Young Teen, Poor Choices

Q: This year, my 14-year-old son started a new, academically-driven private high school. He became friends immediately with his peer group on the football team, and we’ve allowed him some new freedom to hang out at their homes and spend the night a couple of times. We made it clear that this is his opportunity to choose the right friends from the start, because in middle school he had some undesirable friends that we didn’t allow him to socialize with. He has always been an excellent student and athlete, but hasn’t had much of a social life outside of school since we restricted his friendships.

Recently, we discovered that our son was drinking at one of the new friend’s homes, and that several of these new football friends have poor reputations. I am at a loss for how to deal with this latest dilemma. I don’t want to restrict friendships forever, but clearly he is not responsible in this area. I think the drinking itself is an isolated event, but he was bragging about it to some old friends at church, and they expressed concern that this is his new normal (thinking that drinking is cool). I’m concerned that continuing with these new friendships will lead to more undesirable behavior.

A: This is the age-old question that has plagued parents: How to get kids to choose the right friends. From family to family, the definition of “right” friends changes slightly, but for the most part, most parents want their kids to have friends who are positive and adhere to the family’s values in word and deed.

But that desire often conflicts with a teen’s desire to choose his own friends, forge to his identity and live his own life. As a teen tries on different personas to see where he fits into the high school social scene, he will often make mistakes and pick the wrong crowd or the right crowd for the wrong reasons.

While your intentions were good, I think you might have jumped the gun a bit to allow him new freedom without investigating whether or not these new friends were the sort that you wanted him to hang out with. Not that I’m blaming you for his actions—I’m just pointing out that it’s our job as parents to ask questions, hard questions, and to hold off on some of the freedoms (like spending the night, for example) until you get to know the kids in question a bit more.

My answer to questionable friends is to invite them to your house. Open your doors and have the kids in your basement. Check in frequently but not obnoxiously. Have them over for dinner in small groups. Talk to them—not grilling them, but see what they’re interested in. Teenagers respond to genuine interest and concern like anyone else.

For the drinking, I’d sit your son down and have a hard talk about underage drinking. In fact, I’d be grounding him for at least a month—this is serious stuff, and while he might have made a fairly innocent mistake, his bragging shows he’s aware that it wasn’t right for him to drink alcohol. I’d also call the parents of teen whose house they drank in to say this is what your son said. Not to point fingers, but to inform them. Then your son doesn’t go over there again, period.

During your short, but hard, talk, I’d also let him know the stakes—that you’re serious about his obeying the law. He might try to brush it off (“It’s no big deal, Mom!”) but you don’t let that sway you. In fact, even if you or your husband drank as a teen, you don’t tell him that. It’s not important to the conversation.

But you also let him know that you realize mistakes can be made, and that you will pick him up anytime, anywhere with no questions asked at that time. You want him to call or text you when he needs help.

Finally, make sure you are spending time with him, one on one, to talk about what he wants to talk about. We take our kids individually out for breakfast with mom or dad on a regular basis to reconnect and give them that personal time. Do things for him that he likes, make sure he’s contributing to the family with chores, and love him as much as you can.

The Power of Preparation

When we’re expecting a baby, we spend a lot of time preparing for its arrival—decorating the nursery, buying the right equipment and clothes, etc. When the baby comes, we spend a lot of time preparing for outings—do we have a diaper bag? Check. Diapers? Check. Toys? Check. Change of clothes? Check. Something to feed the baby? Check.

When the infant grows up into a preschooler, our bag of tricks gets smaller. Upon entering elementary school, we’re rejoicing that we’re no longer a pack horse weighed down by mounds of child paraphernalia.

Somewhere along the way, we forget that we still need to always be prepared when taking our kids out to a restaurant, on a car ride, to the store, to a friend’s house, to visit grandmother, etc. This can put our kids at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to behaving—kids with nothing to do and no way to occupy their mind (and hands and feet) usually becomes kids misbehaving. Occasionally, even with preparation, kids go off the rails. But spending a little time preparing for a trip to the store or across the country will hedge against misbehavior.

Here are my top 5 tips for helping kids entertain themselves outside of the home.

  1. Encourage reading. We shoved books in our kids’ hands from the time they were little—it was my go-to when a kid needed attention or I needed a few minutes to myself. This practice means my kids take books with them to read in the car, at the store, etc.
  2. Have a “go” or travel bag. When my kids were younger, we made sure they had a small bag filled with stuff they could do on their laps, such as magnetic boards or dolls, lace-ups, coloring books/crayons or colored pencils, small figurines or action figures, etc. We avoided electronics and noisy toys.
  3. Take the bag or book when going out. Our kids used to ask us when we told them to get ready to leave, “Will I need to bring something to do?” We usually erred on the side of “yes,” as there were many times a “quick” errand turned into a long wait at the register or rain meant staying inside without age-appropriate toys to play with. You’ll rarely be sorry you made them take their bag or book.
  4. Guide them in filling the time. For long car trips for the younger set, map out a loose schedule of when to color and when to listen to an audio book. Kids sometimes need our help to occupy themselves—not to entertain them, but to provide a bit of direction—as they have a hard time thinking outside the box when they’re bored or not in a familiar place.
  5. Mind the time. Everyone has their limits, so pushing for too much time in the car or trying to pack in too much time with extended family or not watching the clock while visiting friends can tip kids over into misbehavior land. Often, if we had heeded that inner voice that said it was time to stop or leave instead of lingering another half hour, things wouldn’t have gone south in a hurry.

As our kids have grown, they have continued the practice of being prepared to occupy themselves when not at home. It hasn’t always worked out well, but overall, it’s been a huge blessing for us, one that I hope you will work toward too.

When a Child Reacts Badly to Discipline

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Q: I’ve been using the ticket method* for my fourth grader to tackle some ongoing behavior problems. When she loses all her tickets due to the target misbehaviors, the consequence is to be in her room the rest of the day. Instead of going to her room, she instead throws a major fit and refuses to go. What is the best course of action then?

A: Sometimes, we get hung up on the letter of the law—in this case, that your child isn’t complying with the directive to go to her room. Does that mean the punishment is ineffective? No. Does it mean you should levy different consequences? No. Does it mean you should just ignore the infraction? No.

In this particular case, your child is having a temper tantrum because her behavior choices have resulted in losing her freedom. For the tantrum itself, I’d ignore it. Walk away. When the child has calmed down, reiterate that she should go to her room. Don’t threaten. Don’t plead. Just state and give her The Look (you have one, right?) and stare her down until she complies. This might take a few tantrums before the child realizes that you’re not going to back down.

Even if the child outright refuses to go physically to her room, you can still act like the child is in her room. All other activities stop for the child—no electronics, no friends, etc. So she might be on the floor of the living room, but she’s still “in his room” in all the ways that count.

Remember, what you don’t want to happen is that you get into a battle of the wills with your child—making her go to his room physically, yelling at him to comply, etc. Stay calm, stay cool—you’ve got this!


That Annoying, Bothersome Child

Starting when I was 12, my parents took in foster kids of all ages from a variety of backgrounds. When I was a young teen, 9-year-old Trudy (not her real name) arrived on our doorstep with a bag of clothes and head lice hidden by a bowl haircut. Freckles danced across her nose giving her an impish look that belied her rather rough personality. In short, Trudy was a brat, an extremely annoying child who did everything—and I do mean everything!—wrong. She hit, she had a whiny voice, she had no social graces, no ability to make friends. It was almost as if she was bound and determined to push everyone away so that no one could get close to her.

Like most foster kids, she came from a background that would break your heart—abused physically, sexually, mentally. Ignored, unloved. And so she forged her own abhorrent personality to cope with the truly horrible hand she had been dealt by life.

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But just because she was hard to love didn’t mean she was unloveable, as my parents demonstrated with patience and kindness and discipline and love. Lots and lots of unconditional love. It didn’t matter what Trudy did or didn’t do—my parents loved her. She drove me crazy with her antics, but because of my parents’ example, I loved her too.

I thought about Trudy recently when reading a post on Facebook about a young teenage girl with ADHD (“Milly”) who can be really annoying. The mom posting has a daughter (“Suzy”) who has had some run-ins/incidents with Milly. The mom wasn’t being snarky, and I know she’s probably genuinely concerned about her daughter. I know both parties and do understand both sides of the story.

But still, I wondered…Where is the compassion for Milly? Where is the understanding in the middle of the annoyance? Where is the tolerance for another, even one who does cross the line a time or two in tone or words? Do we just write off these kids and wash our hands because it’s hard? Do we allow our kids to do the same because it’s hard (when there’s no real abuse going on beyond annoyance)?

Loving those love us back, who make it easy by their personalities, isn’t difficult. Most of the time, we don’t even think about it. But loving and accepting those who make it hard, whose personalities repel us at times, that’s when the rubber meets the road.

We have to start by not labeling every annoying kid whose behavior pushes the limits or rubs another kid the wrong way. There’s true bullying and there’s “that kid is hard to be around because of her ineptness with social situations.”

We also need to teach our kids a compassionate response in the face of annoying behavior, and also kind responses. Our kids shouldn’t have to “take” an annoying personality but they should try to handle it in a kind way. Sometimes, that means telling a trusted adult. Sometimes, that means walking away. Sometimes, that means overlooking the other girl’s faults.

Because we never know when our influence or the influence of our kids can be the catalyst to change a child’s life. Remember Trudy? The world was stacked against her, but today, she’s the mother of three boys and by all accounts, a success story. Her upbringing and annoying personality didn’t dictate her future, and I know the positive influence of my parents (and perhaps, to a lesser degree, myself) had a lot to do with putting her on the right path.

Those Fighting Girls

Q: My two girls, ages 2 and 3, constantly fight when together (expect for one to three minutes at the beginning of play). My 3 year old is aggressive to her younger sister in the forms of hitting, scratching, bossing/bully, and making her do her work. The 2 year old has no trust with her sister, and if the 3 year old comes close, the 2 year old will automatically defend herself by hitting, scratching, screaming and biting. I also have a 6-month-old baby and I can’t watch these girls every second, nor should I have to watch them every second.

I feel very paralyzed to accomplish minor tasks around the house because these two can’t be trusted. I try to ignore some of the fighting, but they harm each other pretty good if I don’t intervene after a minute. What are ways to minimize the sibling rivalry and build trust between the two?

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A: Believe it or not, they will stop constantly fighting, but that day isn’t going to come soon! My two oldest are similarly close in age and girls as well, so I well remember the battles between them at 2 and 3! So, what’s a mother to do?

Separation is your friend. As much as possible, direct the girls to play in different areas of the house or room with different toys. When you hear the first yelp, intervene to separate the two of them. Don’t pick sides, but remove the toy and redirect. Repeat. This will take some time because the girls have gotten into a bad habit of fighting.

Then in quieter times, work with them on how to play together. Perhaps when the baby naps in the morning, spend 10 or 15 minutes playing alongside the girls, directing them gently but firmly on how to play together. Show them by doing, and they’ll catch on about sharing, etc. This isn’t something kids learn on their own!

Also help the girls do nice things for each other, like bringing toys they like or having the older sister “read” a book to the younger one. This type of interaction—again, directed by you—will help build more positive interactions with each other. My book, Ending Sibling Rivalry: Moving Your Kids From War to Peace, has a lot of other suggestions on building positive sibling relationships and conflict resolution. You can order a copy through my webstore.

Playing School

Q: My 9-year-old son is getting in trouble at school for playing games. He has also started missing assignments. He went to his room at 4 p.m. last Friday and Saturday evening for the remainder of the day. On Sunday, he had to sit in our formal living room for two hours to think about his choices. He has had no electronics of any kind, and still went back to school and played the games again. What more punishment will work?

A: You’ve fallen into the trap most parents stumble into at one point or another: looking for the magic bullet consequence to get a kid to change his behavior. But the fact of the matter is, there is no one perfect punishment that will make your son stop playing games at school when he’s supposed to be doing something else.

That’s because he doesn’t care about stopping that behavior.

Let me put it this way: Until Son cares about not playing games at school, he’s not going to change his behavior.

But that doesn’t mean you stop trying to influence him to change his ways with consequences. Parents should continue to do the right thing even when a child does the wrong thing. This is one of the hardest lessons for moms and dads to learn, because we want to fix the problem immediately. We want Junior to straighten up and fly right. And most of the time, children whose parents are consistent in applying punishments (but inconsistent with what those punishments are) will behave themselves. Not always, not all the time, but most of the time.

Image courtesy of nalinratphi/

Now, back to your son and his game playing at school. You don’t mention what the response of his teacher has been to his playing games, and you don’t mention what kind of games he’s able to play during class without the teacher noticing (which I assume is happening). Without some of these facts, I’m not sure how helpful I can be in addressing this problem.

So here’s a starting point. Use something like the report card method. Each day, your son has to bring home a piece of paper with either a Yes or No written and signed by his primary teacher. A Yes means he can go about his day normally. A No means he’s on lock down—restricted to his room without any of his toys, games, music, etc., and to bed very early (like 6 p.m.).

To get a Yes, he has to complete and turn in all assignments due that day or given in class to do, and to stay on task (no game playing, etc.). If he misses just one assignment or fails to stay on task, he gets a No for the day. He automatically gets a No if he fails to bring home the paper for any reason.

Each day starts new, with no carryovers from the previous day. Furthermore, you are only to ask about the report—not if he has homework, was on task, etc.

Plus, you support whatever the teacher or school wants to do in terms of punishment for his playing games in class. It’s essential to know that you are not going to bail him out for his own mistakes.

This might take a while to resolve itself, but consistence on your part without drama or overreaching to “make him care,” should get through to Son and provide enough of an impetus to change his game-playing ways.

A Kid’s Problem With “Alternative Facts”

Q: We are having honesty issues with our 6-year-old daughter. I’ve heard, “Ask no questions, and they’ll tell you no lies.” However there are times when we really require honesty, but are finding that she can be a bit murky with answers. For example, she will claim she’s hungry to get a snack earlier, claim she did not get out the umbrella to get out of trouble, or say she’s had a nap in order to stay up later in the evening.

It’s gotten the point that we are never sure if it’s the truth or just another lie. When asked a straightforward question, she is unable to give a straight answer, going from yes to no to maybe, or no answer at all, especially when she knows it’s important.

We have removed TV from her schedule, which she loves, and now require that she gets 30 stickers in a row (1 a day) for a day of honesty and straight, clean answers. When she lies, she goes to bed early that day. Have you any opinions on if we should continue the program? Or other suggestions on how else we could handle this problem?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

A: Ah, yes, the child with trouble telling the truth isn’t something new—this is an age-old problem! Yes, you should require honesty, but since your daughter has trouble with stating the facts then you need to stop asking her for honesty at this time. Some kids go through a phase where they can’t seem to tell the truth. I suspect she’ll outgrow this with a little assist from mom and dad. Here are my suggestions.

Stop asking her questions—and she will have fewer opportunities to lie. Use statements only with her and don’t let her drag you into arguing that “she didn’t do it” or whatever she might respond to your statement. Make your best reasonable guess as to her role in whatever situation and go with that.

Don’t engage in arguments. Just because a child wants to argue doesn’t mean the adult has to respond. This is key—you are the only one capable of walking away or not saying anything in response to the gauntlet your daughter throws down. For example, you notice the umbrella has been broken and you had told your daughter earlier not to play with it. You reasonable deduce that she has disobeyed. You tell her, “You broke the umbrella.” She responds, “No, I didn’t break it!” You repeat, “You broke the umbrella. Now X will happen.” She responds, “You’re always blaming me for everything!” You walk away.

Decide ahead of the situation what Daughter will be allowed to do. For example, you already know what you’ll do if Daughter asks for a snack or to stay up later, etc., regardless of whether she’s hungry, napped, etc. In other words, don’t let Daughter dictate these things—you already have a plan for the day. For instance, you decide to eat dinner earlier because of evening schedules, so you decide no snacks in the afternoon for the kids. You’ve noticed Daughter seems more tired lately, so you decide no late nights for the week. That sort of thing.

You also read stories about the importance of truthfulness. Stories like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, George Washington and the Cherry Tree and other books or tales provide a safe way for children to explore what it means to be dishonest and what the consequences are for those who lie. Literature is great at helping children realize their own faults.

For now, I’d stop the Honesty chart. Sometimes, when too much attention is paid to a particular problem like lying, it morphs into an even bigger one. Overall, stop talking about honesty and stop asking her for honesty for two to three months, and see if it doesn’t resolve itself.

A Clicking Sound

Q: My 10-year-old son is doing noises with him mouth that sound like clicks all the time. I can’t stand it anymore. He has autism, but I am not sure if it’s to let go stress or just because of a bad habit. It makes me go crazy. Do you have any suggestions before I lose my mind??

A: Ha, having a 10-year-old son myself (and an 8-year-old son), I know that of which you speak quite intimately! Kids love to make noises, some more than others. Sometimes, they love the feel of their mouth when they make that sound (think of kids who buzz their lips together, for example). Other times, it’s how it sounds to their ears that gives them pleasure. The sound could be related to a game they enjoy playing, such as making clip-clop sounds when pretending to be a horse, or it could be background noise while they concentrate on something else.

But that doesn’t mean you have to listen to it constantly. Here’s my ingenious solution that works wonders: Tell your son that you’ve noticed how much he enjoys making those neat sounds with his mouth (be as sincere as possible, because I’ll bet he really enjoys making those sounds). To help him when making those sounds, you have come up with the best place in the house for him to make those sounds (pick a place that’s out of the way and out of your hearing!). So when he wants to make those sounds, he can go to his special sound place and click to his heart’s content.

You’ll need to gently redirect him to that special place for a bit, but he’ll get the hang of it soon. You won’t have to hear it, but he can do it if he wants to. Win-win! This also helps kids strengthen their self-control, a very valuable skill to have.

I did this with my boys and bathroom noises/words—they could say all potty talk they wanted to…in the bathroom with the door closed. At first, I had to direct them to the bathroom, but soon, they would run into the bathroom, close the door, say the words/noises before running back out. Worked like a charm and allowed boys to be boys (but I didn’t have to hear it!).

Mr. Negativity

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Q: My 9-year-old stepson seems increasingly negative and anxious. We thought it was due to our move (still within a half hour of the mother), but his mom mentioned that he complains he has no friends at school since his friends are in different classes/recesses. It coincides with him crying when his father leaves for work (he didn’t do this previously), crying after he comes here because he misses his mom, and crying when he goes there because he misses his dad. 

There is lots of crying for other reasons as well. I don’t know if he cries at school, but I suspect if he does that is increasing his social isolation. The only times he truly lights up is when he describes past injuries or illnesses, or say, the paper cut he got that day. He played goalie for hockey and the first thing he told me was he caught a puck on bare skin. Not that he blocked a bunch of shots and they won the game.

We try to emphasize the good happening and downplay every gripe he gives. From what I know of his other home environment, small injuries are fawned over and all feelings are discussed and parsed/etc. When he’s with other kids, he delights in enforcing rules and lording over people, despite not being particularly good at the games/sports. When I showed my latest ultrasound pics (this behavior came on well before the pregnancy/announcement), his first response was “Wow, he’s ugly!” Granted 4D pictures are not perfectly lifelike and I explained that to him, but I was thinking what a little punk.

I mentioned to his dad that he is really becoming that guy we all avoid at office Christmas parties. He’s a bit shy when it comes to making friends and I am afraid some of these behaviors are going to be off-putting to peers, making his situation worse. 

His mom is pushing for therapy and my husband is inclined to agree with that.  I am not sure he’s to that level. Anyway, that’s a lot of info. What do you suggest we do to redirect him? I had similar friend difficulties as a kid, including a school year in which all friends had a difference recess, so I thought I would approach the topic by talking about that and also explaining what “you reap what you sow” means. However, I’ve been a stepmom for a year and generally didn’t interact with kids prior to now.

A: From your question, I can see how much you care about your stepson and how much you ache for his floundering around in social situations. A couple of things to note before I offer some suggestions for what you and dad can do.

First, it sounds like your son is overwhelmed, whether with his own emotions about the move, his place in the family (you mention your pregnancy and that might worry him), the hard time he’s having making friends, etc. And some kids when they feel frustrated with themselves and with the situation, they cry. Unfortunately, when boys cry, it’s much more misunderstood by peers, by adults/teachers, and by themselves.

Second, I also think that perhaps there’s been too much talking about his crying and lack of friends, and “downplaying” his gripes isn’t the same as ignoring the gripes. You can’t make a child see the good when he’s bound and determined to see the negative.

What to do? For the crying, lack of friends, gripes, I’d go with starving the matter. He gets attention when he complains, when you and dad try to make him see the positive, etc. He’s fallen into a rut that even if he wanted to, he can’t get out of by himself.

Starve the negative beast by keeping your response to his gripes short and sweet. “Interesting.” “I see.” Very noncommittal to whether you’re agreeing with him or trying to jolly him out of the funk. This will take some time—this has been a long time building! But keep with it and you should see some improvements.

Use some the coping techniques to help him control his tears, such as putting his head down on his desk at school, taking deep breathes, counting to 10, etc. Crying when you don’t want to is very frustrating, so giving him some options of how HE can respond should help keep the crying shorter and more manageable.

And I had to laugh at his response to your ultrasound picture—that’s pure boy and pure kid! He was probably not trying to be mean, as kids blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, and seriously, babies (even those already born) aren’t always the most attractive! In other words, don’t take him so seriously.

Finally, play games with him, read books with him, find ways to share little droplets of your life as a child with him (very short!), cook his favorite meals (or better yet, have him cook with you), make sure that you are showing him your love in a million small ways (a touch on the arm, a hug in the morning—despite his protests, he will really love that. Find out his love language—is it touches, snuggle time, spending time with you or his dad? What makes him light up in relation to interactions with you? One of my sons loves to have snuggle time, another one loves it when I listen to him talk about something with my undivided attention.

Remember, you can’t change how his mother parents, but you can change how you respond to him.

Charting a Course of Discipline

Q: I have twin 6-year old boys and an 8-year old boy. I’ve recently implemented the weekly chart (for two of my boys) and I have one of the twins on the daily chart for school. I’m having trouble getting them to stay in there room when they make it to #6.

Earlier this week, I calmly said, “You must like your room because you are choosing to stay in it,” and he looked at me confused. I said, “Whenever you come out then you are choosing to spend tomorrow in your room as well.” And the next day he goes automatically to his room (even though he may have had an excellent day at school). Do you think this is a good solution?  Do you have another? 

Also, we have sports practice four out of the five days of the school week. They do have some time in their room before we leave, but it’s not always possible to have the 6:30 bedtime. Do you have any suggestions on what to do when it’s not possible to get to bed by 6:30?

A: I’m glad you asked because this is one of the areas that gets parents into trouble more than anything, especially when implementing a new system of discipline. You want to get this right, and you want your kids to get it right too. (For an explanation of Charts, visit the Discipline Methods section of this website.)

First of all, just because a child doesn’t physically stay in his room doesn’t mean you can’t effectively restrict his activities. There are many other ways to handle this—and to encourage a child to stay in his room.

For example, one reaches block Six, but he keeps coming out of his room. Each time he comes out, give him an onerous chore to complete. Say, “Oh, I see you’re ready to do X now. Here you go. You have X minutes to complete this to my satisfaction.” He might not be IN his room, but he’s certainly not enjoying himself. He might keep coming out—you just keep handing out chores (fill a jar with chores written on slips of paper—and your boys can do lots!—and pluck one out each time a child exits his room without permission).

Second, I think you need to revert to a daily chart for each child. This will let each kid start each day with a fresh slate. That gives a kid hope that he can do better the next day. Once they have mastered the daily charts on a consistent basis, then you can move to weekly for maintenance, finally eliminating charts all together. If a child loses hope that tomorrow can be different, he will stop trying. That’s not what we want our kids to learn from discipline. Discipline should be about bringing hope as well as correction.

Third, if a child loses all his boxes, then that child doesn’t play sports that day. Bring him along if you have to, and have him sit on the sidelines while his brothers practice. That will send a stronger message than any room time could ever do.

The sooner a child realizes that bad behavior results in his life stopping as he knows it, the sooner that child should wise up and fly right. Now you will have to be prepared to have coaches or other parents not support that decision but remember: You are not raising child sports star. You are raising an adult. Think about how you want that adult to be and act—develop your own parental vision—and you will have the backbone to follow through on these unpopular decisions.


PS: I’ve created PDF and laminated versions of weekly and daily Charts. Go to the Discipline Methods to order your copy today.