Questions & Answers About Strong-Willed Adolescent

Q: Which year is most challenging when raising a strong-willed child?

A: Based on our survey of thirty-five thousand parents, the most rebellious yearof childhood is eighteen. That is because a boy or girl in late adolescence feels he or she is "grown" and therefore resents anything that even resembles parental leadership or authority. It makes no difference that the young personisstill living under Mom and Dad's roof and eating at their table. Teens havean intense desire to say, "Get off my back!" The second most challenging year is sixteen, and the third is fourteen. These findings vary from one individual to another, but those three years typically produce the most conflict and resentment. Then,if the young adult moves out, things get much better quickly.

Q: Generally speaking, what kind of discipline do you recommend for a teenager who is habitually miserable to live with?

A: That takes us back to what I wrote about using action to get action, rather than using anger to get action. The action approach offers one of the few tools available to very heady teenagers. Any time you can get them to do what is necessary without becoming furious, you are ahead of the game. Let me provide a few examples of how this might be accomplished.

1. I've been told that years ago in Russia, teenagers convicted of using drugs were denied their driver's license for years. Here in the United States, Michigan lawmakers recently passed a law prohibiting students from getting their license if they were caught calling in a prank bomb threat.29 Both tactics have proved effective.

2. When my daughter was a teenager, she used to slip into my bathroom and confiscate my razor, my shaving cream, my toothpaste, or my comb. Of course, she never brought them back. Then after she had gone to school, I would discover that something was missing. There I was with wet hair or "fuzzy" teeth, trying to locate the confiscated item in her bathroom. It was not a big deal, but it was irritating at the time. Can you identify?

I asked Danae a dozen times not to do this, but to no avail. Thus, the phantom (that would be me) struck without warning one cold morning. I hid everything she needed to put on her "face" and thenleft for the office. My wife told me she had never heard such wails and moans as were uttered that day. Our daughter plunged desperately through bathroom drawers looking for her toothbrush, comb, and hair dryer. My problem never resurfaced.

3. A family living in a house with a small hot-water tank was continuallyfrustrated by their teenager's endless showers. Everyone who followed him had to take a cold bath. Screaming at him did no good. Once he was locked behind the bathroom door, he stayed in the steamy stall until the last drop of warm water had been drained. Solution? In midstream, Dad stopped the flow of hot water by turning a valve at the tank. Cold water suddenly poured from the nozzle. Junior popped out of the shower in seconds.

4. A single mother couldn't get her daughter out of bed in the morning until she announced a new policy: The hot water would be shut off promptly at 6:30 a.m. The girl could either get up on time or bathe in ice water. Another mother had trouble getting her eight-year-old out of bed each morning. She then began pouring bowls of frozen marbles under the covers with him each morning. The marbles ran to the center of the bed, precisely where his body lay. The sleepy boy arose quite quickly.

5. Instead of standing in the parking lot and screaming at students who drive too fast, school officials now put huge bumps in the road that jar the teeth of those who ignore them. They do the job quite nicely.

6. You as the parent have the car that a teenager needs, the money that he covets, and the authority to grant or withhold privileges. If push comes to shove, these chips can be exchanged for commitments to live responsibly, share the workload at home, and stay off little brother's back. This bargaining process works for younger kids too. I like the one-to-one trade-off for television viewing time. It permits a child to watch one minute of television for every minute spent reading.

The possibilities are endless.

Q: My sixteen-year-old daughter is driving me crazy. She is disrespectful, noisy, and selfish. Her room looks like a pigpen, and she won't work any harder in school than absolutely necessary to get by. Everything I taught her, from manners to faith, seems to have sailed through her ears. What in the world should my husband and I do now?

A: I'm going to offer you some patented advice that may not make sense orseem responsive to the problem you've described. But stay with me. The most important thing you can do for your daughter is to just get her through it. The concept is a bit obscure, so let me make an effort to explain it.

Imagine your daughter is riding in a small canoe called Puberty on the Adolescent River. She soon comes to a turbulent stretch of white water that rocks her little boat violently. There is a very real danger that she will capsize and drown. Even if she survives today's rapids, it seems inevitable that she will be caught in swirling currents downstream and plunge over the falls. That is the apprehension harbored by millions of parents with kids bouncing along on the wild river. It's the falls that worry them most.

Actually, the typical journey down the river is much safer than believed. Instead of the water becoming more violent downstream, it eventually transitions from frightening rapids to tranquility once more. What I'm saying is that I believe your daughter is going to be okay even though she is now splashing and thrashing and gasping for air. Her little boat is more buoyant than you might think. Yes, a few individuals do go over the falls, usually because of drug abuse or another addictive behavior. But even some of those kids climb back in the canoe and paddle on down the river. Most will regain their equilibrium in a few years. In fact, the greatest danger of sinking a boat could come from parents!

The philosophy we applied with our teenagers (and you might try with yours) can be called "loosen and tighten." By this I mean we tried to loosen our grip on everything that had no lasting significance and tighten down on everything that did. We said yes whenever we possibly could to give support to the occasional no. And most important, we tried never to get too far away from our kids emotionally.

It is simply not prudent to write off a son or daughter, no matter how foolish, irritating, selfish, or insane a child may seem to be. You need to be there, not only while his or her canoe is bouncing precariously, but also after the river runs smooth again. You have the remainder of your life to reconstruct the relationship that is now in jeopardy. Don't let anger fester for too long. Make the first move toward reconciliation. And, finally, be respectful, even when punishment or restrictions are necessary.

Then wait for the placid water in the early twenties.

Q: Give me a straightforward answer to the question: How can I best survive the tumultuous years of my three strong-willed teenagers?

A:  I have long recommended that parents whose kids are in the middle ofatumultuous adolescent experience must maintain a "reserve army." Let me explain:A good military general will never commit all his troops to combat at the same time. He maintains a reserve force that can relieve the exhausted soldiers when they falter on the front lines. I wish parents of adolescents would implement the same strategy. Instead, they commit every ounce of their energy and every second of their time to the business of living, holding nothing in reserve for the challenge of the century. It is a classic mistake that can be disastrous for parents of strong-willed adolescents.

The problem begins with a basic misunderstanding during the preschool years. I hear mothers say, "I don't plan to work until the kids are in kindergarten. Then I'll get a job." They appear to believe that the heavy demands on them will end magically when they get their youngest in school. In reality, the teen years will generate as much pressure on them as the preschool era did. An adolescent turns a house upside down ... literally and figuratively. Not only is the typical rebellion of those years an extremely stressful experience, but the chauffeuring, supervising, cooking, and cleaning required to support an adolescent can be exhausting. Someone within the family must reserve the energy to cope with those new challenges. Mom is usually the candidate of choice. Remember, too, that menopause and a man's midlife crisis are scheduled to coincide with adolescence, which makes a wicked soup! It is a wise mother who doesn't exhaustherself at a time when so much is going on at home.

I know it is easier to talk about maintaining a lighter schedule than it is to secure one. It is also impractical to recommend that all mothers not seek formal employment during this era. Millions of women have to work for economic reasons, including the rising number of single parents in our world. Others choose to pursue busy careers. That is a decision to be made by a woman and her husband,and I would not presume to tell them what to do.

But decisions have inevitable consequences. In this case, there are biophysical forces at work that simply must be reckoned with. If, for example, 80 percent of a woman's available energy in a given day is expended in getting dressed, driving to work, doing her job for eight or ten hours, and stopping by the grocery store on the way home—then there is only 20 percent left for everything else. Maintaining the family, cooking meals, cleaning the kitchen, relating to her husband, and engaging in all other personal activities must be powered by that diminishing resource. It is no wonder that her batteries are spent by the end of the day. Weekends should be restful, but they usually are not. Thus, she plods through the years on her way to burnout.

This is my point: A woman in this situation has thrown all her troops into frontline combat. She has no reserve to call on. In that weakened condition, the routine stresses of raising an adolescent can be overwhelming. Let me say it again. Raising boisterous teenagers is an exciting and rewarding, but also frustrating, experience. Teens' radical highs and lows affect our mood. The noise, the messes, the complaints, the arguments, the sibling rivalry, the missed curfews, the paced floors, the wrecked cars, the failed tests, the jilted lovers, the wrong friends, the busy telephone, the pizza on the carpet, the ripped new shirt, the rebellion, the slammed doors, the mean words, the tears—it's enough to drive a rested mother crazy. But what about a career woman who already gave at the office, then came home to this chaos? Any unexpected crisis or even a minor irritant can set off a torrent of emotion. There is no reserve on which to draw. In short, the parents of adolescents should save some energy with which to cope with aggravation!

Whether or not you are able to accept and implement any of this advice is your business. It is mine to offer, and this is my best shot. To help you get through the turbulence of adolescence, you should:

1. Keep the schedule simple.

2. Get plenty of rest.

3. Eat nutritious meals.

4. Stay on your knees.

When fatigue leads adults to act like hot-tempered teenagers, anythingcan happen at home.

Q: My son is now sixteen years old. We wish that we had instilled in him earlier many of the principles that you have talked about. He throws his clothes around the house, refuses to help with routine tasks, and generally makes life miserable for everyone else. Is there any hope for shaping his will at this rather late age?

A:  If any approach will succeed in charging his sluggish batteries or motivating him to live within the rules, it will probably involve an incentive-and-disincentive program of some variety. The following three steps might be helpful in initiating such a system:

1. Decide what is important to the youngster for use as a motivator. Two hours with the family car on date night is worth the world to a sixteen-year-old who has just gotten his or her license. (This could be the most expensive incentive in history if the young driver is a bit shaky behind the wheel.) An allowance is another easily available source of inspiration. Teenagers have a great need for cold cash today. A routine date with Helen Highschool might cost twenty dollars or more—in some cases far more. Yet another incentive may involve a fashionable article of clothing that would not ordinarily be within your teen's budget. Offering him or her a means of obtaining such luxuries is a happy alternative to the whining, crying, begging, complaining, and pestering that might occur otherwise. Mom says, "Sure, you can have the ski sweater, but you'll have to earn it." Once an acceptable motivator is agreed upon, the second step can be implemented.

2. Formalize the agreement. A contract is an excellent means of settlingon a common goal. Once an agreement has been written, it is signed by the parent and the teen. The contract may include a point system that enables your teenager to meet the goal in a reasonable time period. If you can't agree on the point values, you could allow for binding arbitration from an outside party. Let's examine a sample agreement in which Marshall wants a CD player, but his birthday is ten months away and he's flat broke. The cost of the player is approximately $150. His father agrees to buy the device if Marshall earns ten thousand points over the next six to ten weeks doing various tasks. Many of these opportunities are outlined in advance, but the list can be lengthened as other possibilities become apparent:

  a. For making bed and straightening room each morning              50 points

b. For each hour of studying...............150 points

c. For each hour of housecleaning or yard work..300 points

d. For being on time to breakfast and dinner.....40 points

e. For babysitting siblings (without conflict)              150 points per hour

f. For washing the car each week............250 points

g. For arising by 8:00 a.m. Saturday morning....100 points

While the principles are almost universally effective, the method will vary. With a little imagination, you can create a list of chores and point values that works in your family. It's important to note that points can be gained for cooperation and lost for resistance. Disagreeable and unreasonable behavior can be penalized fifty points or more. (However, penalties must be imposed fairly and rarely or the entire system will crumble.) Also, bonus points can be awarded for behavior that is particularly commendable.

3. Finally, establish a method to provide immediate rewards. Remember that prompt reinforcement achieves the best results. This is necessary to sustain teens' interest as they move toward the ultimate goal.A thermometer-type chart can be constructed, with the point scale listed downthe side. At the top is the ten-thousand-points mark, besideapicture of a CD player or other prize. Each evening, the daily points are totaled and the red portion of the thermometer is extended upward. Steady, short-term progress might earn Marshall a bonus of somesort—perhaps a CD of his favorite musician or a special privilege. If he changeshis mind about what he wishes to buy, the points can be diverted to another purchase. For example, five thousand points is 50percentof ten thousand and would be worth $75 toward another purchase. However, do not give your child the reward if he does not earn it. That would eliminate future uses of reinforcement. Likewise, donot deny or
postponethe goal once it is earned.

The system described above is not set in concrete. It should be adapted to the age and maturity of the adolescent. One youngster would be insulted by an approach that would thrill another. Use your imagination and work out the details with your son or daughter. This suggestion won't work with every teenager, but some will find it exciting. Lots of luck to you.

Book: The The New Strong-Willed Child

By Dr. James Dobson

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