Parenting a Problem Adolescent: Effective Options
In the previous hypothetical case examples (Aaron & Marnie) some recommendations were made, that are based on both practitioner judgement of situations and evidence via the literature and research. Let’s now look at some approaches that identify effective parenting outcomes. Much will depend upon the specific age of the teenager, as to what emotional input may be needed from their parents.
For example an older teenager nearing 17 years may not need as much hugging and comfort from parents as a 13 year old. Boys particularly often tend to want to display strength and autonomy from their parents when in their later adolescent years and any signs of affection may be interpreted as being feminine and weak. This is generalising of course, as many older adolescent boys may still seek the comfort of their parents from time to time, and will certainly value being loved and cared for.
Thus, maturational changes in physical ability, thinking and behaviour over the period of adolescent years, is inevitable. It is important to understand this when trying to cope with one’s own son or daughter because the relationship must naturally also change. This is a time for a lot of learning from each other, and for parents this can be a wonderful time to see one’s son or daughter grow and develop into interesting and exciting young adults.
Young adolescents have of course many changing needs. Let’s explore what parents can do to cope with this change and achieve better outcomes:
Love, trust, respect, communication, encouragement and praise
They need to know that they have the stability of love and caring always available from their parents and that their parents will support and be committed to their growth and development, their safety, and be there for them if they make mistakes. They also need to know that they can communicate with their parent without being berated or punished or humiliated.
Trust is such a major word for adolescents because they may feel so vulnerable in this confusing, dangerous and yet exciting world. Showing a genuine and sustained interest in one’s child is crucial. A parent does not necessarily have to love a child’s behaviour but to love their child and to show it builds trust and respect and leaves open a channel of communication that will be important throughout their child’s life.
A young adolescent child needs to know they are valued and doing okay, so encouragement and praise are important things that a parent can express to their child. Not praise or encouragement simply churned out automatically, but genuine praise for a child’s efforts or thoughts.
Setting Limits or boundaries
Early adolescent children especially are suddenly breaking out of their cocoons, and like a butterfly emerging into the big natural world for the very first time there are always dangers and predators potentially lurking nearby. ‘The world seems so different to last year. I’m getting interested (very interested) in the opposite sex, when last year they seemed so “yukky”.
There’s more exciting things to do than ride a bike down to the creek or to play with toys — like dressing up in sexy or cool gear, like going to wild parties, like listening to cool music on iPods and like hanging out at cafes with friends and looking cool. Yet there are also some scary people and school is getting much harder, and expectations of teachers and parents and exams are just too hard to handle.
Make a mistake and you’ll never hear the end of it. Some mistakes can be calamitous or dangerous such as getting pregnant or getting HIV infection or becoming addicted to hard drugs or being preyed on by pedophiles in chat rooms on the internet.’ Thus parents can help by setting clear well explained, fair but firm boundaries or limits on the child’s activities and behaviours that the child must agree to.
By doing this it sends a signal to the child that yes my parents recognise that I am changing and experiencing and learning about my becoming more adult, but yes there are also rules that must be followed that protect me from harm (physical or emotional) or confusion out there in the real world. In this way, if rules are broken or mistakes are made, then parents can have permission to talk to their ‘child’ in order to ensure that they have learned a lesson and know how to improve a situation or behaviour.
In a seminal work examining 20 years of findings, Psychologist Diana Baumrind (1971) identified three main types of parenting which may be useful for parents seeking to know how best to set limits and rules. They include:
Authoritarian — the gate keepers of hard and fast, do as you are told, no questions asked, rules. This leaves a child with little flexibility in their lives, and because they are imaginative, kids will try to break almost every rule they can get aw ay with. Often this requires lying, cheating, being abusive to others or having only black and white views about things, manipulating others and situations to suit their own needs or becoming passive and rigid in one’s personality.
Obviously this sort of personality construction can have deleterious consequences for later adult life as well. Punishment is decided by the parent only for breaking limits or rules. So authoritarian parenting, whilst looking at least superficially for others as though a parent or parents have a strong handle on their kids, can have its long-term down idea.
Permissive — the other extreme in which parents have few rules and regulations and lots of individual freedoms for their child, leaves their child open to potential abuse by others, to the child thinking they can do what they like when they like. The child does not learn how to set priorities and to recognise danger. Unless they learn by bitter experience and survive, this type of parenting can set a child up for failure and to believe that they can get away with whatever they like in life.
Parents may well have a very difficult time trying to cope with their child if they don’t want to accept rules or limitations or break them or if mistakes are made. Parents may have few if any punishments in their arsenal, so the kids know they will always get away with breaking the rules with few or no consequences to worry about. In life, that can be dangerous.
Authoritative — parents who set clear limits and rules with explanations and with opportunities for the child to question them. Adolescent children need to know why they are being set limits so that they can learn from this. There may be a compromise between the parent and the child, but once limits or rules are made everyone agrees to abide by them and any punishments for breaking them are also agreed to.
Parents as role models
Believe it or not, adolescents look to their parents for guidance, support and love. The old saying that ‘actions speak louder than words’, must surely have emanated from a teenager. It is surprising how younger adolescents in particular want to model their parents. However when they see parents constantly guilty of things like hypocrisy or double standards or lying or trying to cover up for a lack of insight or knowledge than a teenager can be a parents harshest critic.
Worse however is if a child adopts the parents’ failings or poor standards and develops blinkers that they take into adulthood in order to block out the negative aspects of such poor standards, thoughts or behaviours and deem them as normal. Setting high ethical standards and valuing positive things like kindness, empathy, respect and thoughtfulness to others can help an adolescent to do likewise and incorporate such values into their own lives.
Getting kids to be responsible
Adolescents can learn to be responsible at home believe it or not. Teaching them a work ethic to get into a set pattern of doing household chores, their homework and so on early on is pretty important. Learning relies so much on motivation which can be of two types: (1) Intrinsic Motivation — I want to do this because it means so much to me and my development, and (2) Extrinsic Motivation — If you pay me $30 I will wash your car.
As time goes on of course a parent may have to consider both types of motivation. Indeed providing pocket money targeted for jobs to be done each week may help an adolescent to value money and to learn what it takes to do a good job. Obviously intrinsic motivators are longer lasting and teaching your child the importance of helping others builds a much more resilient and likable person as they mature.
Seek professional counselling
Recognising that you have limits to how much you can cope with is really important. Parents usually have no training in how to be a parent and there are a lot of so called best seller books out there that promote this type or that type of parenting methods, in some case in contrast to accepted research evidence. Professional counsellors are highly trained people who facilitate learning about how to cope with all sorts of problems for people who seek their services.
Most are not expert in psychiatric or mental health problems, although many doctors, nurses and social workers have counselling and mental health skills, knowledge and experience. Many parents just require some tips on how to deal with a child or adolescent who have problems adapting to incredible physical, mental, emotional and social changes or transition.
Unless kids have had brothers or sisters who have been positive role models during their adolescent years, kids will try to take in ideas from anyone in their sphere of influence. Many kids are bullied or are easily led into adopting what they think are exciting lifestyles or behaviours. The more resilience that parents can foster in their adolescent child the greater the chances that they will have fewer problems and the better the chance they have of maintaining effective communication with their child — a lifeline in some cases. Professional counsellors can assist parents with this process.