Don’t Slam That (bang!). . .Never Mind.

A friend called me, upset almost to the point of tears.  She and her 16-year-old had fought because she wouldn’t let him go to a party at a house where she didn’t know the parents.  “He went to his room, slammed the door, and turned on some loud music.  I opened his door and told him he was grounded from computer and X-Box, and he swore at me!”  When I asked her why she’d grounded him, her reply was, “Well, he can’t treat me like that!”

This is a scenario all parents dread, and many will have to face some day.  What do you do with an angry teen who spouts disrespect at you?  Often the situation just deteriorates until both parent and teen are yelling words in anger that they later regret when everyone calms down.

Let’s rewind the tape.  First of all, she shouldn’t have been surprised when her son got mad at being denied the party.  Did she think he would say, “Okay, Mom, I understand”?  What he did next was a natural reaction and may have been a wise choice: he removed himself before he said anything inappropriate.  While slamming the door and playing loud music irritated his mom, both were expressions of anger that didn’t hurt anyone.  Had she left him in his room and gone off to deal with her own anger, things would have ended better, and she could have addressed the unacceptability of slamming doors at a later time.

In this alternate reality, she might tap on the door an hour or so later and use a little empathy:  “Hey, I know you’re disappointed about missing that party.  Can I cheer you up by buying you dinner at McDonald’s?”  If she is met with a sullen response and an insistence that the only thing that would make him happy is going to the party, she could say, “Okay, I get it.  But if you change your mind, just let me know.”  Later he might wander out to where she is and mumble, “I’m kinda hungry.  McDonald’s might be okay.”  At which point she could say brightly, “Great!  Let me just get my purse and we’re out of here.”  Neither the party nor the door-slamming incident would be mentioned during dinner, and an uneasy peace could reign.

At another time, maybe the next day or so, she could bring up the slammed door.  She could say that while she understood how angry he was, slammed doors – and violent responses in general – were not acceptable.  He is welcome to go into his room and play his loud music, but he cannot slam the door on his way.  She might casually mention that she’s heard of parents removing the doors of their teen-agers’ bedrooms and then say, “Tell you what – let’s make an agreement.  I’ll let you keep your door if you promise not to slam it.”  Odds are good he’ll agree.

I’ll leave you to ponder this:  You’re an adult dealing with an emotionally immature, hormonally-charged adolescent.  Which one of you should be able to control your feelings and use a little diplomacy?  You can do this; it just takes practice.

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You’re Not Your Mom (or Dad)

Whenever I teach a parenting workshop, I invariably hear complaints like “I never would have spoken to my mom the way my kids speak to me!”  Or “My dad would’ve mentioned his belt, and that would have been the end of it!” Or “My parents’ word was law; how come I can’t have that with my own kids?”

We could place the blame on a number of things – technology, media, broken families – but the simplest answer is that the culture has changed.  In general, we show less respect to others than we used to.  It used to be that men stood up whenever women entered the room, and children weren’t allowed to interrupt their parents.  Until recently, men didn’t wear hats inside buildings, and teens didn’t use the phone during dinner.  Think about road rage, sports fans’ behavior, and judges on reality TV shows, and you realize how widespread the culture of disrespect is.

However, this does not mean you have to tolerate disrespect from the teen-agers in your life.  I have two pieces of advice for you:

  1. Don’t show disrespect, and
  2. Don’t allow it.

I addressed the first issue in https://mrsacuna.wordpress.com/2010/03/23/r-e-s-p-e-c-t/.  You might want to spend a few minutes in self-evaluation:  Do you show respect to your teen?  Respect has to be mutual, and it has to begin with you.

The second issue is not as hard as it sounds.  Neither my children nor my students are allowed to speak disrespectfully to me.  When they try, I simply say in a calm and (maddeningly) reasonable voice, “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel very respected by you when you use that tone of voice (or those words).  Please start over more respectfully, and then I can listen to you.”   If they repeat themselves in a nicer tone, I pretend it’s the first time I’ve heard it and respond appropriately, without any sarcasm or chastising.  If they repeat themselves in the same tone (or a nastier one), I either say what I said before or change to, “I’m sorry, but this doesn’t seem like a good time to talk.  Come find me when you can speak in a nicer tone.”  I then walk away.

At this point, if they change their tone, I do an about-face and listen.  If they get huffy or say something else inappropriate, I just keep walking.

Now here’s the tough part:  by this time I’m annoyed, so if they find me a few minutes later and are willing to back down, it can be really hard to listen patiently and not spout off words showing my frustration.  I listen nicely anyway, because I won’t gain anything by launching into a lecture or by deciding it’s my turn to be snotty.  I bite my tongue, plaster on a pleasant look, and reward their behavior by responding respectfully.

Sound too easy?  Give it a whirl and then check back in a couple of days, when we’ll discuss what to do about swearing, stomping off, and door slamming.  (By the teens, I mean.)

A Teacher Prayer

(After I wrote this for devotions for my faculty, I decided it just might be worth sharing as a blog. . .)

Lord, thank you for calling me to be the teacher of this class with these particular students.  Forgive me for the times I fail to see the needs of their hearts in the busy-ness of all I have to do every day.  Help me to remember that my first, instinctive response might not be the best one, and show me how to love them like You do:

  • When faced with an obnoxious student, help me to remember more attention is needed, not less;
  • When worried about an overly quiet student, help me to step inside the circle rather than keeping my distance;
  • When challenged by a hostile student, help me to look for opportunities to give more approval instead of disapproval;
  • When annoyed by a dramatic student, help me to be the voice of stability in an overly emotional ear;
  • When frustrated with a perfectionist, help me to show that it’s okay not to be perfect;
  • When waiting for a slow student, help me to have extra patience, not impatience;
  • When concerned about a tearful student, help me to speak words of understanding, not disdain;
  • And when blessed with students who don’t know You, may I be Christ to each and every one of them.

Lord, may I always realize my first responsibility is simply to love your children as You have always loved me.

Amen.

Doing the Dance

I had a student once named Ryan, who’d been diagnosed with “Firecracker ADD,” which meant he had a short fuse and a strong stubborn streak.  Since I am not a morning person and neither was he, we were most likely to clash before 10:00.  I spent a lot of time avoiding engaging him in battle, a feat I referred to as “doing the dance.”

But one morning he arrived in pajama pants, a blatant violation of the school dress code.  He walked into class and looked directly at me, daring me to challenge him.  The classroom grew quiet as other students waited to see what I would do.   I smiled, raised one eyebrow, and asked, “Aren’t those pajama pants?”  “Yeah,” was his surly reply, “they’re no different than the warm-ups I wore yesterday.”

Up to this point Ryan and I had had a good relationship – tenuous at times when we were both in bad moods, but overall we got along well.  This was a critical moment.  Whatever I said next would pretty much set the tone for the rest of the day, possibly the rest of the year.

Parents of teens will face many such critical moments.  Their first reaction may be to “show him who’s boss,” an attitude which will lead to a power struggle where no one will win.  “Doing the dance” means not getting caught up in the power struggle. This means not using threats, coercion, physical contact, shouting, or bad language to force your teen to do what you require.  Using any of those tactics will actually hand the power over to the teen, because he has made you “lose it.”

Before incidents like this arise, parents need to think about what is most important.  In the long run, the most important thing is keeping the relationship between parent and child intact.  Severe punishments will damage that relationship, resulting in anger and resentment and probably not much change in the teen’s behavior or attitude.  At least – not a change for the better.  It’s certainly important to set rules and standards and expect your teen to live up to them.  But there are better ways to get that to happen than by angry outbursts.  Rule number one is STAY CALM. This really will give you the upper hand!

On that fateful morning with Ryan, I kept an amused look on my face and invited him to please step into my “office” (the hallway).  Without waiting to see if he would follow, I headed out there, because talking to a teen one-on-one is more productive than talking in front of peers or siblings.  When he joined me, I said calmly, “You know I can’t let you wear those in class.”  Predictably, he asked, “What can you do about it?  I don’t have anything else to put on!”  Shrugging, I told him he had only two choices:  find something else to wear or wait in the office until he could be picked up.  I held his gaze as he clenched his fists and huffed in frustration, but I didn’t say anything more.  “There’s no reason I can’t wear these!” he said loudly.  I repeated myself in the same tone of voice, “You have two choices: You can change your clothes or you can go home.”

He glared at me for a few more seconds, then spat out, “Fine!  I’ll go change!”  A pair of jeans mysteriously appeared from his backpack and he went down the hall to the bathroom.  Heart pounding, palms sweating, I returned to the classroom, taking deep breaths to try to feel as calm as I hoped I appeared.

Ryan’s out of high school now, married and raising a little daughter of his own.  We keep in touch, and I get a hug every time I see him.  Had I handled him differently, that wouldn’t be the case.  The next time you’re faced with a hostile, angry teen, take a few deep breaths – and prepare to do the dance.