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Teens will defend their innocence forever - if you let them

It was Friday night. Mariah had been told to be home no later than 11:30.

"Yes I will. I'll be in at 11:30. I will, Mom. I really will. Don't worry."

"No later, Mariah."

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"Yes, 11:30. Okay."

Mariah arrived home at 1:15.

"Where were you? What happened? You didn't answer your cellphone. You didn't call. We were so worried."

"I couldn't help it. Connor who was my ride home's car died and I had to wait until 1 a.m. before I could get a ride from his mother, which is why I'm here now."

"You should have called."

"I couldn't call. I gave my phone to Kayla because she didn't have hers, and she had to call her mother, and then she was going to have to call her mother back again, so she had to keep the phone. But then I forgot I gave it to her, but then she gave it back, which is why I have it now."

"You could have borrowed somebody else's phone."

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"I didn't think of it. I know it sounds stupid, but it's the truth. And besides, I didn't think it was such a big deal. I didn't think you'd be freaking out."

"Of course we were worried. You were an hour and a half late and we didn't know where you were."

"If it was really serious, like I was hurt or something, someone would have called you – like the police or something."

If teenagers are caught in flat-out disobedience – where they have absolutely, unequivocally disobeyed, and know that you know that they knowingly disobeyed – and further, know that you will not believe anything they say to the contrary – they do not simply fold up their tent and concede.

They do not say, "I guess you got me on that one, huh?"

Far from it. They bring in their lawyer. And in the court of parental authority, where you are the judge, they have a very good lawyer.

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"But Mom, you have to believe me. I was stuck waiting for an hour and a half. You think I liked it – knowing you were going to be totally pissed, which you obviously are."

"You could have called from someone else's phone."

"I didn't think of it. I just didn't."

"That is very hard to believe, Mariah."

Not only do they keep the arguments coming, but they will turn it back on you. You become the defendant.

"Well, it's what happened. You don't believe me? My own mother doesn't believe me."

Why can't they ever own up to flat-out disobedience? Because teenagers are not comfortable seeing themselves cast in the role of true rebels.

They may defy their parents' wishes, but to admit to it openly, to officially defy parental authority potentially puts the teen in the role of outcast. There is a sense of safety that the vast majority of teenagers are unwilling to do without. Operating outside the law – and hence its protection – is something that teenagers are not comfortable with. Hence they go on defending their innocence forever – if you let them.

What to do? Listen to what they have to say – to a point. If you believe them, that's great. But if you don't, you need to curtail the proceedings earlier rather than later. Trying to get to the bottom of the situation usually leads to a trial with no end.

If you don't believe them, then you have to act accordingly – with whatever consequences you may or may not choose. This is difficult because in many instances you cannot be absolutely sure of the facts – but such is the nature of parenting a teenager. This is one reason why severe consequences can be problematic. You don't want to mete out a heavy sentence unless you can be certain of their guilt, which is not always easy to determine.

But when you confront teenagers with their own disobedience, after a certain early point you have to withdraw from the argument. Otherwise you risk an argument without end.

Better might be something like:

"Mariah, you were told to be in by 11:30. You got in after 1. We were really worried. We expect you to call if anything happens. That is not okay."

"But I told you. Stephen's car died and Kayla had my cell phone."

"What happened was not okay."

"Mom. You're not even listening!"

Which – past a certain point – is exactly the way to go.

Psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of several parenting books.

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