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The Illusion of Controlling Teens

By Bret Stephenson  Posted by Rob Kall (about the submitter)     Permalink
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The Illusion of Controlling Teens


Most of the books about teens I 've come across in my career are largely about behavior management, the politically correct term for behavior modification. For years I plowed through books with titles like Back in Control, Controlling Your Teen, Teen Shaping and so on. While most of the material within these books is applicable to many teens, most fail to touch on the big question: Why do we need such books? A hundred years ago we had no need for them.

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Since America leads the world in teen violence, teen crime, teen drug use, and therefore, teen incarceration, the issue does seem to be about controlling their behavior. I 'm most interested in working on the Cause of teen problems rather than dealing constantly with their Symptoms-- the behavior we all see. When I was trying to publish my book on teen boys, countless agents and publishers lamented my material was not a "parenting book. " Why, I asked, do we need one more behavior control book when most, apparently, are not working? Would one more book on how to get your kid home by curfew or leveraging them into doing the dishes really matter? I always wonder about self-help sections of book stores that offer dozens of titles on one subject. If it is supposedly so clear, why do we need so many books telling us the same thing? I 've come to believe that for most American adults and parents, they don 't want to work with their teens, but simply control them. This has led to the birth and growth of boot camps, for example, a ludicrous invention to try and beat adolescence out of a teen.

Adolescence is a process and can 't be circumvented or minimized. It 's like breaking a horse: you can jump on the horse 's back and literally run him into the ground, largely breaking his spirit but getting him to obey your commands, or you can take more time and work with the horse, coming to a mutual understanding that benefits both horse and rider. Too many American teen programs and models are about breaking the adolescent spirit by imposing control.

First of all, we have to understand how behavior management works. There are essentially three ways to change someone 's behavior: Positive reinforcement, negative consequences and neutral reinforcement (kiss me or kick me, but don 't ignore me). Positive reinforcement is getting a reward right after doing the chore at hand, and is the best way to get what you want. This manifests in real life as a paycheck after weeks of work, or that new mountain bike after saving so hard. Negative reinforcement is punishment or negative consequences, like getting grounded or having your Nintendo taken away. Neutral reinforcement is getting no reward at all, as in ignoring a bully until he needs to go pick on someone else. If he receives no reward from you (fear, tears, etc.) he usually moves on to a new target.

Most parenting books about teens focus on the negative aspect: how to give consequences to your teen so he or she will do what you want. However, countless parents have complained to me about how their teen has nothing left to take from their room. All phones, computers, DVD players, Internet access, PlayStations and so on have been pulled but the kid still won 't clean his room or get better grades. Heck, many parents have even pulled the bedroom door! Incidentally, the Echo Boomers (teens) have four times the stuff we Baby Boomers had and sixteen times the stuff our parents had. Hmmm ....

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Too often with teens, it is not about what they are losing, but what they 're not getting. If you 've pulled everything fun from your teen 's room and he/she is still acting negatively, it 's time to rethink the problem. Ever ponder how they teach a dolphin to jump through a hoop, or get an elephant to stand on a stool? No amount of punishment or negative consequences can leverage the dolphin to swim through a hoop. You simply wait until the dolphin gets close to the hoop, and toss him a tasty morsel as a reward. Any intelligent animal will put two and two together, understanding that if he gets near the hoop he gets a treat. If he touches the hoop, or sniffs around it, for example, he gets three treats. When he finally happens to wander through the hoop: major treats.

The trick with teens is not so much to withhold everything from them but to compromise with helping them get what they want while you get what you want. Thus, instead of stripping their room (especially if it isn 't working), ask what they want (more freedom, more allowance, etc.). Then be certain what you want (clean room, better grades, washed dishes, etc.). Make a deal. If he or she will clean their room regularly, you 'll up their allowance. If the dishes are done on time, they get a later curfew. No performance, no reward. The trick is to find out what they really want, and that is your leverage, not what they can live without. The trick with teens is not to relentlessly keep saying "No " to them in an effort to control them, but to lead them in a direction that allows you to say "Yes " as often as possible.

We have to WANT teens to make good choices, not hope or assume they 'll screw up so we can tell them how smart we are. Too often with adults and parents, it comes down to this: by keeping teens Wrong, that implies we grownups are Right. As long as teens are bad, we must be Good. You can of course see this polarized thinking in many other aspects of our lives.

The most asked question I 've had from parents in almost 17 years is this: Why do they do it? The answer is simple: Because they can! Most teens get away with negative behavior because they learn early that the parents ' bluff or threat is empty: "This is your last warning! " What happened after the first warning? Or, "I won 't tell you again! " Same issue: what were the consequences for not following your directives the first time? Kids learn early that when mom says No, for example, that means Maybe if you persist long enough. One of my favorite teen cartoons has two boys talking on a playground. One boy says to the other, "Hey, isn 't that your mom calling you to come home? " "Yeah, " says the second boy, "but it 's only the second call. "

This last paragraph sounds like the kid needs some of that behavioral control I said to be careful about. But let 's look at the situation again. Each time a teen gets away with stalling, or doing a poor job at something, they are in essence being rewarded by the lack of consequences. This is the flaw to a lecture as a consequence --no real teeth in it. If you say 10 pm is curfew, then your daughter comes in at 10:05 and you just roll your eyes, your 10 pm boundary has been stretched to 10:05, a grace period that will haunt you for years to come. Do you really give consequences for being five minutes late? Absolutely, or the precedent is set.

Countless teens have told me their favorite consequence is a lecture, because it has no real teeth to it or something they have to give up, expect the time used up during the lecture. They send their minds to the Bahamas for 10 minutes while the parents are ranting away, and nod or say "I know " every few minutes so we think they 're paying attention. On the contrary, the consequence teens have told me they hate most is closely related: the lecture about when we were their ages!

Look at it this way: your daughter goes out and you say be home by 10 pm. To encourage positive behavior, tell her that if she 's in the house by 9:59, she can have Reward A (sleepover, movie choice, etc.). If she 's home at 10:01, a mere 2-minute swing, she comes in at 9 pm for the next two nights. Which would you choose? Yep, you and the dolphin would take being home early! This is wanting her to succeed. This is hoping she 'll make a good choice, not just hoping she 'll do what she 's supposed to and getting in trouble if she doesn 't. See how subtle the difference is?

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Finally, logical consequences are the best if you do have to take something away. If your son is abusing phone privileges, take away or limit his phone "reinforcement. " If your daughter is pushing curfew, take away free time. And remove the word "punishment " from your vocabulary. Substitute the term "consequence. " Punishment is just that; punitive and most often driven by anger or emotions. Consequences are logical ramifications from the behavior. How can you tell the difference?

A punishment cannot be returned and a consequence can, so to speak. For example, if your daughter comes home an hour late with some lame excuse about a flat tire and you call her a liar (or worse), if you find out she and her boyfriend really did have a flat tire, can you retract the sting of that name-calling? Nope, damage is done. If you kept her home the next night as a logical consequence, then found out she was telling the truth (don 't you hate it when teens are right?), could you give back that lost time?

Yes, in a couple of ways. You could give her an extra hour here and there, or a Get Out of jail free card for the next time (there 's almost always another next time with teens). Never loft out a threat or bluff you will not, or cannot enforce. Remember, they do it because it rewards them in some fashion. We just have t figure out what their rewards are .....

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