A couple of years back, in my capacity as a newspaper journalist, I spent the day on a ride-along with Linda, an Ontario Provincial Police officer. “There are holding cells here, right?” I asked as we pulled into the detachment parking lot. “Sure. There’s two of them,” she replied. “Can I see? I’ve always promised my boys if they get picked up by the police, to save their quarters because they’d be guests for the night.” “Wish more parents would do that,” she said with a sigh.
While it’s tough to watch your teen make poor choices, whether it’s blowing an opportunity she didn’t prepare for or getting in trouble at school—or worse, with the law—your job is to make sure she has the tools to make better decisions, not make them for her. “You want children who can recover from adversity, not just avoid it,” says Hamilton, Ont., social worker Gary Direnfeld.
Direnfeld says to be most effective in holding children accountable for their actions, “they have to observe you being responsible.” Don’t model one behaviour, but preach another. He also notes that teens are often long on argument (“I was late, because I didn’t know what time it was”), but short on action. “It’s up to the parent to turn down the volume and observe the behaviour. There should never be the appearance of a power struggle. Don’t escalate the moment, but be consistent and make the consequences reasonable.” Removing Internet privileges might be appropriate for breaking curfew, but if they are caught vandalizing, time spent cleaning it up is required.
One of the biggest factors in parental leniency, says Direnfeld, is often guilt. “Guilt, either from not spending enough time or not being able to spend a lot of money on our kids, can lead us to emotional decisions that don’t lead to a child becoming responsible.” Direnfeld reminds parents that giving in to requests may seem easier, but staying consistent creates boundaries.
Larry Winget, an internationally known speaker and author of the bluntly titled Your Kids Are Your Own Fault: A Guide to Raising Responsible, Productive Adults (Gotham), says parents need to own up to their own shortcomings. “I see parents blaming everything else—media, music, TV—and that’s nonsense. You control that, and you need to remember that. An out-of-control 14-year-old was an out-of-control 14-month-old,” he says.
But is it too late? Is your out-of-control teen destined to fail? According to Winget, the second you recognize the problem is the second you can start fixing it. “Sit that kid down and apologize to him. Tell him you messed up by not being strong enough, not being enough of a parent. And then lay out how it’s going to be, and quit blaming everything else on your mistakes.”
That’s what Samantha Bell* wishes she had done earlier with her youngest. By age 16, Claire* was taking Ecstasy. Her grades plummeted, depression followed and her parents were desperate for help. But by trying to shoulder Claire’s issues, they only made things worse.
“I’d always tried to be my daughter’s friend. Big mistake. I was just enabling her to get worse and worse. It wasn’t until she started stealing and got violent with her older sister—who called the police—that we finally stood up to her. We pressed charges. We refused to bail her out. She dropped out of school, was in and out of a shelter, until she finally got herself back to school. Now she is working and is also in her second year of university.”
Direnfeld stresses a parent’s job is to raise a responsible child. Feel free to help them set up the right atmosphere to get their homework done, but don’t do it for them. Direnfeld also cites a common occurrence: What do you do when your teen forgets her project/homework/gym gear at home? Again. The correct response? “That’s between you and your teacher, not me and my car keys.”
Teens need to learn that they can always follow a bad decision with a good one, and both experts agree: You are still your child’s first, best role model. Take that role seriously, don’t surrender it and don’t waste another day wishing you had claimed it.
* Names have been changed