We expect a certain amount of difficult behaviour from teens, but what can be done when the line between rebellion and losing control is crossed?
Teens are at a complex, scary and often lonely point in their life’s journey. They’re caught between the bounds of childhood, still needing the comfort and safety of being a kid, and the freedoms of adulthood. While most teens tend to push the boundaries in their desire for experimentation and the exploration of adult life, some break those boundaries entirely, leaving parents worried about their safety and future opportunities. So how do you navigate life with a teenager when normal parenting techniques and punishments fail?
What constitutes ‘out of control’?
In his book Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager (Pan Macmillan), family trauma expert Scott P Sells, PhD, outlines examples of behaviours which would be considered beyond normal teenage bounds.
These characteristics often lead to a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder, or conduct disorder, if they persist over time:
- Short temper and impulsive actions.
- Consistent problems at school and performing badly academically.
- Trying to project a ‘tough’ image, even though they’re feeling insecure deep down.
- A lack of taking responsibility for their wrongdoing.
- Struggling to get along with coworkers and maintaining a job.
- Abusing alcohol or drugs beyond the normal realms of teen experimentation and taking part in other illegal activities like joyriding, vandalising property and shoplifting.
- Displaying a high risk of developing anti-social personality disorder as they move towards adulthood, showing little or no remorse or guilt for pain or harm they’ve caused and difficulty in maintaining longterm
Each of these behaviours, writes Sells, is a sign of potential trouble.
Why is some teens’ behaviour so extreme?
While everyone’s different, and some youngsters react to their surrounding influences and life situations more positively than others, there are consistent explanations that can be found when it comes to seriously misbehaving teens. This can be confusing for parents, especially if one or more of their kids appear to be behaving normally, while another’s acting out to the extreme. While you might feel you’re doing everything you can to discipline your teen, there are various blind spots many parents fail to recognise. Sells highlights some of the most common reasons teens veer out of control which parents may not even be aware of:
Rules aren’t clarified
While it may seem over the top, it’s worth actually writing out a clear contract when it comes to wildly disobedient teens, and having them sign it. Teens tend to be extremely literal-minded, so verbally communicated rules that seem perfectly clear to you may actually be open to interpretation. For example, you might feel that ‘don’t be disrespectful’
is a good catch-all, but a teen looking for a loophole can easily manipulate the situation to their advantage. If you haven’t specified exactly what behaviour and language you consider to be disrespectful, they’re likely to argue until they’re blue in the face that swearing, for example, doesn’t ‘technically’ break the rules.
They know how to push buttons
Teens are master manipulators. Picture the scene: you’ve asked your stepdaughter several times to clean up her room – and she still hasn’t. As you begin to show your annoyance, she declares: ‘You’re not my real mom!’ Teens understand where to apply pressure to engage your emotions, which in turn clouds your judgement and makes following through on your part more unlikely. As a result, your authority in your role as a parent suffers. In this situation, the teen might storm back to her bedroom, having drawn out feelings of guilt – and without having cleaned up her room.
They interpret disobedience as power
Feeling powerful is addictive and when a teen realises they’re able to control the mood and atmosphere of the household through their extreme behaviour, they’re using the power of adulthood without being developmentally mature enough to do so. Between the ages of 12 and 18, kids should be focusing their energy on school, friends and
dating, planning for their futures in education and work, and simply on being youngsters. When their energy’s directed towards exerting control over the adults around them instead, they’re not only making your life more difficult, but are also making life less enjoyable and healthy for themselves.
The pleasure principle
Out-of-control teens get caught in a loop of instant gratification, rarely thinking past the next day and viewing consequences as an abstract, which is another reason to clarify exactly what constitutes rule-breaking and the punishments they’ll incur. Laying down boundaries isn’t easy in today’s world, but if you’re consistent and follow through with the right consequences, it can begin to break through and disrupt the cycle of rebellious behaviour.
Your teen’s peers have an extremely strong hold over them. The difficulty and dissonance of living between childhood and adulthood brings with it hypersensitivity to criticism, loneliness and wanting to be accepted. If your teen’s social group has generally good morals and values, it can help them thrive. However, a peer group with poor values who exhibit negative behaviour can be a disastrous influence on your teen. Fear of rejection can push teens into behaving in ways they probably wouldn’t do alone or in different company.
Addressing out-of-control behaviour
When teens misbehave to the extreme, they’re also missing out on just being kids. They’ve lost the connection to their soft side and cut themselves off from being nurtured. This is often the most devastating aspect of parenting a
wayward teen, along with worrying about their safety and how they’ll successfully embark on adulthood and handle living on their own.
It’s easy to feel despondent, believing there are no more avenues available for you to try. However, Sells highlights the importance of reframing the issue for yourself and taking charge. Begin by laying down clear, unambiguous rules.
For instance, if your teen’s refusing to clean their room, add this to the contract in a way that can’t be misinterpreted.
Break the rule down into smaller details, such as Sarah’s room will be considered clean only if:
- Every piece of clothing is picked up off the floor, cupboard floor and all items of furniture and placed in the laundry basket in the room.
- No food items or dirty dishes of any kind are in any part of the room.
- The bed is made to her parents’ satisfaction.
- Clean clothes are hung up or put away neatly.
- The floor is vacuumed.
- All towels are hung up in the bathroom.
- These tasks are completed and ready for inspection at 6pm.
Once you’ve implemented concrete, well-defined rules in a written contract, follow up with consequences that are just as concrete. Sells suggests the following:
- Use of phones: Friends and social media interaction are extremely important to teens, so removing a way to access them can be a very effective consequence and one they’ll want to avoid.
- Limiting freedom: Being grounded, forbidden to attend parties or having Internet privileges revoked are also good deterrents.
- Loosening restrictions: Positive consequences are just as important as negative ones. Modifying past rules – for example, extending their curfew – can help them feel trusted and aware they’re being treated more like an adult.
- Earning trust: Providing ways for them to earn back trust after an incident can make all the difference and provides a sense of responsibility for their actions.
- Spending time together: While they’re unlikely to admit it, spending time with their parents matters to teens. Although they might act tough, it’s important to remember that teens are at the crossroads between childhood and adulthood and still require nurturing, despite their grownup posturing.
Teens often push boundaries in order to receive attention. One of the most valuable lessons you can teach your teen is that positive attention is far more desirable than negative attention. Eventually, they’ll begin to make the distinction
between the two and strive to act in a way that earns trust, respect and the privilege of being treated more like an adult. Remember, the goal isn’t to threaten a misbehaving teen with terrifying consequences, but to provide clear boundaries and a way back to their softer side. What’s important is that you follow through with consequences, whether positive or negative, without fail.
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