Raising teens: When because I said so no longer cuts the mustard
Raising teens

If you are a parent of teenagers you may have noticed something: By around the age of 13 or 14, we lose our ‘power’ to control them like we did when they were younger.

During middle childhood, we can dictate all kinds of things to our kids and they generally go along with it (albeit reluctantly sometimes). But our teens want to make their own decisions – they want autonomy. They argue and fight for the right to choose their music, their clothing, their entertainment, their friends, their bed times, how they spend their money, the school work they do (or don’t do), and so on.

While some of these things don’t matter so much – they’re really just about preferences – there are other things that matter a great deal. It is generally when their behaviours conflict with our values that things become really challenging. Sometimes it may be about school or about alcohol or other drugs or boyfriends, girlfriends and sex.

Control kills the relationship

Can we be controlling with our teens?

Of course.

But both research and experience show that using control strategies that may have worked when our children were younger backfires when we try to assert that same power over our teenagers.

Researchers have shown us that control strategies (like threats, punishments, and even bribes and rewards) make our kids work against us to get what they want. Or they hide their true feelings. Or they still do what they want, but they just get sneakier about it.

We need to guide our children without being a dictator, without getting them offside, and without letting them get away with everything.

Three strategies for proactive parenting

Proactive parenting means that we find ways to teach our children how to act in good ways BEFORE they do the wrong thing. This is in comparison to reactive parenting, which is when we teach them how to act in good ways AFTER they’ve done the wrong thing.

We use proactive parenting to teach our values and the kinds of behaviours we would like our children to practise BEFORE they go and do something we disapprove of.

Here are three research-proven proactive parenting strategies:

1. Cocooning

Cocooning occurs when we restrict their access to situations where they might act in a way that conflicts with our values. This can be a controlling strategy and works best for tweens and early teens. As an example, we might shield our children from media or movies to reduce exposure to swearing, violence, sex and drug use. Or we shield them from alcohol and drugs by ensuring they’re not exposed to them in the home or at friends’ homes.

Once our children are teens, we are best to use “reasoned cocooning”. Reasoned cocooning occurs when we explain our values to our children and that we feel it would be best if they stay away from certain situations. We might explain to our young teen that we would prefer they don’t go to a movie because of its content or stay away from a certain party because of the activities that will be occurring there.

Research shows that reasoned cocooning works surprisingly well among children up to around the age of 13 to 14 years. After that age, however, we need to move to other proactive strategies.

2. Pre-arming

Our children will face situations where they may be exposed to things that run counter to our values and ‘pre-arming’ means we arm them with strategies to respond to those challenges.

We pre-arm our children by talking with them about what they’ll encounter and discussing why it may be wrong. If they want to attend a party we may ask them about whether alcohol will be there and what they plan to do about it. We might offer suggestions to help them deal with pressure to behave in a way that is consistent with the values we have taught.

Most parents pre-arm their children naturally. We express our annoyance at the way women are portrayed in the magazines and point out why it’s wrong. We talk about the way our politicians bully one another and discuss how there are better ways to treat people. We talk about peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, and what we hope our children will do in difficult situations. These are basic pre-arming conversations, and they help our children identify value-incongruent circumstances and respond in positive ways.

Once again, pre-arming works to a point, but sometimes our kids still feel that this is a somewhat controlling parenting strategy – especially once they get to around age 14.

3. Deference

As our teens grow and become increasingly independent, research suggests that the most effective form of pro-active parenting (where we can have the greatest influence) is using deference. This means that when they want to do something that makes us gulp a little, we say, “What do you think?”.

If trust is particularly high, we may even say, “I trust you. I think you’re capable of deciding this for yourself without my input.”

Research shows that deference is a powerful form of autonomy support, and that it works best when cocooning and pre-arming have laid a foundation for values to be internalised.

Perhaps the most powerful form of deference is reasoned deference. This is where adolescents are allowed to make their own decisions but with parental input and discussion. Research tells us that this form of proactive parenting is most effective at getting teens to internalise the values that will keep them safe and on track.

For example, when our teenager wants to attend a party where we know alcohol will be consumed by under 18′s, we might mention what we are aware of and have a conversation about how they’ll deal with it and what risks they face. Then we might say, “We prefer that you don’t go. We trust you to do the right thing either way. We’ll leave this one up to you.”

Research indicates that in such situations our teens are more likely to internalise our values because of the way we communicate with them. They are also more likely to behave in a manner that is congruent with those values. In fact, this research indicates that reasoned deference promotes positive value-congruent behaviour in the areas of drugs/alcohol, being pro-social, doing well at school and choosing good friends.

While it is true that our children want to be independent, have their own space and make their own decisions as they move through adolescence, they still need our guidance. Communication is vital, but the communication has to be less about control and more about reasoned discussion that supports autonomy.

There are times when we need to step in and take control.

When that is depends on you, your child and the situation. But even when we step in, the more we can communicate and reason, the better it will be. Our ongoing commitment to communicate seems to be the glue that bonds our values to our children’s behaviours.

This article was written by Dr Justin Coulson for Kidspot.com.au and has been adapted for Kidspot.co.nz

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