Many of my patients’ parents have an expectation of complete obedience. They tell me things like, “She just doesn’t listen,” or, “He doesn’t have any respect for the rules.” These discipline failures turn into blame games—the parents blame the adolescent and the adolescent complains about the parents.
I often think the failure lies with the rule instead of the teenager. I suggest we think about these conflicts as an adjustment problem; the family is transitioning from parents and children to a family with parents and young adults.
Teenagers have the developmental ability to negotiate rules in a way that younger children do not. You wouldn’t negotiate with a four-year-old who wants to wants to play with a butcher knife.
But when it comes to what teenagers most desire, freedom, parents are surprised by their teens need to negotiate and search for compromise. My advice to parents: abandon your expectation of complete obedience and enter into a problem-solving process that includes your teenager.
This process will model and teach healthy problems solving skills. Both sides compromise in order to arrive at an agreement; both sides give up things and both sides gain. Your teen will learn an incredibly valuable life skill.
The objective should be to come to a point where you and your teenager work together to solve problems. Obviously, the older the teenager, the more mature the relationship can be. Along the way your teenager should learn these great lessons:
1. Follow Through Creates Trust. People expect you to do what you say you are going to do and if you do not they lose trust in you and you have a more difficult time getting what you want.
2. Trust Creates a Better Relationship. The more people trust you the better the relationship will be for the both of you.
3. The Ability to Negotiate Leads to Fewer Fights. The better you are at solving problems with other people the less need there is for fighting and power struggles.
4. Lack of Trust Requires More Parental Control. If people cannot show you that they can hold up their end of a deal it is your responsibility to take steps to protect yourself. (They learn this by watching you model it)
One useful way to explain your new plan to your teenagers is to say:
It is my responsibility to make sure that you are safe and healthy. I take this responsibility very seriously because I love you. I agree that you should be given more and more freedom as you get older but you must show me that you will be responsible. I am willing to make a deal that gives you the opportunity to prove that I can trust you.
When you hold up your end of the deal, I will continue to increase your freedom. If, at any point, you fail to meet your commitment, your new freedom will be taken away and we will have to come up with a new deal that takes into consideration my injured trust in you. This is how you will learn to solve problems as an adult.
Parents, think of it like this. If you just demand strict obedience, how will your teenagers learn these skills?