Dear Crucial Skills,
My sixteen-year-old daughter excels academically and plans to pursue a university education to become a physiotherapist. She is a very intelligent and sensible teenager and is admired by family, teachers, and friends. However, her teacher called me with concerns about her recent behavior, attitude, and work habits. Lately, she procrastinates homework assignments, rolls her eyes and talks when the teacher is talking, and disrupts the class by getting up during inappropriate times.
I have also noticed that she is always tired—partially due to the fact that she stays up too late. She has no ambition to get a job or a driver’s license, and she resents helping with light household chores like washing dishes.
When we try to have a conversation with her about these issues, she gets defensive and argues with us. I don’t feel like I can have a constructive conversation without it turning into a power struggle. How can I have a positive influence on her?
It sounds as if you have a wonderful and talented daughter. Congratulations. None of this parenting stuff is easy. You and your daughter are now navigating that tricky time when you help her increase her independence, autonomy, and responsibility. It’s a time of exploring and testing, which involves growing pains all around.
There are many parenting skills I’m sure you’ll employ. These range from setting limits and providing choices to giving your daughter an opportunity to be heard. I’m going to focus on some approaches that are especially appropriate to use with people who are sensitive to being ordered, directed, or nagged by you—think spouses, bosses, and, yes, teenagers.
1. Before a conversation, ask yourself, “What do I really want?” Try to avoid getting too caught up in any single issue—unless your daughter’s safety is involved. While your short-term goal may be obedience and respect, your long-term goal is to enable her to make wise choices on her own—and to involve you in frank and trusting dialogue.
2. Encourage her to detail her long-term aspirations. Your daughter is caught between short-term certainties and long-term aspirations. These short-term certainties are winning because they are more concrete, believable, and immediate. Find ways to make her career goals more salient and real by encouraging her to get some direct experience. For example, have her visit a local college, maybe spend the night in one of their hosting programs, and attend a few classes in her area of interest. In addition, consider having her volunteer at a local hospital or clinic where she can assist professionals and see what the career is like. The more real and detailed her aspirations are, the more motivating they will be, and the more they will influence her daily decisions.
3. Ask her about her aspirations, and get her to explore the barriers. Make time to talk with your daughter about her aspirations, and take care to avoid jumping in with advice. Your goal is to show respect for her ability to work things out, and to make her do the heavy lifting. Sometimes this is called the Columbo Method, after the TV detective from the 70s. Columbo played dumb and asked open-ended questions instead of giving answers. For example, it may be obvious to you that staying up late and procrastinating are barriers, but you want your daughter to have to think it through for herself.
Parent: “Hmmm. You want to study physiotherapy in college, and make that your career. I just don’t understand your whole plan for making that happen. How do you see your classes and your grades this semester fitting into that?”
4. Don’t advocate for one side of an action if it forces your daughter to advocate for the other side. Suppose you make a statement that advocates for one side over the other. Here’s how the dialogue might go.
Parent: “When you stay up past eleven thirty, you are tired and grumpy the next morning.”
Daughter: “So what? At least I don’t miss out on the TV shows people are talking about the next day.”
You have advocated for one side and forced your daughter to advocate for the other side. Together, you’ve fleshed out both sides—the costs and benefits of staying up late—but you’ve done it in a way that puts you and your daughter on opposite sides.
5. Roll with resistance. This is a technique from Motivational Interviewing, an approach we discuss in Change Anything. If your daughter takes a position on one side, don’t rise to the bait and take the other side. That would turn your conversation into an argument. Instead, roll with her resistance—reflect back what she has said, and use the Columbo Method to encourage her to elaborate and say more. Usually, she will then explore both sides.
Daughter: “I have to stay up late. It’s when all the popular shows are on. If I don’t watch them, I’ll be left out of the conversations at school.”
Parent (paraphrase without taking sides): “You feel pressured to watch late-night shows so you don’t get left out of conversations at school?”
Daughter: “A little bit, but I like some of the shows, too.”
Parent (get her to explore both sides): “Okay, you like some late-night TV shows and you feel a little pressure to watch them. What do you see as the other benefits and costs of staying up late to watch them?”
Daughter: “I like the shows. I want to see them. But I guess it does make it hard to get up in the morning. And sometimes I have to rush to get my homework done.”
6. Practice patience. Few of us are good at weighing long-term goals against short-term temptations. Don’t expect your daughter to master it all at once. Continue to push her to evaluate her options and make her own decisions.