Saturday, March 29, 2014

Challenging Teen, Redux

challenging child, difficult child, parenting teens
Do you have a strong willed teen giving you fits? Looking for that magical thing that will make everything all better?

I don't have the answers, but today I think I'm doing pretty well with mine...  Figuring out the best way to parent this challenging child in the best way possible has been a full time job for me, trying to help her to grow up to live a healthier and happier life, a life without so much contention and drama.  It's not easy and both of us struggle with it...but it’s worth the struggle because it matters to us.

I'm actually grateful that my daughter is strong-willed.  I was a mousy teen.  Wishy-washy is how I thought of myself.  So while I was pregnant with Elizabeth, I frequently heard myself saying that I wanted a strong-willed child, a child just like my sister, I would say. 

Well...I got one!  So, to me the term "strong-willed" is not a pejorative.  It is a challenge!

Of course, there are no magic bullets in the parenting game because we are all human and complex, but I have figured out a few things in how to parent this child who is quite strong-willed and who struggles with her own constellation of distorted thinking types that are a part of her inner voice.

The parenting style of the last generation, my parents’ generation, would not bring this child up to be healthy or happy.  That authoritative parenting that I grew up with would likely create a tyrannical bully or an insecure mouse of my child. I didn't want my self-doubting daughter to become a person that couldn’t look herself in the eye. My goal in being her parents was to avoid the negative stereotypes and knee jerk reactive responses to her behavior that were so prevalent in my childhood.

I’m quite sure that my parents did the best that they knew how to be and that their parenting style was one the intended to create strong adults. The problem with their style was that it didn’t take into account the variations in children’s temperaments and didn’t encourage parental growth as well as child’s maturity. Because, remember, we as parents are always growing and learning. As our children cycle through their own lives we parents must also educate ourselves to be the best parent to the child that our child has become as they grow.

While traveling this journey with my daughter I have learned a few lessons in what will not work. For example, a token economy-type arrangement does not work with the strong-willed child.  John:  He's thrilled to "earn" good points, special treats, rewards of all kinds.  Elizabeth could not care less!  She laughs at the idea that I might think I can buy her co operation in this way.  OH NO! Not this kid.

I read the Love and Logic stuff one time. I felt my hackles rising as they talked about how to deal with your child...seemed alot like becoming adversaries to your child. I thought it was a problem waiting to happen, or a thing that would teach your child to find newer and more secretive ways to appear cooperative while growing every more distant from you.

Hidden not-so-deep down, many challenging children are struggling with feeling lovable, feeling strange, feeling so many different negatives...  Figuring this out what may seem obvious to you was a light bulb moment for me.

I have also learned that my teen doesn't like to argue with me, although it certainly seems so at times.  Conflict with me leads her to feel misunderstood and devalued.  She far prefers to feel capable, respected, and loved.  I am pretty sure that being heard and being understood are the major goals of her life right now.  If she could accomplish these things without the drama, I'm sure she would do it.
Another piece of the puzzle was figuring out that my own struggle didn’t have to be in silence. When we talked, I always shared my efforts with my daughter, letting her know that at each point I was trying to do what seemed respectful, full of guidance, full of listening ears, dependable, and honest. She never has to guess if I am on her side. 

Another lesson I have learned is that those teen years don't necessarily have to be about teens growing away as they grow up.  You can continue to experience delight and joy with your teen as long as your relationship with your teen stays strong (or gets repaired.)  Members of our own extended family tend to view our close relationship as enmeshed or unhealthy in some way. I think that it is a shame that people can’t attempt to understand, but, instead, judge from the outside. Although our culture tends to disrespect a close parent/teen bond, each family has it in their power to create a family of their own definition.\ 

Allow your teens to direct their own lives, learning, healthy activities, and passions just as much while they are teens as you did when they were little ones.  Celebrate with them.  Be sensitive to their feelings.  Acknowledge their struggles.  Enter into difficult but honest conversations.  Learn new ways of dealing with their growing and questioning minds.  Support their journey.  Recognize that behavior often stems from cognitive distortions or thinking patterns that bring on anger, confusion, drama, angst. Taking this active role, making it a point to understand rather than just feel exasperated means that you exhibit a willingness to grow and evolve as a parent.  It can be messy, but worth it.

Elizabeth ALWAYS appreciates knowing that I am truly trying, that I am genuinely on her side, that while I might not agree with her point of view I respect it and I seek to support her. This is the key to being a great parent to her...they are actually the key to being a good human being as well.

As I have grown as a parent I have worked hard to figure out the best ways to parent my daughter.  I have these few hard-won truths that underlie my philosophical approach to being the best parent I can be for her.  I have a few truths that I have had as a starting point when feeling like I am in a muddle, which happens often these days.  

The Truths

· Say "Yes" - Unless a thing is unhealthy, unsafe, or unethical, I want to be able to tell my children "yes" as much as possible.  Why?  Because I want my kids to know that they can make choices and to live with those choices.  In general, I still stand behind this.  But I have regretted it on occasion. 

· Expect your child to treat others kindly - Under no circumstances is it okay to victimize another person or to make them subservient. Remind her of this when necessary. 

· Avoid punishment and grounding - In almost every case, this type of parenting merely sets up a negative feedback loop.  The teen feels misunderstood and sits and stews in those feelings.  Talking a crisis through is a better way of encouraging a teen to work through the overwhelming emotions.  Almost no teen ever went into a grounding without also slamming a door.  At least mine never has!  And the point of this struggle to become a better parent is to teach rather than punish.

· Be honest - As long as my children are honest with me about mistakes, I always give some leeway in consequences.  And my honestly with them lets them know I trust and respect them. Also be honest when you are struggling with figuring out how to respond to a situation.  This means that I also encourage my child’s honesty and I allow her to use any word or expression to help her to express feelings that feel unmanageable and huge to her. I often have to hear curse words. But I don't care. That is a small price to pay for having her know that I am truly listening.

· Always model mature behavior - Regardless of how pissed off I am, I seldom go off on my daughter.  I have raised my voice, but I know that she uses my increased volume as a sign to increase her own.  If I need a time out, I take one.  Because the fact is, once the volume goes up the listening goes down.

· Involving Elizabeth in decisions about her life does not take away my authority, but it shows her that I respect her opinions and needs and that I think she has a great deal to offer. This encourages her own self confidence and maturity. 

· View "Defiance" as a problem with the relationship in that moment - rather than as an issue with someone's personality.  At this point think about how to improve the relationship. Just stop, take a breath, and remind yourself that winning a battle with your teen always sets you up to lose what’s most important: the relationship. Not surprisingly, my daughter is always aware of this transition in an interaction and she transitions as well. Remember, the teen is the one who needs to learn maturity and their tool kit is inadequate for many situations. 

· Recognize she is feeling out of control - At the moments of her worst outbursts and behavior, I know she is feeling either out of control, painted into a corner, or in a "down" position.  At any one moment, she is doing the best she can so I have to be aware of these meta messages and make changes accordingly. 

· Our relationship matters - I have this advantage, there is no doubt that our relationship means a great deal to both of us.  Some parents may not have this advantage. Lizzie is tough, it is true.  But I know that no matter how hard she makes things, at some point she will always come to me, apologize, and be able to talk and think again.

· Remember that the teen, during those awful explosions, feels completely out of control and does not have the tools to handle the huge emotions that they are experiencing. Compassion is a nice response to that out of control feeling. 

· Reinforce the desired behavior - Without fail, expecting a child to learn from negative consequences will not produce the desired behavior.  We all know this. And breaking these patterns takes time and mindful effort.

· And reconnect. Once things calm down, talk about the event in a distant clinical way. For example try using words like these:  When this happened what were you thinking?  I meant to say this and I think the emotion was so high that neither of us were communicating clearly at this point. Let’s figure out a way to communicate clearly before our difficult moments get so high that we feel we have lost control. It matters because you matter.  Hug. Write a supporting note. Leave some supportive sign.

In Summary...

There is no magic bullet.
It's exhausting.
It makes us doubt ourselves.
As the parent, we find ourselves wondering what we have done wrong.
It is a process.
But kindness, compassion, and love are the keys to all of life and especially to the relationships that we have with our children.
So it's worth the effort.

It takes time and consistency, which can be in short supply when we are on our last nerve. But once you can get the ball rolling and once you can enlist your child to be on the same page, I know that the small victories will make it all worthwhile.

This post has been approved
by Elizabeth
This is a revised and updated version of an old post.
All photos are of Elizabeth's bedroom door.

You may also enjoy reading:


  1. Love this post! Even though I don't have teens yet (a just turned 12 year old and an 8 year old), I have used and still use similar communication and relationship building skills since they were young and I think it definitely has helped contribute to healthy relationships and communication skills for all involved.

    1. Thanks, Julie.
      As it happens, we've had a ROUGH week.
      But all will be well. <3

      I agree with you that teaching this type of communication is wonderful when started early! Mine might have rolled their eyes a bit, but both of them are really wonderful communicators now.


Leave a comment!