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.