This is to all the kind-hearted, well-intentioned parents who feel helpless, hopeless and frustrated:
Your teenager is acting up. They might be choosing something they shouldn’t, like smoking something or drinking something. They might seem to be suffering from something, i.e. depression or anxiety. They might be playing endless hours of video games. They might be doing poorly in school or unwilling to get a job. Pick any bad behavior that you’re sick of and add it to this paragraph; it probably applies.
You don’t understand how your child could be making these choices. Why aren’t they motivated? You’ve given them every opportunity. How could they choose to do drugs when you’ve provided them with every alternative? When you were their age you would’ve been thrilled if your parents had been willing to buy you a car-get you a tutor-pay your college tuition-pay for sports. When you’ve give them all this, how come they aren’t responding the way you thought they should be?
Teenagers are at a crossroads where they need to have your guidance to get through difficult situations. They still need you to point them in the right direction. However, they are also desperately trying to figure out who they are. They are trying to find their own way and have their own identity. For that reason they will often reject the advice you give, or choose any direction but the one you’ve offered. One thing is certain though, teens who earn their own way have better self-worth, more motivation, improved understanding of how the world works, and a more mature perspective. These teens also don’t have time to make bad choices.
Without realizing it, you might be enabling your child’s acting out. You might be making things too easy for them. If you lovingly make things harder for them, they are less willing to squander it. Teenagers who have to pay for part of their car tend to keep it cleaner. Teens who have been cut from a sports team hustle more at practice when they do make the team. Teens who have fought tooth and nail to get a C in a class study harder.
Be very intentional about teaching your child how to struggle. I know we don’t like seeing our children struggle, especially in the cases where we can easily resolve it for them. With your teenager it is helpful to put your name on their checking account and help them learn to manage their money. The key word in the last sentence is THEIR. If you put YOUR money into THEIR checking account, they are much more likely to mismanage the gift. If they had to earn it, then they’ll be careful with it. Your adolescent will behave better if you allow them to struggle, but help them to get through the struggle.
This is fine and dandy if your child is still ten, then you have time to course correct and prevent a lot of bad behaviors. However, what do you do if your teen is fifteen, sixteen or seventeen? Carefully inventory where you’re doing more than you should considering their age and abilities. For example, if you’re providing a car to a 19 year old who is barely working and is smoking out all the time, it’s time to reign it in. You might immediately think, ‘But they need the car to get to work.’ Actually, they don’t. You’ll be amazed at how resourceful they can be. They might learn to use the bus system. When you take things back make sure you explain it’s to help the teenager build a sense of independence, self-sufficiency and personal pride; it’s character development. Give them the chance to be proud of themselves.
Now for a quick story:
A couple years ago I had an 18 year old young woman brought to me by her parents after she got into minor trouble with the law for supplying marijuana to minors. She was a good kid in her heart, but she was tempted by the easy way in life. It was beginning to stunt her character development.
I called in dad and mom with the young woman. We had a very frank conversation. I told the parents (nicely of course) that they were enabling this bad behavior. They could not believe it because they grounded her, took her phone, restricted the use of her car, etc. I told them it was my belief that this young woman would flourish if she were forced, but wasn’t going to choose character development on her own. I encouraged the parents to help the young woman purchase her own car in her name, have her pay off her speeding tickets, charge her a little bit of rent, let her pay her own spring semester tuition fees, get her own cell phone, and pay her own insurance.
They listened. Within two months the young woman went from working 10 hours per week to thirty, worked hard in school, and most importantly very proud of herself. She felt capable and confident for the first time in her life. She stopped dealing drugs because she didn’t want to risk everything she’d worked for.
So, if your teen is acting out, check and see if you’re enabling. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. That’s where a really honest friend, family member, or therapist can be extremely helpful. It’s difficult to stop, but it’s a gift to your teen if you let them learn how to struggle and win.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT