This article was originally published on goodtherapy.org during March 2011
The subject of consequences comes up frequently in my work with teens and families. The fact that many parents of teens struggle with this area should come as no surprise. Up until adolescence, consequences are pretty straightforward and effective – if your little one wants this you distract with that, if she throws a tantrum you give choices and/or use a quick time out. For good measure we’ll throw in a simple set of rewards and consequences for chores and behavior. Such is the journey that leaves one completely unprepared to parent adolescents.
What make adolescence so difficult? Without getting into the whole thing too much, it boils down to teens realizing that they have the ability to resist authority and the desire to take charge of their lives. Oh….and they’re smarter now.
Adolescence requires that you throw your parenting style into reverse. Instead of taking control and protecting, a much more difficult skill set (letting go) is often times called for. Allowing a teen to experience failure and the full impact of their behavior can be a most effective way to teach a life lesson. It removes you from the power struggle and leaves the teen with little choice but to analyze the logic and behaviors that led to the outcome.
I’ve worked with teens who would effectively adapt to being stripped of every privilege and comfort without giving an inch while their parents ran in circles to make sure grades and all other areas of their teens life remained on track.
Some parents would clench their teeth just thinking about the disaster, anarchy, plagues etc that would ensue if they decided to hand the reins of their teens life over to …well…their teens. But this approach does not translate into “hands off” parenting by any means. In fact, your involvement will probably increase. Your role, however, becomes very different. Instead of director, you take on the duties of counselor, guide, adviser and sounding board. The key to each of these is your ability to hold off on lectures and instead listen, put yourself in your teen’s shoes and communicate back from that perspective. This doesn’t mean your agree with what they did or intend to do. It does mean integrating your teens ideas and wants into your responses and/or guidance so they at least feel heard and understood.
Many times, when serious issues are present parents are reluctant to allow natural consequences, fearing it will become a game of chicken. Often, the reason it gets to this point is that the teen truly does not believe the parent would just allow the natural consequence to take place. In my experience, there have been many situations in which parents protect their teens from the wrath of school or the legal system. They then replace the consequences that would have naturally followed (those that have the greatest potential of initiating change) with ineffective consequences the teen can either adapt to or figure a way to get around.
The problem with this approach is that it only puts the natural consequence off temporarily and the issue remains unresolved as does the conflict typically associated with it. When this happens, many times the behavior remains unchanged and the transition to young adulthood becomes a harsh wake up call. The adult legal system isn’t as warm and fuzzy as the Juvenile Justice System and the outside world isn’t as forgiving as mom or dad.
Of course most teens aren’t on a collision course with the worst case scenario but supporting and allowing your teen to take ownership of making decisions (along with the responsibilities this carries) can be an effective way of preparing them for adulthood while making your relationship with him closer.