My 13 year is challenging our rules

teenagerQ: Our 13-year-old son has become very difficult recently. He is displaying a constant “attitude” in the way he talks to us and acts as if this attitude is a “cool” way to behave. He is also challenging all our rules, saying none of his friends has the same rules. For example, we have told him he can’t go to town until he is 15, but he says all his friends go now at 13. My question is how can we discipline him when his friends don’t have the same rules and how can we deal with such an attitude?

A. Parenting a young teenager can be hard work and reaching the age of 13 can bring particular challenges. As a parent, it can be a real shock as your previously easy-going child starts pushing the boundaries and appears to suddenly grow an attitude overnight. Though hard to cope with, you are not alone and what you are dealing with is relatively normal.

In responding to this challenging time, the key as a parent is to separate the important rules from the negotiable ones. It comes with the territory for teenagers to question their parents’ authority, to seek more independence, to seek the company of their peers more and to become more private. These changes are all part and parcel of growing up and are even healthy for your teenager as they forge their own identity.

However, this quest for independence does not have to be done with “an attitude” – teenagers should continue to respect their parents and this is important for them (in learning how to deal with authority) as well as important to parents (who deserve to be dealt with respectfully).

In fact, insisting on the rule of respect is probably the most important principle to maintain when you are parenting a teenager. This means that if your teen talks to you with an attitude or with contempt or aggression, you calmly pause the conversation and say, “Hold on, I can’t talk to you until you speak politely” or “Take a moment, we can only talk when you are calm”.

This respect principle works both ways and you must commit to always speaking respectfully to them – when parenting a teenager, what you do and how you behave is more important than what you say.

Secondly, it is important to be prepared to negotiate and talk through rules with them in a much more explicit manner than you might have done with a younger child. While you still make the final decision, it is important to recognise that soon they will be making these decisions themselves, so you need to plan to hand over the responsibility for this.

Once done respectfully you can use the process of conversation and negotiation as a means to teach him about safety and to allow him gradually take on responsibility.

When your son asks to go into town with his friends, you might encourage him to talk more about what he wants – where does he want to go, which friends does he plan to go with, why is it important to go, and so on. Use this as an opportunity to listen and to hear about what is important to him. Then explain your concerns and reservations.

When doing this it is important to express them in terms of positive values or principles that are in his interest. For example, “As a parent I need to know you are safe, I need to be sure you are ready to go into town.” Then be prepared to explore possible solutions and ways forward with questions such as, “How can you ensure you will be safe in town?” and to examine hypothetical dangers by asking, “How would you deal with . . . if it happened?” The goal is to try to reach a win-win agreement whereby you find a way forward that both gives your teen some legitimate steps to independence, while also allowing you to be fully reassured of his safety.

Even if this is not possible, you can negotiate compromises or alternatives such as, “You can go if we collect you, or only if you go with [a friend you trust] or only if you’re home before 6pm.”

You can, of course, say no to the whole idea, but try to present this positively and explain under what future conditions you could change your mind, for example, “You can go when you are 14.” It is also okay to kick for touch and to decide later – “I’ll talk to some of the other parents [of the friends] and see what they think”, and so on.

Rather than either saying no or giving your teen everything he wants, it can be useful to break the request into small increments, whereby he gains your trust step by step, for example, “If you can come in on time as agreed each evening this week then we can look at you going out for a short time at the weekend.”

If at any point the conversation becomes disrespectful it is important to take a pause and to always make an agreement conditional on respect – “Until you talk politely, we won’t be able to agree to you going out at all” – and you may have to back this up with consequences and loss of privileges.

While there aren’t absolute rules with teenagers, there are principles for respectfully talking through boundaries and this is the key to successful parenting. While there may not be a definite age when a teenager is responsible enough to go into town unsupervised (a lot depends on how mature or able he is, how responsible his friends are, and your own cultural values as a family) it is important to consider the issue carefully and to talk through them with your teenager.

Done well, such negotiations are a good role model for teenagers in how to communicate effectively and can deepen your relationship with them as they grow up.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, July 2010. John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.