What Do You Do with a Teen Who Won't Cooperate?
Saturday, July 18, 2009
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!
Labels: parenting, teens
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posted @ 10:26 AM