Help with Unruly Teens
The teenage years are naturally tumultuous and difficult on both teens and parents. When our oldest of four children was 13 (and acting like a teenager), my wife said, “What have we gotten ourselves into?” Generally Heavenly Father gives us enough time to have all our children before we experience the chaos of the teenage years. We innocently have all these sweet little babies, and never imagine that they can turn into difficult, unruly teenagers. If you are struggling with teenage behavior, here are some resources that can help. First, ask yourself, “Just how difficult is my teenager?”
Case 1: Your child is sometimes rude, selfish, inconsiderate, mouthy, messy, lazy, hateful and self-centered, BUT he is generally doing the important things (engaged in church, applying himself in school, and generally living the Gospel).
Congratulations, you have a typical, good teenager. In such cases, you will probably find that other parents have much better things to say about your child’s behavior than you would. Such teens can be extraordinarily helpful when away from home, but will never clean their room or do their chores. Teens generally behave better with other families than with their own. This is to be expected. There are several good books that would help you deal with such a teen.
– Parenting with Love by Glenn Latham. This book is a quick read, explains the basic principles of child behavior, and teaches basic parenting skills that really work. For example, parents of teenagers should avoid criticizing them and focus more on the positive behaviors and characteristics of the child. (Seems simple, but it makes an incredible difference.)
– Teenagers and Parents by Roger McIntire. This book covers 10 areas to improve your relationship with your teen and their behavior. The suggestions are practical and cover a broad range of topics. (If you are thinking you need to get tough, note that anything you do to destroy your relationship with your teen is likely to also produce problem teen behavior.)
– The Power of Positive Parenting by Glenn Latham. This is the “users manual” that kids should come with. It covers all aspects of parenting, and you can just skip over the chapter on potty training. Be sure to read the first few chapters on child behavior before jumping to the ones specifically on teenagers.
– Christlike Parenting by Glenn Latham. This book compares what it means to be Christlike and how to apply that to parenting. It has much of the same parenting advice as “Parenting with Love” but gives more focus to teenagers and problem teen behavior.
Case 2: Your teen is really a prodigal son or daughter. Your teen is probably involved with drugs or sex, and may completely ignore your house rules, BUT your teen is still progressing in school, even though he/she may not be working up to his/her potential.
The book for you is out of print, but used copies are available on the internet. The book is ”What’s a Parent to Do?” by Glenn Latham. This book was specifically written to faithful LDS parents with a wayward teen. (Christlike Parenting is a rewrite of this book for the general Christian audience). Personally, this book gave me great solace and parenting advice when I was dealing with my prodigal child. Bro. Latham’s personal experience is that when the principles of this book are applied by the parents that 95% of prodigal children will one day come back to the family value system. 95%! That is really putting the odds in your favor. This book was my first introduction to Bro. Latham. A quorum member gave it to me at a time when I really did not know what to do. We were making plans to send our child way, but on Bro. Latham’s advice, we did not. Bro. Latham said that if we kept our child at home, communicated and lived our family value system, interacted positively and non-coercively, and got on with our lives in a happy, hopeful way, that we would have a 95% chance of reclaiming our prodigal child. He also said that by keeping our child at home, our child would be more likely to identify with the family and the family value system, and he would learn the self-sufficiency and parenting skills that he would one day need.
Case 3: Your teen is out of control, AND not progressing in life. Your teen may be addicted to drugs. Lives in your home may be threatened.
In such a case, you need to seek professional assistance and residential treatment. I do not have any specific recommendations in this area. Regardless of whether you do or do not get residential treatment for your child, you still need to read, “What’s a Parent to Do?” Simply kicking a child out of the house and hoping he learns his lesson is a bad bet. But, you do not want to shelter your child from the natural consequences of their behavior. In such a case, it is these consequences that are the real teacher, and our hope and prayers are that our child will not receive permanent harm from the poor exercise of their agency.
Personal Professional Help: As a parenting coach, it is my mission to help parents (and especially LDS parents) deal with difficult children of all ages. I help parents apply the principles taught in the books referenced above. These principles are easy to read, but they can be difficult to apply. When we are used to reacting (and acting) one way, and we decide we want to do something different, it is challenging to everyone. This requires learning a new skill. Learning skills take practice and applying these skills to personal situations is often confusing. A parenting coach can help you plan how to react to your unruly teen in a positive, proactive way that will have a good chance of improving your child’s behavior and your relationship. I do charge for this service, when parents can afford to pay. Over the past few years, I have about equal numbers of paying and non-paying clients.
Simple and Effective Strategies: Here are a few things you can do right away, that will make a difference.
- Stand up and smile. Parents who are fretting over a teen develop a depressed countenance, slouch, and frown. So, stand up and put a pleasant smile on your face. It will make a difference.
- Avoid criticizing your child. Parents who are struggling with a teen regularly tell the teen the things he is doing wrong (and usually do it over and over and over again). If your teen knows you don’t approve of something, then you don’t need to say it again. Repeated criticism only makes things worse. As Thumper said in the movie Bambi, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”
- Say something nice. Acknowledge the appropriate things your child does casually and briefly. Make it short, sweet, and honest; and make sure you do it at least once per day. If the teen comes home late, you can still say, “I’m glad you are home safe and sound. I’ve been worried.”
- Make sure your money and resources (car, home, TV, etc.) are used consistent with your family value system. Your daughter may want a totally inappropriate prom dress. In such a case, you should not spend family money on a dress that is inconsistent with your family values. You simply say, “I am willing to buy a modest dress. If you want a different dress, you are free to buy what you want.”
- Don’t pick a fight. Avoid name-calling and ultimatums. I recently talked with a mom who had a blow-up with her daughter over the mom throwing away inappropriate clothes. There were two problems here. The mom did it in front of her daughter, and mom picked a fight with her daughter by telling her daughter she was tired of her skanky clothes. Mom was naturally frustrated with her daughter’s clothes, but if she wanted to get rid of the skanky clothes, she should have told her daughter, in advance, only modest clothing was permitted in their home, and the daughter needsed to get rid of clothing that was not modest. If the daughter did not do so, then mother would get rid of the clothes at a later date, without the daughter being there. (I favor the policy of a close friends who let their children know that such clothing would be discarded if it were left out or was found in the family laundry.) Another way of picking a fight would be to greet a returning teen with, “Smells like you have been with those scummy friends of yours again.” Please don’t pick a fight.
- Stay calm and avoid arguing. When a parent gets upset and argues with a teen, the teen is likely to become enraged and behave in more inappropriate ways. Nothing good comes from arguing. Simply state your decision, opinion, or expectation, and move on. Arguing only makes things worse.
- Let your love be unconditional. Even though you do not approve of your child’s behavior (and your approval should be conditional), your love should be constant and unconditional. This is an opportunity to become more like our Savior, who told us, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;” (Matt 5:44). This seems specifically applicable to parents of an unruly teen.
Parenting an unruly teen is generally difficult and painful. But take heart. The vast majority of unruly teens successfully make it through these difficult years and mature into responsible adults. And remember, even though it is enormously painful for you as a parent, it is also extremely painful for your teen. Though you suffer, let your heart and prayers go out for your teen, who is also suffering more than you know.