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4 Things You Should Never Say to Your Teen
By Megan Devine, LCPC
Every parent gets mad and says things in the heat of the moment that they regret—nobody's perfect, and there is no such thing as a perfect parent. At one time or another, most parents also report feeling like their teen is not listening to them. You wonder why what you're saying doesn't seem to have any effect—it goes "in one ear and out the other," and meanwhile, your child's behavior doesn't improve.
When your child repeatedly ignores you, defies you or fights with you over everything, you might even wonder if you're doing things right, and if somehow you're failing at parenting.
"Focus on the behavior, not the person."
But as James Lehman said, "I don't like to think about parenting in terms of 'good' or 'bad.' It's more helpful to talk about effective parenting versus ineffective parenting." The good news is that parents can always learn how to be more effective.
In all of our articles in Empowering Parents, and in our parenting programs and on the Parental Support line, we operate on that same "effective parenting" principle. If you're sitting there thinking, "My kids don't really seem to listen to me; they just tune me out," or if you're even wondering if your parenting style is working very well at all, start by asking yourself, "Is what I'm doing with my family effective? Is the way I communicate working? And am I getting the results I want with my kids?"
I also want to stress that if you recognize yourself in any of the following scenarios, don't worry. It's never too late to change, and to start finding more effective ways to help your family learn and grow.
1. "If you keep this up, you're never getting your license!"
This one can feel a little tricky. You know your child wants their license (or some other big ticket item). You also really need them to comply with the rules, or follow through on their responsibilities. The thing is, your teen doesn't seem to care about those things, so you counter with the biggest, most powerful, most highly-desired reward – or threat –you can muster.
Here's where this can be ineffective, however:
Threatening a consequence in the heat of the moment is never an effective strategy; it only serves to escalate conflict. An angry threat shows that you're losing your own temper. Of course you are – parenting is hard. However, it's important that you stay focused on the task at hand, and take a break if you're getting so frustrated it's hard to keep your cool. Role modeling calm behavior for your child is so important; as the saying goes, kids learn more from your actions than they do from your words. If you're feeling on the edge, tell your child, "I need some time to think about this. Let's talk again when we're both calm."
Remember: in order to truly change behavior, your consequences need to be attached to that specific behavior. This means breaking things down into clear, manageable goals, matching your consequence or privilege to one behavior, and giving your child a chance to succeed every day. (This is also laid out clearly in The Total Transformation Program.)
Bottom line: Withholding a big ticket item is not effective – especially in the heat of the moment, or if the goal is far off. Plus, threats don't teach your child problem-solving skills.
2. "I forbid you to do that!"
I understand the impulse here – you're afraid your child is going to get hurt, possibly in some big way that you can't fix. And your fear causes you to forbid them from doing whatever that thing is: go to the party, date that person, attend the dance. The thing is, forbidding your child from doing something is not effective. There are two things at play here. First, saying "I forbid you!" does not create compliance. It doesn't create compliance, it creates secretive, subversive behavior, in which your child tries to get away with what they want, regardless of your wishes. Secondly, it robs you of an opportunity to help your child learn and grow.
So what can you do instead? Address your real concerns by saying something like: "I'm not sure this party is a safe situation for you. Here's what I need to see from you before we can discuss whether or not you can go. You need to let me know the names of the parents who will be there and who will be responsible. You also need to get all your homework done and come in on curfew every night this week."
Can you see how that might give you a different outcome? You haven't given permission. You haven't let your child go ahead and do something you don't like. If you decide you might take a chance and let your child attend the party, (and that's not a given), you've created an opportunity to help him or her practice compliance – and demonstrate it to you – in order for you to feel more confident in their ability to navigate risks safely.
Bottom line: "Forbidding" an activity actually increases the chances your child will take unsafe risks. It's often more effective to use the opportunity to help them learn and grow.
3. "No one else will like you if you do that!"
It's an easy thing to say, isn't it? You know your child wants to fit in. You know your child wants people to like them. You might even be honestly afraid your child won't be liked if they're bossy or argumentative, or if they dye their hair that color! But here's the thing: as James Lehman tells us, "You can't shame a child into better behavior." It just doesn't work—for anyone. This is because shame is about feelings of humiliation and worthlessness, and is likely to cause your child to withdraw in embarrassment.
James and Janet Lehman stress that this isn't about what's right or what's wrong, it's about what's effective. And the truth is, shaming is not an effective way to help someone change their behavior.
Bottom line: You can't shame your child into better behavior.
4. "You little $%^#@!!!"
Swearing, name-calling, or attacks on your child's personality are not effective techniques when dealing with your child's behavior. It's nearly impossible to encourage responsible behavior in your child if you aren't willing to model it yourself. If you're having a hard time controlling your own emotions, walk away and disconnect. Get support. Good parents aren't necessarily born – we're all a work in progress.
And remember, anything that targets your child personally is ineffective. Focus on the behavior, not the person. You can be loving and accepting AND be firm in your rules and expectations. Just because you're being loving and accepting does not mean you let your kid slide on behaviors. And getting them to improve their behavior does not happen by attacking them personally or by calling them names. Instead, focus on the behavior, not the character of your child—and be sure to catch them being good whenever you can.
Bottom line: Effective parenting is calm, clear, and focused on the issue at hand.