Even the most easygoing parents have implicit expectations of the way their teenagers should behave: that they are respectful, that they’ll get along with people and, that they’ll try to do their best. When our adolescents breach our expectations, the tendency is to either take offence and use force, or feel helpless and withdraw from any potential conflict with them. These are common parental reactions in the face of potentially difficult-to-manage situations.
But, what can parents do when a weighty problem arises? What can parents keep in mind to optimise their chances of resolving a teenager’s problem behaviour?
Of course, we can get angry and make threats. Or, we can sit down and talk with our teenager about what is happening. What is needed in these instances is a purposeful conversation aimed at getting your teen to shape up. There are a number of useful conversation rules that are used by professional mediators that can also be used by parents to make these types of conversations more fruitful. Here are a few tips:
- To start with, give your adolescent notice that you want to have a talk with him. Maybe flag what the topic will be. Make a time to sit down together – perhaps later that afternoon. This type of flagging is important as it helps the adolescent to think through the topic before you get to it.
- When you start the conversation, give him a pad and a pen to write things down that he may want to blurt out or interrupt you with. Start the conversation by saying you want to talk for five minutes, without him saying anything. Get his agreement first, that he will listen (he can write stuff down) while you talk for five minutes. Then, once you’ve had your say, he can have his turn to talk for five minutes and you will listen.
- Describe the problem as you see it in simple factual language – without emotion or emotive language. Say something like, ‘I want to talk with you about what happened in the car the other day when you had your Ls on’. Try not to imply motive on his behalf. In other words, don’t say things like, ‘The other day when you were driving with your Ls on, you were really hell-bent on making us all feel scared.’ Rather, say what you saw and what you heard. ‘What I saw happen was that as we approached that lady on the side of the road in the 50 zone I did not see you slow down. I reckon you came within 30cms of her. After we went past her I saw you….’
- Describe the gap between what you saw happen (or expected) and the actual behaviour: “When we’re all driving in the car together; it’s really important for everyone to feel safe. The other day I didn’t feel safe because you did not put your foot on the brake when we neared that woman on the edge of the road. I want you to think about how you might avoid this situation in the future.’
- If he gets upset while you are doing this, step back from what you are saying to acknowledge the threat he is experiencing. In other words, put what you want to say ‘on hold’ to restore his feeling of safety, before returning to the topic. ‘I can see that what I am saying is really annoying for you. I know that you generally try to drive safely. I want to find a way for us both to be happy with your driving.’ The trick here is to momentarily step away and bookmark where you are up to, without losing your original conversation focus. Restore safety first, and then re-enter the conversation. ‘Now…., let’s get back to our conversation about what happened the other day…… (You may need to do this ‘stepping away’ and ‘bookmarking’ several times if necessary.)
- Seek an undertaking from the young person that he or she will meet certain agreed-upon behaviour, within an agreed time frame. Agree to check-in at some point, especially if the change requires an on-going effort and commitment on his behalf. Sum up: “Okay, so what we have agreed upon is that I will keep my comments about your driving to an absolute minimum when we go for driving lessons but, at the end of our driving time, I will try extra hard to let you know when you have done well. And, you agree to follow my instructions when I see something potentially dangerous happening.’
These are just a few ideas for managing your adolescents’ behaviour, while helping them grow into independent decision-makers. Remember, all adolescents are negotiating the sometimes-difficult path of developing their own identity and place in the world. They’ll make mistakes, and so will we as their parents, but if we try to find common ground and use well tested conversation techniques used by top mediators, we’ll make our way through these times with fewer meltdowns.