distraction keeping him from reaching his goals, so you are going to take the phone away during homework time to help him reach his goals (which is 100 percent true!).

An example of how to deal with this same situation in a way that is unrelated, unreasonable and disrespectful would be to make your child double up on chores as “punishment” for getting poor grades (unrelated) or take away his phone for the rest of the school year (unreasonable) or take it away in a punishing way that makes him feel powerless and rebellious (disrespectful). It also helps to give him reasonable leeway when he doesn't follow the rules perfectly (i.e., not going ballistic if he gets home two minutes after curfew — you run late sometimes, too ...).

When you treat your teenagers in this way, they will respect you in return and you can have a much greater influence.

Put the ball in their court.

When you’re going through the process of developing family rules and expectations, it’s important to include your children in the process, for a couple of reasons. First, you want to all be on the same page, and second, it puts the ball in their court. Again, it’s not about you controlling them, it’s about them learning to control themselves and their own futures.

When I talk to my teenage kids about their behavior in relation to our family rules and expectations, it’s almost always within the context of how I can help them be the best they can be and reach their goals. When you ask a teenager how you can help her, she doesn't feel you are trying to control her, so she is much more open to your influence.

Keep them busy and engaged.

One last thought is that sometimes teenagers get into trouble or have bad behavior simply because they’re bored, lacking self-confidence or don’t know where they fit in. Helping them to develop important life skills, find work or a volunteer opportunities, or get engaged in a hobby or sport can make a huge difference in their behavior.

Teens are beyond the age of simply needing to be entertained or preoccupied in their free time; they need a vision and a purpose for their lives, and there are a lot of things they need to learn before they leave home.

I would suggest reading Merrilee Boyack’s “The Parenting Breakthrough,” which has comprehensive lists of life skills that teens need to master before leaving home, such as how to balance a checkbook or change a tire. I also wrote a post called “5 Tips for Keeping Teens and Tweens Busy During the Summer” that has lots of resources and links for both work and volunteer opportunities.

They may grumble a bit at these suggestions, but once they feel the sense of satisfaction that comes from learning and contributing, they will become much more engaged and self-motivated, and you will worry a lot less about trying to “control” them.

QUESTION: How do you "control" your teenager?

CHALLENGE: If you're having a rough time with your teens, ask them to read this post and give you some feedback. I'd love to hear their reactions.

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