Dear Dr. Buckingham,
I desperately need some advice. My 14-year-old son is testing me badly by pushing all kinds of boundaries. We argue over whom he should hang around, where he should go and how he should dress. I punish him on a regular basis and tell him that he will comply with my rules as long as he is under my roof. I am responsible for him, and I want to make sure that he turns out to be a productive citizen. I do not want to be viewed as an inadequate parent, so I stay on his butt and make sure that he knows I am in control. Am I going about this wrong because I do not understand him? What is the most effective parenting method for understanding my teen?
Dear Desperate Parent,
You, like thousands of other parents spend a great deal of your time and energy thinking about ways in which you can correct your teen’s behavior and maintain control in order to avoid being viewed as an inadequate parent with no power. This controlling and authoritative approach to parenting usually contributes to high levels of tension in parent-teen relationships. And unfortunately, when tension intensifies between you and your teen, your desire to control him intensifies as well.
As you stated, punishment is often used to regain or restore control and to ensure that your teen obeys your instructions. However, what you fail to realize or accept is that no human-being, including teens can be controlled. Like you, they can simply choose to comply or not comply with requests or instructions presented to them.
While communicating with parents in therapy and seminars, I remind them that, “Democracy is a gift from man, but Free Will is a gift from God.” I also remind parents of the importance of demonstrating empathy toward their teens instead of trying to control them. With this in mind, if you do not learn anything else from this article, please understand that human beings were not created to be controlled. Attempts to control others often contribute to increased tension, hatred and/or prolonged conflict. Teens, like other at-risk individuals, who feel misunderstood, often engage in rebellious behavior when they perceive or feel that they are treated unjustly or disrespectfully.
Do you realize that your control tactics and lack of empathy toward your teen typically sets the stage for your parent-teen conflict? I ask this question in order to encourage you to reflect. It is not my intent to judge you or imply that you are solely responsible for all conflicts between you and your teen. However, if you do not seek to understand your teen and fail to show empathy, you will likely become frustrated and respond accordingly. This in turn, will cause your teen to respond in a similar manner, thus eliminating or minimizing your ability to understand and resolve any potential underlying emotional distress that your teen might be experiencing. Given this, I believe that the most effective method for understanding teens’ behavior and minimizing rebellious behavior is to establish empathetic relationships where they feel emotionally safe.
Empathy, which is commonly defined as the ability to understand and identify with others by seeing the world from their point of view, is not an easy task for many parents. However putting yourself in your teen’s shoes and trying to relate to him will enhance your ability to connect with and understand him. I did not say be his friend. However, you should listen to him and try to understand why he wants to hang around certain people and dress a certain way. If this is difficult for you, I encourage you to reflect on your own teen years, focusing on thoughts and feelings that surfaced while, during and after interacting with your parents or guardians.
Be mindful that empathy is one of the most important interpersonal skills you can teach your teen because he will learn the importance of open-mindedness, sharing and being generous. However, because empathy is developed based on a reciprocal process, you must first establish a respectful and trusting relationship with your teen. Creating such a relationship can be challenging at times, especially when you are frustrated or feel discouraged. Demonstrating empathy toward a teen who is disobedient and repeatedly fails to follow instructions can be tough. Occasionally, you might feel like you are wasting your time; however you must remember that failure to listen to and demonstrate empathy toward your teen can cause him to believe that you do not have his best interest at heart. Translation: his opinion and views do not matter to you.
Teens who feel that their parents do not understand them are at greater risk for participating in gangs, using drugs, exhibiting violent behavior, and/or connecting with anyone who expresses a genuine concern in their emotional well-being. For example, your son might turn to troubled peers or gang members who provide acceptance. To prevent such incidences from occurring, I challenge you to learn has much as you can about your son and his development. Also, I challenge you not to give up on him. Remember that you can improve your parenting skills and strengthen your relationship with your teen by equipping yourself with proper knowledge about teen development and behavior.
It is your responsibility to guide and influence him, not control him. Walk in his shoes, so he can learn how to walk in yours. He needs to know that you value him more than you want to control him.
If you have questions for Dr. Dwayne Buckingham regarding relationships (married, single, etc), parenting, or personal growth and development, please send an email to [email protected]
Disclaimer: The ideas, opinions and recommendations contained in this post are not intended as a substitute for seeking professional counseling or guidance. Any concerns or questions that you have about relationships or any other source of potential distress should be discussed with a professional, in person. The author is not liable or responsible for any personal or relational distress, loss or damage allegedly arising from any information or recommendations in this post.