Simcha Fisher: Teens, conflict, and discipline

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The transition from childhood to adulthood is excruciating at times but can be made easier.

I like teenagers. Good thing, too, as we currently have five teenaged kids living in our house (as well as two kids who have graduated to full-blown adulthood). They’re so much nicer to be around than when I was that age. They’re fun to talk to (well, sometimes); they’re funny (well, sometimes); they’re creative and interesting and helpful (well, sometimes). I like teenagers.

Well, sometimes. A lot of the time.

But still, there is conflict.  A teenager’s body grows in fits and starts, and not always in graceful proportions; and their psyches are doing the same thing. Even when they’re not suffering from hormonal tumult, they’re trying to make what is truly an excruciating transition from childhood to adulthood. It can get ugly. And no, I’m not always patient and understanding. But I’m also not always the raging volcano of injustice and retribution I was afraid I would be.

Conflict, and the need to impose discipline, are pretty much inevitable when you’re raising a teenager; but unless there are serious mental health problems and/or your teen is doing something massively dangerous or destructive like using hard drugs or running away from home, it should be possible to have a relationship that includes things besides conflict and discipline.

Here are a general principles I’ve learned:

You have to let them fail and feel the consequences of their failure — not because they deserve it, but because most kids literally won’t learn otherwise.  Sometimes you can see them heading for disaster, and you warn them and warn them and beg and plead and cajole and command, and they just don’t want to listen to you. It has to do with their quest for a firm identity, and part of their identity is their parents, so they have to reject everything that has to do with their parents, including things that any mildly sentient cat could see is true and reasonable.

So if you say, “If you touch that stove, you will get burned,” what will they do? They will touch the stove. They will get burned. And this is how (sometimes after many such burns) they will eventually learn that stoves are indeed hot, and should not be touched. They will not, however, learn that their parents know what they are talking about, so don’t expect that. That piece of the puzzle won’t fall into place for years, maybe decades. Oh well.

Try to discipline without harming their dignity. Kids often act badly because they feel powerless, and they are at a weird age where they’re rapidly becoming capable of doing more and more things, with more and more serious consequences; and at the same time, they’re aware of more and more of the hypocrisy and failings of the people who have power over them. This mismatch is extremely hard on their sense of justice and personal dignity. And they are also startlingly easy to crush (yes, even the arrogant, confident ones). So parents do need to exert authority over their kids, including handing down punishments and consequences when necessary; but it’s always a good idea to do so without humiliating them or crushing their sense of self-worth.

One way to do this is, when you have to lower the boom, to ask them what they think reasonable consequences for their bad behaviour would be, and incorporate as much of their advice as is reasonable. This gives them some autonomy, and isn’t just the Powers That Be being cruel from above; and it also gives them a chance to assess their own behaviour honestly and think critically about what is a reasonable next step. Sometimes kids are far more sorry than they want to admit to you; and sometimes they are even too hard on themselves. Then you will have the privilege of giving them a lighter sentence than they think they deserve, which can only be good for your relationship.  And if you can’t take their advice, at least you’ve given them a chance to give it.

Let them be mad about stuff you did wrong. This is a hard one, but it does seem like an important part of development of identity to clearly name your parents’ failings and to be justly angry about them. Heck, I’m still doing it myself, at age 45. It’s good policy to acknowledge your failings to your kids, and to apologise for them simply and sincerely, and then to move on. If the kid wants to use it as a weapon, and bring up your mistakes over and over again to make you bend to their will or ignore their own failings, then you don’t have to put up with that. But it doesn’t do anyone any good to make it seem like you never make mistakes or never do anything wrong. They know this isn’t so. What they need is a model for how to acknowledge wrongdoing and recover from it.

You can disapprove without cutting them off. Almost nothing is so bad that it’s worth breaking off ties with your kids, or knowingly making them feel like you don’t love and care for them anymore. Even if you’re very angry or they’ve done something really awful, it should never be your goal or policy to reject them. They are learning from you who they are and why they are important, and if you teach them that they’re not important, they may literally never recover. Now, many teens want nothing but unqualified affirmation, and identify anything less than this as rejection.

Sometimes they perceive legitimate criticism or lack of enthusiasm as rejection; sometimes you say the wrong thing, or the right thing more harshly than you should have. So some level of rejection is more or less inevitable. But it’s a good idea to stop and assess what you’re projecting to your kids, overall. If you had to come up with a mental image of how you relate to them day to day, is it an image of something more open, or more closed? You can actively search for ways to be open to them as human beings, even without accepting everything they choose to do and say.

Keep reminding yourself that you’re the adult. Your teenage kid’s behaviour may be revolting and inexcusable, and they probably know your weaknesses and sore points better than anyone else. But that’s not carte blanche to respond in kind. Why? Because you’re the adult. You have resources; you have maturity; you have places you can vent; and you have the freedom not to stoop to unfair and unbecoming tactics just because no one will hold you to account. You have the self-confidence to apologise when you do slip up. Remember, you’re modeling the kind of behaviour you want them to someday imitate.

I often think of the words of Pope John XXIII, who said that his policy for running the Church was: “See everything, overlook a great deal, correct a little.” This won’t prevent you from making errors, because you still have to decide which things to overlook and which to correct. And of course it won’t guarantee that your kids will turn out well. They have free will, just like you do, and ultimately it’s up to them whether to become a decent person or not.

But it’s a good model for the general attitude to take. Don’t drop the reins, but hold them loosely whenever you can.

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