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What to do when your teen refuses to make good decisions!

By Brandon Joffe, LCSW

Often when a parent is seeking therapy with a troubled teen there are built-up resentments and fears. Parents have usually tried everything to get their teen on the right track, having countless arguments and lectures trying to reason with the “not fully developed” teen brain. By the time the parent sits in front of me, he/she has usually tried every reward and punishment possible. The parent is usually afraid for the teen’s future and resentful of the teen's nonchalant attitude. Parents question, “after all I’ve done for you” how can my child ignore my efforts? A happy healthy lifestyle does not come without monumental effort on a parent's part. Teens seem to avoid and challenge a parent’s devotion to ensuring they can provide for themselves when they reach adulthood (which is impending at an exceedingly fast rate). Could it be that social media has influenced their minds to such an extent that struggle is no longer existent? Are lofty life goals extinct?

In many cases the teen is struggling in school, making bad choices, and/or hanging out with others who are not considered good influences. The teen will often seem to bypass the bad choices and all the chances the parent has given by flipping the narrative to “whatever I do I can’t please you”. In talking to the parent, I do my best to help them get focused on the relationship first and let go of the things that they cannot control. This is a hard shift in thinking to make. Naturally one does not want to miss a parenting opportunity and you feel like you cannot let your troubled child get away with anything. Putting the relationship first is a spirit and an attitude that helps in the long run. It might mean that your child gets away with something a time or two without getting a lecture, but ultimately it will not diminish the influence you have over your child.

One of the areas that parents get stuck on is grades and school. Education is important, however, time and time again I discuss with parents that for all their arguments and punishments they don’t feel they have made a dent in persuading their teen to try harder or do better in school. Often their failed attempts to set their child straight through traditional parenting wisdom have resulted in exhausted parents, a fractured parent-child relationship, the strain on the marriage, a lot of wasted miserable angry moments, and worse performance in school. I propose that in this situation parents take a step back, let go of everything that is not working (even if it should be working), and get focused on repairing the relationship on their end first.

With many parents the conversation goes something like this at first:

“Brandon, I understand everything you are saying, and it makes sense. I do need to lay off and not focus so much on everything they are doing wrong.”

Then I wait for a moment…

“But if he/she would just wake up on time and do just a little bit of their homework, I wouldn’t get so angry, and I could lay off. We are not even asking for very much from them”.

As a parent, it is hard to wrap your head around not focusing on the issues at hand with your child. That is one of the reasons I developed the “90/10” rule at Inspired Resolutions. This rule says that you spend 90% of your time engaged with your child doing and talking about fun and surface-type things and only 10% of your time engaged in parenting-type things.

Often parents will report to me that their child is more focused on something else rather than focusing on school. Some of the recent common examples have been skating, surfing, video games, technology, working on cars, and selling things like shoes online. Now I agree that your child should be focused on school and some of the other things that traditionally set them up for success in the future, but how many times are you going to nag and remind them of this point? While it may go against traditional parenting wisdom and it could even feel like you are almost enabling or supporting the thing you believe they are doing wrong, I challenge you to not only show interest in their alternate focuses but also acknowledge their successes and passions for these alternate focuses. Your parent brain will tell you not to do this and that somehow you are enabling or giving permission for the behavior or lack of that you are bothered by. This shift will make it more likely that you build and heal the relationship that you become someone they are influenced by. In a way, this is like the yin and yang of parenting. You are capable of celebrating your child’s interests and hobbies while maintaining your parental responsibilities.


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