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What Do You Do with a Teen Who Won't Cooperate?
I received an email the other day from an old friend who's at a loss about what to do with her daughter. I won't reproduce the email here for privacy's sake, but let me summarize: Her 14-year-old is hanging out with the wrong crowd, being extremely stubborn, and getting poor marks. She went to summer school and still got poor marks. And the mom wants to know what to do. She hates getting into loggerheads, but she's at a loss. And she's paranoid that the daughter, let's call her Jane Doe, will do something stupid, like drop out, get pregnant, or hurt herself.

I prayed about this one a lot, and sought some advice from others, and here's my answer.

1. Set Routines for Academics

I think marks are a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. Often parents focus on marks because they're the most measurable thing, but the issue, I don't believe, is marks. The problem is that if kids are getting poor marks, and they're otherwise intelligent, it's because they've dropped out of responsible life. They identify more with peer groups than they do with you. They're not thinking of the future; they're thinking of the present. And they don't buy into your value system, your morals, and your goals.

That's not a healthy thing. Certainly it's not healthy because of the marks, but there's a bigger issue. It's not healthy because they've decided that they don't believe your view of the world is the right one. They don't think they should have to work hard; they don't see any value in succeeding in school; they would rather do something else. And that something else is rarely any good.

That being said, you do have to do something with the academics. You can't let it rest. But I would say this is the most minor issue. The more important things to do I'm going to write about later. But here's how I'd handle academics.

Give EXTREMELY short-term assignments and consequences that your child has to do. Telling them "you need to get at least a B on your next report card or you're grounded for a month" does nothing. The next report card may be four months in the future.

Saying, on the other hand, "you need to spend an hour and a half in homework as soon as you get home from school before you're allowed on the computer, or you lose computer and television privileges that night" is much more effective. I wouldn't do this with every kid; we're talking a kid who is in crisis.

And then here's the major thing you must do for this to work: DON'T NAG. Let them know the rules. Put it up on the fridge. Put it up in their room. Post it around the house. Television and computer time is a privilege; it comes only after homework is done at the kitchen table where we can see you.

Then don't tell them they have to do homework. Just keep an eye on the time. When the time is up when they should have been doing homework, if they haven't been doing it, go and unplug their computer or take their mouse. Unplug the television.

Whatever you do, don't get into a battle of wills. A teenager is stubborn. What they want is to fight with you. Don't play that game. Let them know the consequences, let them know the rules, and then make it their choice. If they choose not to do the homework, they choose not to do the homework. Then they lose technology.

And you could make an additional rule: if they fail to do homework more than once this week, they not only lose television and computer, they also lose the privilege of going out on Saturday night or having friends over.

These things are privileges. They are not rights.

I wouldn't suggest this for a child who is just getting by, or who is trying but isn't succeeding. This is only for children in crisis. But what you need to do is set up a study time that is consistent, everyday, so that homework gets done and they get in the routine of studying.

Now, here are some other important thoughts:

2. Put Limits on Technology

One of the reasons that teenagers relate so much to their peers is that they spend way too much time on the computer, talking on Facebook, MySpace, Skype, Messenger, you've got it. They've got blogs, they're sharing music and videos, and they're creating a world that you're not part of and that you can only monitor with a lot of work. They can hang around kids and meet kids that you wouldn't approve of. And the morals and values of this online community tend to be very bad.

I strongly disapprove of letting kids have any sort of technological device in their bedrooms. No computer, no television, no video games, no phone. Don't let them create a private world. They need you. They really do. I don't know if my friend's daughter has a computer in her room, but if she does, I would say move it out to the living room, so that when little Jane is on the computer, someone can see the screen--if they want to. This doesn't mean that you look over her shoulder. But it does mean that you're aware of how long she's on the computer, and you're aware of what she's doing. It puts a different spin on it.

This is likely to be a fight, but I think it's easier to do at 14 than at 16. And you need to reassert your authority!

But I also think this option can only be taken in conjunction with the next one:

3. Create Family Time

What you want is for little Jane to identify more with you than with her friends. And for that, you need low-stress times together.

That means two things: eating dinner together as a family, at least three times a week, so that you have a chance to talk. You can even get great conversation starters to use at the dinner table! It is so important to keep kids talking to you, and to each other. Reclaim the dinner hour!

Then, make one night a week that is a family night. No friends are allowed, at least initially. This is just for you guys to bond. Pop some popcorn and play some board games: Monopoly, Settlers of Catan, Jenga, anything that is fun. Don't watch movies, because they don't allow for conversation. But play something together so that you'll all laugh!

If you're an active family, do sports together. Take a walk every night, for fifteen minutes, around your block. Make it a routine. Some nights you talk to your daughter while your husband talks to your son, some nights you can switch, and some nights make the kids talk to each other. If it becomes routine: every night after dinner we take a walk, it becomes easier.

We've been playing tennis together as a family this summer. You wouldn't believe how terrifyingly awful we are at it, but it's a ton of fun! This week we actually got the ball going six times back and forth before someone messed up. That's a record for us.

So let me try to sum up. When teens start to pull away, rebel, and do badly at school, there usually are two reasons: they're trying to separate, which is healthy, but they're doing it in an unhealthy manner by identifying with peer groups, values, and morals which are not yours. You must nip this in the bud by reasserting the value and identity of you as a family.

This, however, takes work on your part: not because you're going to yell and nag, but because you're going to set up consistent routines in your house that people may resist. Once they get going, though, you'll usually find people buying in. The key is not to turn your house into a jail; it's to make a place that's actually fun, that cares about people and that spends time together.

That means we work together (kids do homework for an hour and a half after school while you clean, do the finances, or whatever), we play together (a Family night a week, walks after dinner, sports), and we eat together (where we share our days).

Set firm consequences, set identifiable goals they have to live up to, and then start arranging your family life so that these goals--like doing homework--become natural.

It is a lot of work. Parenting always is. And dealing with a stubborn teen is a really difficult thing. But with a lot of prayer, and some discipline, you can do it!

Now, those are my ideas. Does anybody have any others? I'm going to show her this blog post, and if anyone has any advice they want to share with Jane's mother, leave it in the comments!

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At 11:51 AM , Blogger Lori R said…

You've tackled a biggie! Here are some thoughts from a mom who has been there:
Your kid's homework is going to involve a computer, so taking it away may not be effective. Insist that they do homework in a common area and keep an eye on them. What you don't want is switching back and forth between facebook and homework. Kids are great multitaskers (or so they think). In that same vein, there's no reason to text and do homework simultaneously. :)

One thing that has worked for us is to find something that the kid really wants and then use it as a motivating tool. What our kids really wanted was their drivers licenses. But you know, insurance is really expensive and the good student discount makes a huge difference. So if our kids want to get their license when they are 16 they have to achieve certain grades. We didn't set the standard; the insurance company did. See? We're not necessarily the "bad guys" here. One daughter did not get her license until 18--our 16 year old is still working toward it. Did it stink for me? Yep! But like you said, parenting is hard work!

Something else we've found concerning friends is that it is difficult to break into a circle of friends who have good morals, etc. but the questionable kids are open and accepting. It's kind of sad in a way. The kids you don't want your child to associate with are the easiest to make friends with. I guess those kinds of kids just set the bar really low. So if Jane Doe has just moved, or changed schools, she may be having a hard time finding a place to fit in. You should be concerned if your child always goes to friends' houses but won't bring friends over to your house. Jane Doe's mom should consider getting her child involved in a solid youth group and getting involved herself in a behind-the-scenes kind of way. She should also get involved with Moms in Touch (serious prayer, serious support). These aren't guarantees against struggles, because there is no such thing. But they can be a good resource.

What most moms of young kids don't want to hear is that parenting is going to get harder, not easier, as the kids get older. Even "good kids" can cause you grief and heartache. Little kids make little messes. Big kids make big messes, messes that have the potential to affect the rest of their lives. That's why we need to pray, pray, pray!!


At 12:49 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

Thanks for both of y'all thoughts on the subject. I will soon be entering this realm of parenthood as my boy starts middle school this year (6th grade). He's already showing signs of rebelliousness, most notably his smart mouth - and he's not even 12 yet!


At 5:09 PM , Blogger Muzzymom86 said…

Thanks. I really needed this. It has been a rough week with our 13 y.o. She is such a sweetheart and has such compassion for others most of the time. But she wants to do what she wants and doesn't want to help around the house.


At 11:02 AM , Blogger Mrs W said…

With the drivers license thing...I cannot tell you how much it annoys me when I hear parents tell their kids they "must" achieve certain grades to be allowed to drive. I was one of the kids who truly struggled and couldn't make the same kinds of grades as other kids in one particular subject, even after spending six hours on a single page in that subject. And you're telling me that I shouldn't have been allowed to drive because I genuinely struggled? The Bible says to not provoke your children to wrath, and if the child truly struggles and you still take away everything, then that will do it.

I understand if the kid just isn't trying, but I do know several who struggled but because the parents couldn't see past their narrow minded rules, these kids were angered through things taken from them when they were really trying to be good students. So then they start to wonder what the point of trying is since it doesn't get them anywhere except "punished".

I heartily agree with the no technology in bedrooms thing. I don't even like kids having their own MP3 player with headphones or whatever, but my husband has already said our kids will be allowed that (ugh). I don't even really see why teens supposedly "need" a cell phone. Many parents and teens think they need them, but they don't.

Maybe if Jane is currently in public school they could try putting her in a private Christian school in a Christian environment?

The family also needs to look at themselves. I know of very few cases where a kid has started major rebellion where there wasn't also a problem with the parents as well as the child.


At 12:49 PM , Blogger Shabsblog said…

Wonderful reflections!


At 2:21 PM , Blogger Yvonne Blake said…

I enjoy your blog. Being a wife and mother is not easy. I agree with your advice, especially with no computers or TV's in the bedroom. There is too much "filth" that we need to help them learn to avoid.

I think the "homework time" could be observed by the whole family
...reading books or writing or some quiet bookwork.

I like your advice in doing things together as a family. Let each person get a turn in choosing the activity (within reason and cost).

Thanks again for encouraging mothers on your blog.

Yvonne Blake
(mother of eight grown children)


At 10:27 AM , Anonymous Kathryn Lang said…

Consistency and follow through are essential to success!

Family night is a great idea. Add to that all electronics (even with mom and dad) are turned off one hour before bed.

And bed time - teens especially need more sleep than just eight hours. Their bodies are going through some changes that needs the energy.

Cell phones are not essential for survival. I finally gave into a cell phone for ME once I started using my computer (and was on dialup) to work. But my children to not have and do not need cellphones.

Building a relationship with your children where you are the authority but a trusting authority is the best way to deal with the situations that will come up.


At 4:26 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

Never forget the power of a godly dad on the scene...especially with boys - but all teens need their dads. Dr. Dobson says that if the dad is a godly man, his influence is greater than the mothers during the teen years and I have seen that come to fruition in my life.

My older son has struggled because his dad was lousy and not godly (just pretended to be at church but behaved differently everywhere else). My younger son has a godly dad and what a huge difference it makes.

But some great tips and I totally agree with the less technology and none in the bedroom!


At 11:26 AM , Blogger Sarah DeVries said…

Urgh! I just left a looong comment and my browser deleted it! Here's the short version:

1. Don't forget what it was like to be a teen just because you're a parent now. Share your own experiences and challenges as a teenager with your teen. It creates empathy and common ground with them to address issues.

2. Don't expect your teen to have ALL the same opinions, values, etc. that you do. Even among Christians, beliefs and practices may differ greatly. Model a relationship with Jesus and a love for the Scriptures, and pray for them LOTS. Leave the rest to God.

3. Allow and cultivate mentoring relationships for your teen with godly older people outside your family (both older peers and parent /grandparent generations), and encourage them to mentor those younger than them as well. Intergenerational relationships like these help form character.

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About Me

Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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