Dear Crucial Skills,
I have been noticing lately that nearly every conversation I have with my fifteen-year-old daughter turns crucial very quickly. Innocent suggestions, requests for help, questions about school—many, many topics are too close to the skin for my daughter. And despite my best efforts to “start with heart” and “make it safe,” I am finding it very difficult to keep things from escalating—for BOTH of us.
Right now, I am very concerned about her grades (which are slipping) and some of her new friends who are given a great deal more freedom than she is. Requiring basic information (reporting in, letting me know where she is and who she is with, and when to expect her home, etc.) are the latest “hot buttons.” I’m trying my best, but no matter how I say it I feel like we get nowhere.
I come to your question materially qualified because I’ve struggled with four teenagers . . . and counting. So I’ll be a bit personal here as opposed to drawing from a broader database as we usually try to do in this column.
First, change your expectations. If your daughter seems like she’s warming up for a rocky teenage period, it doesn’t mean anything is wrong. I’m personally convinced that some of our kids need to become quite bothersome to accomplish some important emotional growth. Becoming disagreeable, for example, may help them become independent. It’s a worthy goal and some kids just seem to need to achieve it in a pretty messy way. Teenage years may also be nature’s way of helping parents support their children in leaving home. If they were adorable forever they might stay with us until age forty or so. Seriously, though, I experienced enormous relief when through my reading and reflection I came to understand that my teenagers were right on track with their rebellion and that I needed to stop thinking if I dealt with it better it would go away in a week or two. Be patient.
Change your conversation. With all that said, you are perfectly within your rights to expect some basic ground rules. Research shows that boundaries and expectations are a good thing—even if your teenager bridles against them. What’s important is to have some dialogue about those boundaries—and not at a time when you are trying to enforce them. Let her know you’d like to talk about some basic ground rules and accountability. Let her get prepared with her point of view. Come prepared with yours. But come also with a willingness to negotiate. Give up some less important things in the interest of demonstrating your respect for her growing autonomy. But argue patiently and logically for the things you think are vital.
Agree on consequences in advance. It’s been said that the difference between discipline and punishment is that discipline is explained in advance and punishment is inflicted out of anger. Your track record with your daughter suggests she might test your resolve about the commitment she makes, so include some discussion of reasonable consequences should she fail to comply. Help her understand that the consequences need to be substantial enough to encourage compliance but that you don’t want them to be arbitrarily harsh.
Clarify how you’ll decide. Listen to her suggestions in this conversation. But be sure to let her know with both the discussion of boundaries and the discussion of consequences that you will make the ultimate decision if the two of you can’t agree. Don’t violate her expectations by suggesting you’re both voting on these decisions. This is not a democracy, it is a family. And in a family the parents are the ultimate decision makers—hopefully with generous input from and dialogue with the children.
Now, I want to acknowledge that I’ve stepped beyond communication advice and given you a generous dose of my own parenting beliefs. Feel free to cull out what you want and discard the rest. I’ll just conclude by suggesting once more that you are not “deteriorating rapidly.” You may be right on schedule. And to the degree that you continue to approach both the broader crucial conversations I’ve described and the more tactical crucial confrontations you’re already holding as lovingly as possible, you’ll in all likelihood get to the other side of this period overwhelmed with admiration at the lovely and independent young woman your teenager has become.