Psychotherapy Perspectives

Friday, November 02, 2007

Parenting Teenagers and Discipline in the Modern Age

We know it is difficult being a parent in this present age, but it is also difficult to be a teenager today as well. Never before has “good judgment” been so crucial to survival. As part of the boomer population, I don’t remember that my bad judgments would have the range of severe consequences. Sexually transmitted disease such as HIV, potent drugs and pills and pornography are every day risks for teens. My mistakes back when I was a teenager did not often have the consequences of permanent injury or death. With sexually transmitted disease and HIV, permanent injury and death are real possibilities in this present day world for teens. Never before in our history have children had to make so many risky choices by themselves.

At the same time, I never had the internet growing up. While the internet can give me wonderful relevant information, it also allows predators into my home through the computer. How wonderful and awful at the same time is this technology! It’s wonderful because we can broaden our whole world and allow ourselves to be exposed to diverse ideas and cultures that were not imaginable over 10 years ago. It’s awful because of the diversity of violence, hate and sex available to teens in graphic form, i.e. hate groups, pornography, etc.

In my private Indianapolis-based counseling practice, parents often ask, “What do we teach our kids that can compete with what the media and their friends tell them?” Of course there are no “right answers” and I struggle with the same questions. With teens especially, I believe the media, culture and their friends have more influence in direct communication than parents do. However that does not mean that parents do not have influence; I believe parents do, and they have to change their tactics of parenting when their children are teens because the previous ways of communication no longer work effectively.

Parents are the most obvious role models of how to be a man and a woman, mom and dad, and wife and husband. The most important aspect to me is that values be communicated more by the action of a parent rather than through the spoken word. The role of the parent and the discipline of the child are demonstrated by the action rather than words. Words are secondary, and I believe questions are better than statements when confronting your teen on a subject that requires critical thinking.

Show your teen how you think. Your values, respect and interest in your child may go further than telling them how to be or how to act. Being observant of your own communication style with your spouse, the teen, and others may have more influence on them than anything you tell directly tell your teenager. Asking questions in a non-judgmental way to help them understand that the consequences of their behavior may go further than “laying down the law”. The act of helping your child think things through and develop critical thinking is a lifetime gift.

For example, your teen says that some of the other kids he/she admires are drinking or taking drugs. Harping on your fears, the illegality, and consequences of the actions will not teach her/him to think for her/himself. On the contrary, your words will probably fall on deaf ears or may cut off communication with your teen on this subject. However, if you ask him/her to think with questions such as:

 What does drinking do for your friend __________?
 What does drinking do for you, how does it help you or hurt you?
 What are the consequences if you are caught by the police/lose control/drive?
 What if you don’t do what your friends do (drinking)? How would they react? How would you feel?

Of course, if your child is in ever-present danger, you supply the safety net and avert the danger of high risk. At the same time, let the teenager think the problem through, including all of the consequences. If you can teach a child how to think, this will serve him/her forever. Combined with being a good role model and learning how to think critically, your teen will be well equipped to make decisions both in childhood and as an adult.

The biggest problem with authoritarian parental discipline is that it does not provide space for the child to learn from natural consequences. Often authoritarian discipline prevents the child from learning through mistakes. As a result, later as a teenager he/she may rebel, making it more difficult to keep him/her safe. If, for example, Johnny drinks and drives, then natural consequences are losing his car privileges for a while until he can demonstrate that he/she will be responsible. He/she may also give you ideas for natural consequences for drinking. Natural consequences, providing the teen with a way to “redeem” him/herself with trust, is a wonderful way parents can teach teens to be mature. With natural consequences, dialogue is needed to problem-solve and to determine what actions should be taken to remedy the act. A spirited dialogue with the parents and teen through open communication shows the child that, although he/she does not have final say, he/she at the very least plays an important part in the act of considering the consequences. Parents want to be sure that they allow their teens the opportunity to gain their trust back without impossible consequences.

When using natural consequences as a part of parental discipline, it is advisable to use “I messages”. The parent is questioning the behavior, but not questioning the character of the child. This is very important. The behavior of drinking is unwise and immature at a school function, but the child’s character is not devalued. When talking to the child about inappropriate drinking, the parent may say, “Son, I am disappointed in your behavior of drinking at the school dance and would like to know what you think the legal consequences would be if the school officials found out.” In addition, a parent might say, “I wonder what you believe the natural consequences for drinking at school should be?”. The focus of the parent should stay on the behavior of the child and not the character of the child.

In summary, I believe that we are teaching our young people how to have problem-solving skills and how to think critically, so that they will know how to make good decisions when they are adults. We are teaching them respect for rules as well as respect for others by being respectful in our contact with them. If we prescribe the arbitrary discipline or only punish, the child may not learn critical lessons of life. Open the door with your teenager and create the experience of problem solving, natural consequences, and critical thinking as gifts they can use the rest of their life.