Why Couldn’t I Be An Only Child!?

One day while I was out running errands, my youngest son called me to complain about being treated badly by his two older brothers. Since we live in a tri-level house, I instructed them to each pick one level and stay there until I got home. I got the usual questions designed to annoy me:

“What if I have to go to the bathroom and he won’t let me upstairs?”

“Hold it.”

“What if I get hungry and he won’t let me in the kitchen?”

“Starve.”

I refused to be baited. By the time I got home, tempers had eased and they were friends again, playing video games together on one TV.

Sibling conflicts take on a whole new dimension when one (or more) of them hits puberty. Already an unpredictable bundle of emotions, teens are hypersensitive to teasing and criticism – and their siblings are more than willing to dish out a steady diet of both, regardless of whether they’re older or younger.

A wise parent will manage not to take sides while defusing the heat of the battle. Usually a physical separation is in order, probably to their own rooms.

Your goal should be to help them learn to get along so one day they can be friends. This is why I vetoed my husband’s idea of making the older brother do the younger brother’s chores as punishment for picking on him. Picture it: with every dish he washed, the perpetrator would seethe with resentment and plot his revenge – which sort of defeats the purpose.

It’s part of a parent’s job to civilize the children. But you can’t make any headway when everybody’s mad at everybody else. Send them to their corners to calm down. Once everyone is breathing normally and thinking rationally (or as rationally as adolescence allows), talk to each one individually. This is key, because otherwise they’ll be gauging who’s getting in the most trouble. With each one, have a discussion about why they were so angry, and how they handled their anger inappropriately (name-calling, bad language, assault). Validate their right to be frustrated when their feelings get hurt or they’re deliberately harassed, but teach them a better way to handle their anger.

Tell them they need to stay where they are until they can be pleasant, or until they sincerely apologize. If they choose to stay isolated for a couple hours, let them, unless it’s time for dinner or chores. If they do find their way back together again, do not shoot yourself in the foot by saying, “Well, I see you two decided to make up!” Just play it cool, pretend like you don’t notice, and be grateful for the peace agreement.

After all, you know it isn’t going to last. . .

He Said What?!?

The other night a parent contacted me, upset because her son had allegedly said some mean things on Formspring.me about a girl at school.  She was asking advice on how to handle the situation.  If you haven’t heard of Formspring.me yet, you will soon.  It’s a site where you sign up and offer to answer anything asked by anonymous questioners (invitations are being posted on Facebook, among other places).  Sound frightening?  That’s because you’re an adult and know the dangers of anything that can remain anonymous.  To a teen this is a thrilling opportunity to have some fun.

But what do you do if you discover your teen has been saying mean things on the internet?

First of all, try to get some written proof.  Anything that can be seen on a screen can be copied and pasted into a document and printed.  Once you’re convinced the words came from your teen, confront him as if it were a done deal.  One important piece of advice: don’t ask pointless questions!    One of the biggest wastes of parental breath is the phrase “What were you thinking?”  Like there’s even a good answer to that question!  Also avoid, “Did you think I wouldn’t find out?”  Obviously.  “Did you think this was funny?”  It doesn’t even matter now, does it?  Skip the questions, get right to the consequences, as in:

“I’m really disappointed that you would do something like this.  You know there will be consequences.  Do you have any suggestions for what would be appropriate?”  Depending on your relationship with your teen, you might get an answer like “Ground me?”  From there you can negotiate an appropriate consequence, like No Screens for One Week or You’re Not Attending That Party This Weekend.  If you don’t get a helpful suggestion, simply issue the (reasonable) consequence, much like Mr. Calm Police Officer would hand you your speeding ticket.  No ranting, no yelling, no swearing – just hand out the consequence.  Your teen knows he’s done wrong; you don’t have to make him admit it.

At this point, resist the urge to lecture.  Save that for later, when you’ll have a less embarrassed and hostile teen on your hands.  In the next day or so you can make some brief comments about the cowardice of those who hide in anonymity, and the importance of only saying online what you would say to someone in person.  You can express again your disappointment that he stooped to such low behavior.  But use as few words as possible; if you “go off” on your teen, pretty soon you’ll be the only one listening.  Then you’ll have to deal with the issue of him not listening to you!

Parents often ask me, “But what about apologizing?”  I do believe in apologies, but not when they’re forced (“Say you’re sorry!  Say it right now!”).  Though sincere, face-to-face apologies are best, written apologies are a good second.  Just allow them to come from the heart, and not as a result of a parental demand.