How can I stick to the rules with my teenager?

A young woman holding a card and looking outragedQ: One of the difficulties I have with my 14-year-old daughter is sticking to what I say. For example, my daughter did something that I was clear about her not being allowed to do. So I told her she was grounded for the week. After two days of being grounded she said she was sorry and learned her lesson (there just happened to be a party she wanted to go to the next day). She then went on to explain why I should allow her to get off being grounded – and, to tell the truth, it was really logical. So after an internal struggle I said okay. I am proud of her and who she is developing into, but as it is my job to teach her and I’m a single parent, I just wonder what happens next time? Should I have stood my ground? Sometimes I feel like she can just wear me down and I cave in. Also, it would be great to get some guidance, words or directions on how to communicate to teens in a way they understand, like how do you reason with them? I don’t want to control her, but I want her to understand why I say some of the things I do, and saying she will understand when she gets older isn’t working for either of us.

A: Your question raises some of the particular challenges of parenting children when they become teenagers. The early teenage years are often marked by a push for independence and increased conflict with their parents over rules and boundaries. In addition, teenagers can become more sophisticated in how they argue and negotiate and frequently they make valid arguments to their parents that cause them to rethink their position.

As a result it is easy to become confused as a parent as to how to respond. On the one hand, you want to encourage your teen’s good negotiation and recognise their legitimate need for more freedom but, on the other hand, you don’t want to give in or feel undermined or bullied by your teenager.

In moving forward the first step is to become clear in your own mind as to what is negotiable and what is non-negotiable with your teenager. Or put another way, what are the core rules that you need to hold as a parent in order to facilitate your teenager growing up well and to maintain harmony in the home? Usually, I suggest to parents to keep these core rules to a minimum centred on important things such as safety, health, education and respect.

If any rule does not come under any of these areas, then it is largely negotiable or up to the teen to decide for themselves. Indeed you want to encourage teens to negotiate and to be able to make their own decisions – these are key life skills you want to help them learn. The key rule to enforce with teenagers is respect. You want them to learn to negotiate their point respectfully.

How they communicate is often as important as what they are communicating. It is okay for them to push for freedom and to question rules, but it is not okay for them to over-argue, badger or bully you.

In your own example, when your daughter was negotiating about going out again, if you felt she was being reasonable and respectful, then it is perfectly okay for you to relax the rule and give her another chance. Indeed, you can point out to her that you are trusting her with another chance and that you expect her to continue to behave well to earn this privilege.

However, if you feel she is arguing her point negatively or trying to pull a fast one, then it is important for you to hold your ground and to address her lack of respect. You can remind her that the only way she will make progress is by being honest and talking respectfully to you.

Your question also highlights the importance of thinking through your consequences in advance. As well as advising parents to keep their rules to a minimum, I also advise them to keep their consequences as small as possible. For example, in the future you could ground her for one or two days rather than a week which is easier for you to enforce and makes it less likely that you are put in the position of having to back down.

Rather than using a big consequence, it is more useful to employ a small one that your daughter is likely to keep which then reinforces your authority rather than one that is too large and too difficult to enforce. In some cases, it can work better to put a condition on the consequence rather than a fixed length of time. For example, you could have said that she has to stay in until she talks politely to you about what happened or persuades you that she can be trusted once again.

You also ask in your question as to how best to communicate with teens about rules so they take on board what you are saying. The first principle is to always listen first and to make sure to understand what is important for your teen. Then you can state your own concerns directly and clearly. Present them in a way that benefits your teenager rather than as a statement of your authority. For example, statements of good rules include “I am only insisting you are collected so I know you are safe and well” or “As your mother I need to know where you are going or who you are with.”

Finally, in disputes over rules with teenagers it helps if as much as possible you can try to find a win-win. For example, you want to find a way for your teen to get what they want or need, within the context of keeping the important rules. For example, how can they get out to meet their friends in a way that you feel they are safe and secure?

Win-win solutions might include accompanying them to and from venues, inviting their friends over, making contact with their friends’ parents or any other number of ideas that work for both of you.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, February 2012. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.

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