Giving and Getting Respect Challenging behavior

Q: My son has set up a diary on the computer and won’t let me read it. Should I insist he let me?
A: Your son’s diary is a dialog with himself that allows him to explore his experiences, hopes, and fears. Closing the screen is his way of snapping his diary shut to stop you from looking. No one has a right to access the private thoughts of another person, only to ask they be shared. As your son’s diary is essentially his private world written out, demanding to read it could be seen as going beyond your rights.

Instead, share your worry that he may have things on his mind that you’d like to hear about and help with. If you are convinced there is something major troubling him, suggest that he tell you or someone else that he chooses. Sometimes teens find it easier to talk with a school counselor, a grandparent, or an older sibling rather than a parent. Reassure him that, no matter what is happening, you will stand by him, and that help is available.

Q: My son wants to go and hang out at the park. What’s the best way to supervise him?
A: While your teenager no longer “goes out to play” he probably wants to get involved in the more grown-up version: Hanging out with friends, often doing what appears to you to be absolutely nothing. It is up to you to decide how risky this is.

If the park is nearby, well lit and with no other problems in the area such as drinking or drug use, then this may be an ideal place for him to safely meet up with his buddies. However, if these risks are present, it is wise to talk them through with your child, explaining that you have faith in him, but don’t want him to be caught up in other people’s problems. Help work out an alternative place he and his friends can go. Perhaps you can play a part by offering to drop the group of them at a community center or basketball court, or make your home an open house once a week.

If this all seems too controlling to your son, then agree some basic rules for both of you to follow so he doesn’t feel as though you are breathing down his neck. Start by setting a curfew and some acceptable and unacceptable places for him to hang out. Agree that you will monitor him at first by coming to pick him up but won’t embarrass him, for example, by honking the car horn. If he sticks to the rules, you can gradually loosen them, if not, tighten them a little so you can rebuild trust. However, no matter how much freedom he has, a basic minimum for keeping him safe is to know where he is, who he is with, and when he’ll be home. This should be non-negotiable.

Q: I was horrified to receive a call saying that my child was caught stealing. What can I do?
A: Your first reaction may be embarrassment or disbelief, and your teenager could well feel the same. Often, stealing is done on impulse or as an act of rebellion, and she may not have considered the possible end result. Getting caught might be the best outcome for her, because it debunks the myth that shoplifting is easy and has no consequences. Your role may be a delicate balance of disapproval for the theft and support as your child faces the outcome of her action. If she is questioned or charged by the police, accompany her to all interviews and encourage her to be honest. This can be a distressing experience if she has not had contact with the police or legal system before. Ask plenty of questions yourself about what will happen, what your child’s rights are, and how best to prepare her.

If she’s not charged, you may arrange with the store that she return the goods, makes an apology, and do something to provide restitution. Examples might be making a small donation to a charity of the store’s choosing, or doing some volunteer work. These positive acts can rebuild her sense of self-esteem and restore some of your faith in her.

Q: My rebellious teenager does the opposite of everything I ask. I’m at my wits’ end!
A: Resisting your rules can be very satisfying to your daughter; not only does she get a big reaction from you, but she also gets her own way. Reduce her opportunity for rebellion by considering whether you could say “yes” to a few more of her suggestions, or at least reach a compromise. For example, you might agree to a new hair color as long as the shade or style doesn’t break school rules. This way the two of you don’t go head to head so often.

When you must stand your ground, do so with good reason. For example, you may say no to a late night party because of safety, supervision, and difficulty getting home. Explain yourself fully and negotiate an alternative, such as having her friends over to your home or going to an organized event rather than a private party.

Q: I was a wild child in my youth. How much do I disclose?
A: It is an individual decision how much of your past you tell your teenager. In general, however, it is wise to be honest and model the openness you want your child to display. This works best if you give general factual information without glorifying your wild ways or lecturing. Tell him what happened to you, a brief explanation of why you got into harmful habits, and the reason you stopped. For example, you might say, “When I was 15 I started drinking. A group of us would meet up at the park and pass a bottle around. It began because I thought I’d look weak if I didn’t join in and it wasn’t fun being around my friends when they were drunk and I wasn’t. I stopped because I got so fed up of hangovers and it ended up being boring rather than exciting.”

Disclosure of your rule-breaking can bring you closer to your teenager if he recognizes that you have some understanding of the pressures on him to fit in and engage in the same behavior as his peer group. However, he may also question why he should obey you when you didn’t listen to your own parents. An effective answer to this is to explain that you’ve learned from how you behaved, and that’s why you’ve worked hard with him to agree rules and limits that keep him safe without overprotecting him.

Q: How can I stop my teen from putting herself at risk by breaking the rules? She sneaks out late at night to visit her boyfriend.
A: Once your daughter has developed a habit of disregarding reasonable rules, it can take plenty of negotiating to get things back on track. Open up an honest discussion immediately about your concerns; there is no need to interrogate her, simply state that you believe she’s been breaking her curfew. Take the time to understand her reasons—perhaps she enjoys the excitement or feels the rules are meaningless or harsh. Try to reach a compromise so that her needs, for example, to spend time with her boyfriend, and yours, to ensure her safety, are both met. Perhaps you can allow her boyfriend to visit more often while she agrees to stick to her curfew. It won’t always be that simple, and you may need to set up a contract and a reward system so that sticking to the rules becomes worthwhile for your daughter. Negotiate and write out the most important rules, and decide upon rewards for each time they are kept. Increase this contract’s formality by both signing it. For example, agree that she will remain in her room after lights out and that you will check in on her each night. Find a reward that is meaningful to her, for example earning money to add minutes to her cell phone, credit for music downloads, or extra time with her boyfriend at the weekend. Keep monitoring the contract to see that it’s working for both of you.

Let her know that you won’t hesitate to take action, such as searching, phoning her friends and, ultimately, calling the police, if she does leave home late at night and you feel she is at risk.

Thick skin Rejecting my authority

This past year I’ve put up with a lot. My son started with a bit of defiance and built up to full-blown rants accusing me of not caring about him, ruining his life, and saying he hated me. I was even frightened he’d act out his feelings and hurt me. In the end I picked up a parenting book which said this was more common than many parents thought. Now I recognize it’s my son’s struggle to be independent, yet have to live within my rules and in my home, that starts him off. Pushing me away with words is just a way of rejecting my authority.

The rudeness is still not okay but I’ve grown a thick skin and tell myself that he loves me underneath it all. Because I react less strongly now, he seems less aggressive, too, and we’ve even had a conversation about talking to each other with respect.

Rebellion: exploring identity

You cannot stop your teenager from rebelling. Her rejection of family values and standards is part of her exploration of her own identity, a way of giving herself a clean slate so she can fully explore what is important to her as an individual. Fortunately, most teenagers do eventually return to some or all of the values you have taught them over the years.

Coping methods for this time
  • Stick to reasonable house rules. Your teenager still needs to feel the safety of clear boundaries at home, if only so she can kick against them.

  • Keep a straight face no matter what your teenager presents you with. There is nothing so encouraging to her as your shocked or horrified expression.

  • Avoid ultimatums: These act as a dare to your teenager to see what you’ll do if she doesn’t comply. Whether you want her to give up smoking, stick to her curfew, or get a job, you’ll get a better result if she has a timeframe rather than a deadline.

  • Find moments of closeness: Raising a teenager isn’t 100 percent challenge and rebellion. Sit together in quiet companionship, respond to a request for advice, share a success, or be a shoulder to cry on.

  • Recognize her strengths. Some of her most annoying characteristics are also the most helpful to her progress. Being opinionated and prepared to try new things can get her into conflict with you but help her to be assertive and grasp opportunities in her life.

  • Ride it out: Understand that this period of rebellion will come to an end.


Recognizing that your child can care for himself may be one of the hardest acts of parenthood

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