With the new year, many parents of teenagers resolve to be calmer, wiser and more empathetic. Like many resolutions, these are hard to pull off. And my top three vows, I won’t kid you, are quite difficult. But if you manage to achieve them, they really are effective.
Resolution No. 1: I will significantly restrain my urge to nag. For instance, when I enter a room where Jasmine is sitting, I won’t immediately say something like, “Did you remember to go through your closet and set out the shoes you don’t wear any more, so we can give them to charity?”
Why it’s important: If you are always reminding, cajoling or pestering your teen (and it is very, very hard not to always do this), they’ll immediately cringe and get defensive. And once they put up that wall, it will block any chance of you and your teen having real communication.
Why it’s so hard: Simply walking toward your child seems to trigger a parental switch to supervisory mode – a switch so swift and so automatic that the words are out of your mouth before you can think.
What to do instead: Try just being with them – you and them in the same place with no purpose. Picture what it would be like if instead of saying, “Did you remember to …” you simply said “Hi.” You might want to make a point of doing this at least half the times you run into them.
Resolution No. 2: Don’t try to correct every flaw. An example of less than desirable behaviour does not require an impromptu remedial lecture on how bad it is and how necessary it is that they change.
Let say Joachim put his feet on the coffee table.
“Joachim, don’t you have any consideration for other people? People put snacks on that table. Do you think they want your feet to have been there? Don’t you ever think about other people?”
Why it’s important: This type of reproach contributes to what I call the In One Ear And Out The Other Syndrome. They may not actually say it out loud, but they’re certainly saying to themselves, “Blah, blah, blah.” Your words have zero effect. You get frustrated. You try harder. They get nasty. The whole thing becomes an unpleasant mess.
Why it’s so hard: Most parents automatically envision the end result of bad behaviour. They fear that if it goes uncorrected, their child will become a wretchedly inconsiderate adult, which will mean that they’ll have failed as parents.
What to do instead: Realize that at this stage you cannot change who your teenager is. But often you don’t need to. Much of what you have taught is already a part of them. It’s just that most of the good traits – which are in there – don’t reappear until they are older, more mature. It’s the miracle that comes with young adulthood.
You can make a comment if you wish, and deal with the behaviour, but then drop it. Don’t get caught up in the lesson. That will lead only to frustration – on both sides.
Resolution No. 3: Remember, your teens don’t need to agree with you. If you’re taking a stand they don’t like, don’t try to get them to understand your rationale.
“No Evan, you cannot go to the rock concert. It is just too late to stay out for a school night.”
“But Mom, that is so crazy. Kids my age don’t need a lot of sleep and besides, I have nothing important in school tomorrow. In fact, I’ll pay better attention, because I’ll be happier because I went to the concert. Mom, this makes no sense and is completely unfair.”
Why it’s important: This is the No. 1 cause of protracted unpleasantness between a parent and teen. You cannot convince them.
“Oh, now that you’ve explained it to me, I get it.” (This has never happened. Ever.)
What happens is they will continue to debate, and get angrier and angrier – as will you.
Why it’s so hard: You want to be reasonable in dealing with your teenager. You want your child to understand so they won’t be mad at you. But this is futile, because they will be mad unless you totally reverse your decision.
What to do instead: Realize that if you make an unpopular decision, you will be unpopular. (Unless you change your mind, in which case you will be popular.) But trying to get them to see your point is only pouring fuel on the fire.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books.