One huge source of conflict and stress for parents of teens is figuring out how to set appropriate guidelines and consequences and then follow through successfully. Here are some tips and suggestions based on communication and conflict resolution principles:
1. Set clear guidelines and expectations
Get clear about your own needs and concerns for your teens. Then talk to your teens, listening thoroughly to their concerns and needs, as well as sharing your own.
See if it is possible to negotiate an agreement that works for you both. Parents’ assessments have more weight because teens’ ability to understand risk, reason logically and make good decision is limited by their incomplete brain development, according to neuroscientists. But, any agreement works better if there is “buy in” by all parties. Writing this up as a contract can be helpful too.
2. Then, follow the guidelines with kindness and flexibility as well as firmness.
It is essential to be clear about the boundaries and consequences and follow them consistently. If you set consequences and don’t follow through, teens won’t take any agreements seriously. If you yell and then back down when they complain or whine, they will learn that complaining and whining work.
Be firm but supportive when holding them accountable. Scolding and judgment weakens rather than strengthens the positive impact of consequences and can lead teens to rebel or not feel loved and accepted.
3. Be the grown-up
Be their parent. You can’t be their b.f.f. (best friend forever) and set limits and consequences at the same time. Even when they don’t act like it, teens need their parents to be the responsible adults, not friends first.
4. Hold to the spirit, not the letter of agreements.
While firmness is important, so is flexibility for extenuating circumstances. If your teen made every effort to get home on time but the car got a flat tire, that is very different from lack of time management or deliberate flouting of limits. If you insist on extreme consequences when it truly wasn’t their fault or responsibility, it can lead to resentment and a lack of respect.
5. Show them you love them no matter what.
It is devastating to feel that your family will withhold love or stop loving you when you make a mistake. As mediators say, “be tough on the problem, but gentle with the person.” You can be furious at what they did, but still make it clear you love them always and completely.
6. Look at your own triggers and issues
Many of us come to adulthood with unresolved issues or emotional wounds from the past, sometimes from our own teen years, that may need healing before we can approach parenting with clarity and calm.
For example, parents may find words of their own tyrannical parent flying out their mouths, even though they hated that behavior at the time. Or they may overreact to their own teen frustrations by not setting limits, but then be furious when the teen crosses an unspoken line they were unaware of.
7. Get help and support.
Raising a teenager is one of the most challenging, difficult, and important jobs there is. No one does it perfectly, and every parent needs and deserves an extensive toolkit and lots of help and support.
Communication classes or coaching can offer support, perspective, and skill building. Therapists and counselors can offer help with healing the past. Mediators can offer a calm safe space to have productive conversations between parents and teens when the topic is difficult.