For some reason, parents who have survived the skirmishes of toilet training, toddler tantrums, and bedtime battles lose their backbone when faced with a sulky or defiant teen. Parents of middle schoolers express helplessness when it comes to dealing with cell phones, sassiness, social media, and chores. The authoritarian parenting days are gone (think Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins), but parents should still be bosses in some critical areas, even if it means being on the receiving end of angry outbursts. I’ll tackle the first two topics in this blog and continue with the others in the next.
1. Cell Phones Teens with smartphones have access to the whole world, yet many parents have no idea of what they’re seeing or whom they’re chatting with. Parents say, “She’s always on that thing, and I don’t even know how it works” or “I can’t get him to put it down long enough to have a conversation.” They worry about invading their child’s privacy, and they don’t feel they have the right to insist on a No Phone Zone. I like to ask parents if they would let their teens entertain strangers behind closed bedroom doors, then I point out that allowing them unmonitored access on their phones is no different. Too much privacy for teenagers is not a good thing.
Setting ground rules before handing over a phone is a must–some parents even use a contract (click here for a sample). At the very least, let your teen know that you will randomly pick up the phone and look through it. That knowledge alone will prevent some bad choices. And don’t be afraid to take away the phone for a few days when you’re not happy with how it’s being used, or for other disciplinary reasons. As I’ve said before, no teen has actually died from being grounded from phone use, and being kept away from their friends and social media is a consequence they’d rather avoid.
2. Backtalk If you’ve ever said, “I wasn’t allowed to talk to my parents the way my kids talk to me,” it’s time to make some changes. You deserve to be respected, but respect isn’t something you can demand. Begin by checking your tone of voice when talking to your kids. If phrases like “Who do you think you are?” or “You’d just better watch yourself,” spoken in harsh or sarcastic tones, are part of your repertoire, you aren’t modeling the respect you expect to receive. Lower your voice, add please and thank you to your requests, and keep your tone as neutral as possible. Then expect the same.
When your teen is being hostile, don’t engage in a battle of words and defensiveness. If I’m facing a disrespectful student, I hold up one finger and say, “Not feeling very respected right now. Care to try again?” When my sons had snarky attitudes, I would gaze patiently–but silently–at them until their tone changed. If it didn’t, I’d tell them we’d talk later. If it did, I didn’t shoot myself in the foot by mentioning it (as in, “Oh, I see you can be nice when you want something”), I just let the conversation continue in civil tones.
Teens are masters at the art of deflection. A question: “Why do I have to do all the chores?” or complaint: “You never let me do what I want to do!” can derail a parent from the original request and set up a scenario of defensiveness and arguing that quickly escalates into anger and hurt feelings on both sides. It’s better if you don’t engage in the battle. In fact, if you can smile, shrug, and say something infuriatingly calm like, “It’s my job to drive you crazy” or “You’re right,” your teen may just huff off in frustration and do whatever was asked. Complaints and questions aren’t always genuine; often they’re just a way of expressing displeasure. Ignore the huffing and do some deflecting of your own, and there will be far fewer battles.
You are the parent, and your job description includes times where you have to make your teen unhappy. Be calm, be respectful, be firm–but whatver you do, don’t be helpless!