Letting Teen Make Own Decisions

Q: I feel like I am in a quandary of sorts. My youngest child, who will be 17 next month, wants desperately to go with her best friend to a haunted castle. My oldest went to this when he turned 18 because we felt he should start making those decisions on his own. What is your opinion on this regarding older teens?

I hate anything remotely dark or evil and have always despised anything like it, but I also don’t want to be one of those over-the-top helicopter moms who shelter their child so much that they rebel when they are on their own. Can you give any advice for us teen parents on this topic? Is it time for me to let go and just start letting her make these decisions?

A: This fall, we allowed our 15-year-old 9th grader go to a haunted walk with a friend (and the friend’s dad). Not something I ever wanted to do (and her younger sister—who’s the same age as the friend—didn’t want to go either), but sometimes, it is time to let them make those decisions as teens. What we ended up doing with my daughter was to tell her that she had to pay for half the ticket price herself. That meant if she really wanted to go, she’d part with some of her cash.

What we did was talk about it ahead of time, making sure they understood what they were getting into. And we regularly discuss evil/good, what we should watch, what God says we should or shouldn’t do, pray together, etc. It’s our job as parents to impart our family values to them as they grow up so that when they reach the teen years, they have a firm foundation upon which to make their own decisions.

When kids are teens, it’s time to start letting them make these low-impact decisions. It’s a haunted castle, so things will be gory and scary and, well, kind of fun if you like to be scared (which some kids do), but in a controlled environment.

I also find that my husband is a good counterpoint to my own inclinations, because I’m with you on avoiding that sort of stuff because of how it impacts me. But it doesn’t affect my husband nearly as much, nor does it my oldest daughter. It’s important to offer guidance but to let them make their own decisions in these types of things.

Yes, it’s hard sometimes to let go and let them experience the joys and trials of making their own decisions, but for teens to be ready to make those decisions in the real world, they need practice in situations like these. Will they make bad decisions? Of course they will (didn’t you as a teen? I know I did), but from the safety of the family, we’re there to help them recover and move on.

 

Freshman Blowing (Vaping) Smoke

Q: My 14-year-old freshman has been telling me how he vapes in the high school bathroom with friends. My husband and I do not smoke or vape, and we have made it very clear that he needs to wait until he no longer lives in our house to do either. However, he keeps talking about it, telling us which vape pen he wants to buy, and today he even showed me a video of him vaping!

Why in the world would he be doing all this when we would never find out otherwise? We are not sure how to handle thing because obviously we cannot keep him home from school (where this is happening.) We can punish him when he tells us—this may stop him from making these confessions but I am not even sure about that. Why would he feel the need to tell us? It is almost like he is showing off! Any suggestions?

A: He’s telling you because he’s a young teen, he needs to confess, and he wants to connect with you. For which you should be grateful on all counts, yes? He’s not showing off to his parents, per se, but vaping is something that excites him, that has captured his interest, and that his crowd is into. And a young teen excited means he has to talk about it…even to his disapproving parents.

What can you do about it? That depends. First, I will point out that many states have laws that prohibit young teens from vaping, so check yours to see if he’s breaking the law by using electronic cigarettes. Regardless of that, I’m fairly certain his high school has rules about use of electronic cigarettes (and regular cigarettes) on campus anywhere, so find out and then inform your son that you will be turning him to the school authorities for breaking the rules. If he thinks he’s old enough to vape, then he’s old enough to face the consequences.

As to what you should do about all his vape talk, have you tried engaging him? What about vaping does he like? Does he think it makes him look cool? Is this what his friends do? See if you can have honest, interested conversations to delve beneath the surface of the vaping talk and get to the heart of the matter.

Then establish house rules. Some that come to mind are no illegal substances in the house, no smoking or vaping in the house, and no underage consumption (tobacco, e-cigarettes, alcohol, etc.). Go over the house rules with him to ensure he understands. But also tell him that these are for the good of the family and for him as well. Remind him that he can call or text you anytime to be picked up and you’ll do it without question (those can come later).

And reconnect with him on a more positive level, such as engaging in his favorite outdoor activity or trying a new one. Find ways to show him how much you care about him. I don’t think we can spend too much time with our teens showing them our love in both word and deed.

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.

What’s Your ‘Mom’ Thing?

We all have at least one—that mom thing we like to do for our kids. That little gesture that we use on a regular basis to communicate without words that we love our kids. For example, one mom makes her kids’ lunches for school every day. Her mom did that for her, and she enjoys passing on the tradition to her three children.

I do hair. Each morning, I brush and braid my two teenager daughter’s hair. Once a month or so, I cut my two boys’ hair. Sure, the girls could do their own hair, but I enjoy it and they enjoy having me do that in the mornings before school.

It’s wonderful that we each have a regular way we connect with our kids. The trick is not to have so many “mom” things that your kids aren’t doing things on their own.

Please share your “mom” thing!

High Schoolers & The Internet

Q: Please help me navigate the Internet access issue for high schoolers. I know it’s recommended for kids to do their homework in their own rooms (so they know they are responsible), but I also know they shouldn’t have TVs and Internet access in their rooms. We don’t have TVs in bedrooms, but high schoolers require laptops with Internet access to check homework given, do research, and some online program/assignments. I know my teenagers also view content that is not beneficial and is time wasting in addition to homework. What do you recommend?

Image courtesy of tiniroma/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: We’ve never required our kids to do their homework in their rooms simply because with four kids, each share a room and there’s simply no space for a desk or other surface conducive to homework in their bedrooms. But we still apply the principle in that we ignore their homework—it is their responsibility completely. As soon as they were reading well (sometime in first grade), we stopped helping them on a regular basis. We do allow the occasional question, and have clearly communicated that we will not run out and buy X, Y or Z for a last-minute project.

So our kids do their homework at the dining room table (we have an open floor plan) and the computers available to our middle schoolers for homework are centralized to the kitchen/dining /living room area. This allows us to keep an eye on what they’re doing, looking at, etc., but we steer clear of involvement. This has helped immensely with them not trying to sneak watching things and it has helped us monitor computer usage in general.

Our computer usage rules are simple: Three hours a day to include homework time and the computers are off limits at 7 p.m. each evening (well, we allow a little extra on Friday nights!). This means that they must have homework that needs to be done online finished by 7 p.m. each evening.

I share that to help you devices your own computer/electronic device policy. In my experience, having a set “off” time each evening will be more effective than telling them when to do their homework. Have them move their laptops to a central area so you can keep an eye on what they’re doing (or not doing). Also have a docking station for all electronic devices to be plugged in and left overnight to avoid the temptation to check who’s texting who at 3 a.m.

They may complain that it’s not enough time for them to do their homework, to which you shrug and say that you hope they will figure out how to make it work because that’s the new shutoff time. Then stick with it, even though they will probably come to you in a panic a time or two saying they haven’t finished. When they do, point out that they can certainly get up earlier to finish before school!

And practice good device usage yourself. It’s one thing to insist on down time from electronics for your kids and another to not put down the devices yourself. Develop technology free zones, such as during dinner and on Sundays, to help kids stay connected to the family and the real world.

Should Parents Seek Counseling for Socially Inept Ninth Grader?

Q: My son’s a 14-year-old ninth grader. His principal has mentioned to me a couple of times that he thinks my son could benefit from counseling on social issues, as he is socially not doing too great. By not great, I mean his interactions with others are often tense and negative. However, he has plenty of friends and enjoys hanging out with them.

The principal said he’s heard murmurings from other students that my son stirs up tensions. But there isn’t anything that can actually be pinned down, like “You lose all privileges until you go four weeks without punching and hitting.” It’s much more subtle.

His teacher also mentioned something along the same lines. I’ve already been advised three times to take him for counseling (once from the teacher and twice from the principal), but I have little to no faith in the profession (based on past experience).

Just wondering if you have a good idea how to handle such a vague situation?

Image courtesy of nenetus/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A. There’s nothing worse than trying to combat rumors, especially in a high school where things can be easily distorted and murmurings take on entirely different meanings. I don’t blame you from feeling confused.

Remember, recommending counseling is their default position—it’s one that’s probably drilled into them as necessary for liability issues, etc. They’ve forgotten that most of the stuff like this can be resolved in the home with parents who are aware and who care about their kids enough to do some of the hard work. To many parents, counseling is the easier route because it doesn’t involve them directly.

If Son has plenty of friends, why is the principal concerned? What, exactly, does he think Son is doing to “stir up tensions”? And what does the teacher think Son is doing to stir up tension?

First, I would press them for better examples aside from rumors from other students because that, to me at least, has shades of the telephone game, where something someone said gets so distorted it has no relation at all to the original sentence. Since by your account, he has friends and enjoys doing things with said friends, I would question what they think a counselor would do. Most of the time, counseling is recommended for kids who have NO friends and refuse to do things with anyone (no activities, social events).

To have a 14-year-old boy who has some social issues is, well, normal, right? I mean, 20 years ago or more, no one would have been concerned if the boy had friends but made some social errors from time to time. Who doesn’t in ninth grade?

Once you have more concrete examples, then you can address it directly with Son. I would take him out for ice cream or coffee, shooting basketballs or whatever he enjoys doing, and just mention one or two incidents, that his teacher or principal is concerned, and get his thoughts on what happened. If there’s a clear pattern (like he defaults to sarcasm, for example), then talk about how that can be perceived by others. Then ask what Son could do differently in that situation. Help him think through how his own solutions would solve the problem.

For now, I would stress to the principal and teacher that you appreciate their concern—that you welcome their observations about Son—but since the school year is nearly over, you’re going to address this with Son yourself and see how he matures over the summer before considering counseling. You want the principal and teacher on your side even though you disagree with their conclusions.

A Manageable Routine for a Teen

Q: I need help regarding the evening routine for my 16-year-old daughter, after she arrives home after her sport, which is usually 5 p.m., during the week. She has ADHD and says she needs to decompress when she gets home before launching into chores/homework. That has translated into procrastination on phone/computer, getting homework done too late, or maybe not completed and getting to bed too late. She doesn’t have a bedtime—as she says, “Mom, don’t you think I want to go to sleep? I will go to bed, when all my work is done.”

I want to take electronics away for a certain amount of time at night. But then she says she needs her devices to do homework. Can I make her go to bed at a particular time? She takes rigorous courses and does have a lot of work, she just doesn’t manage her time well.

Image courtesy of digitalart/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: I can tell by your question that this is a topic that has gone round and round between you and your daughter without any changes or resolution on either side. I do have some advice, but I’m not sure it will be what you want to hear because simply put: The only person in this equation who you can change is you. But changing how you approach this will help your relationship with your daughter and help her to take full responsibility for her time. However, if you follow my advice, you might not see any improvement in the current situation, i.e., how your daughter manages her time, but you will see improvement in your own stress about the matter.

One thing to note first: We all handle transitions differently. Some of us can move smoothly from one task or situation to another, while others need mini-breaks to transition from school to home. You might see her decompression time as wasteful, but it might be what she needs to clear her brain from the school day and focus on the afternoon/night ahead.

Those disclaimers out of the way, here’s what I would do (and do with my own middle schoolers who have homework on the computer): You have an end time when everything electronic is shut down for the night, including personal devices (phones), etc. Decide on what that time will be. For the sake of this answer, we’re going with 9 p.m.

Then tell your daughter that you’re sorry you’ve been trying to manage her time for her, that you are giving that back to her. You will not be asking her about homework or what she’s doing. After she expresses her delight in this, inform her that all electronic devices (computers, laptops, tablets, phones) will be shut down (and turned in to you in the case of the portable ones) by 9 p.m. each evening. Tell her that this is a non-negotiable time. If she hasn’t managed to finish her homework or check in with her friends by 9 p.m., that’s just too bad for her.

Now, be prepared that for the first night (or the first few weeks), she will blithely ignore this and procrastinate as usual. I’d give her a 10-minute warning (maybe set a kitchen timer) at 8:50 p.m. to finish up. Then when 9 p.m. rolls around, you enforce the shut down and confiscate the devices. She will plead, beg, cajole, throw a tantrum, etc., that she “has” to finish XYZ, to which you simply shrug and act very sorry she didn’t have enough time. Remind her she can get up early the next day to finish it before school if she likes, but that’s it for tonight.

The only thing you have to do is brace yourself for the fallout and don’t cave in. The first time will be the hardest but the sky will not fall. Her grades might slip for a short period of time, but you are giving her a lesson that’s worth a few lower grades–the ability to figure out how to manage her time by herself.

Just Because It’s the Right Thing

Q: I have a soon to be 15-year-old son in ninth grade. He is in a scholar program at a private school, and he has earned a partial scholarship based on his academic abilities. He also is in his third year of a gifted math program at a local college. His grades have begun to fluctuate. He is not earning good scores in the math program. He seems to only care about playing his computer, the shooting games popular with his age group. He has only been allowed to play on weekends if his grades are up to par (above a 90%).

He is capable of these grades. So now I have taken all technology away for this upcoming quarter. He says that he doesn’t care anymore if he loses everything. He is not going to improve his grades. I am worried that I am being too excessive. Is the consequence appropriate?

Image courtesy of digitalart/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: The short answer is yes, taking away technology for the quarter in order to motivate your son to improve his grades is appropriate. However, what your worry indicates is that you assumed that would “make” him change his tune about his grades/schoolwork. He’s doing what any teenager does—testing to see if you’re really serious by saying “he doesn’t care” about the consequence.

You’ve run into the paradox that is parenting: A parent can do the right thing and the child can still do the wrong thing, but that doesn’t mean the parent stops doing the right thing.

You are doing the right thing by taking away his electronics. Now he has a choice—he can continue to thumb his nose at schoolwork and fail even more or he can buckle down and get back to business. He might *say* he doesn’t care, but stick to the plan and he might come around on his accord. Fold now, and he’ll know that you don’t mean what you say or say what you mean. That will cause many more problems in the future than a few dismal grades in the present.

And be prepared that he might flame out entirely. But at 15, he’s old enough to face the academic consequences of that choice. Yes, those consequences could be far-reaching at this stage in his academic career but again, that’s on him, not you. It’s his life and his choice to do the best he can with what God has given him—or to waste it all by not applying himself.

I know this is tough for you to watch, but you’ve done the right thing. Now it’s up to your son.

The Trial of a Teenage Girl

Q: Are teenage girls just horribly disagreeable? Right now, I have a really hard time liking mine. I know my husband is having the same problem. We love her, and we try to support her in healthy ways, but being around her is a real trial. When we take her places, she manages to look or be miserable or make someone around her miserable.

Yet we feel like including her in the family is important. She will either dilly dally getting ready and be the last one in the car, talk nasty to her little sister, be disrespectful to her father or me or just be depressed and droopy. Any suggestions or know a place where I can buy a time machine and fast forward to her at age 30?

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: I don’t think you really want to miss these years, even though things are not going well in your relationship with your teenage daughter. I hear your frustration and can also see your daughter’s hurt as well. Teenagers don’t always want to be disagreeable, but it can be the easiest emotion—after all, it takes much less effort to be nasty than it does to be thoughtful.

The teen years in general have gotten a bad rap, but while there can be rocky patches in any parent-child relationship, for some reason, parents can be much less tolerant of such behavior in a teen. Hello, remember the toddler years? How the little darlings drove you crazy with their wildly swinging emotions and emotional outbursts in the most inappropriate places? The teen years are similar, given how many changes a teen goes through physically and emotionally and mentally. That’s not to give your daughter an excuse to behave as if she’s the only one who matters, but it should temper your own response.

What would make the biggest change in your home would be for you and your spouse to find more ways to express love to your daughter. I know, I know—she’s not exactly acting very lovable right now! But isn’t that the point? You might say you love her, but how do you show you love her?

In other words, you need to pile on the kindness, the love, the connection just because she’s your daughter and you love her. Once you’ve re-established your relationship with her, then you can start to address some of the behavior. Right now, she can’t hear what you have to say because you’ve lost that connection—you even admitted you have a hard time liking her and wanting to be around her. She can sense that, and of course, she doesn’t want to be around you!

I’d like to assign you a little project that I think will bear good fruit. This will take some time, but with patience, you can reconnect with your daughter. You need to surprise her with your love, without any expectation in return. Start by writing down at least 10 things you love about her. Then for the next 10 days, share one of those things with her each day in multiple ways, both with words and with deeds. If you love the way she always uses earbuds when playing music on her computer (that’s thoughtful to others, right?), then tell her directly that you appreciate her thoughtfulness, buy her a new pair of earbuds, upload a little cash to her iTunes account, or ask her to play you her favorite song of the moment.

This won’t resolve itself overnight, but I think you’ll start to see improvements within a few weeks. It might not be with her behavior—it might be that your own heart has changed toward your daughter.

 

A Hostage Situation at Bedtime

Q: My 13-year-old son has taken to holding our entire house hostage at bedtime if he is upset about something. He will bang on doors, wake his brothers, and be mildly destructive. For example, last night he began this behavior because I wouldn’t let him keep his phone in his room. After I took the phone, he began a 40-minute tour of belligerence. He finally calmed down but refused to get in bed and slept on the floor.

He is now a wreck today. Because I told him he would lose his phone for a week if he didn’t stop his behavior, I am anticipating more trouble tonight. He will continue to make everyone miserable until he gets his way. This morning I tried to talk to him and let him know that if he realized he made a mistake last night and would acknowledge that, we could reach a reasonable compromise. He instead dug his heels in more about “punishing” me tonight for taking the phone.

He’s a very intelligent and otherwise well-adjusted boy. I hate seeing him so angry and consumed with revenge for perceived slights. It’s not fair to his father and me and his younger brothers to be subjected to these tantrums. I absolutely don’t want to give him the phone back, but our house needs sleep.

Image courtesy of Naypong/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Naypong/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: “You cannot negotiate with terrorists” is an oft-quoted truism that has applications to child rearing because children can be little despots of their own, as your son’s outrageous behavior has shown. To wit, he is throwing massive temper tantrums that has everyone in the household cowering in fear of his next one.

You said it yourself that he is acting like a terrorist by his tantrums, so there’s only one course of action if you want any hope of stopping these over-reactions. However, it won’t be easy. By your own admittance, “reasoning” with him isn’t working—and it won’t because teens aren’t logical and therefore cannot be reasoned with.

The time for talk has ended—now’s the time for action. And by action, I mean something so big, so bold, so strong, it will become family legend. It will be referred to with awe and respect. In short, it will provide the much-needed wake-up call for your son.

Gird your loins, batten down the hatches, and prepare for battle. Your actions will, without a doubt, create the mother of all tantrums. Your son will not like this one little bit and he will show you. But stand firm. Stay the course. Repeat that you are doing this for his own good, for the good of all the kids, and for the good of your household. You are helping him to regain self-control, but the process will not be pretty.

Now that I’ve scared you (being prepared for the reaction is essential!), here’s what you do: Kick him out of the garden. While he’s at school tomorrow—and with absolutely no warning at all!—strip his room of everything: games, toys, books, electronic equipment, clothes. Room should then resemble a military barracks. Box up all the nonessentials and store offsite if possible or in a highly secret and inaccessible part of the house. You will return a week’s worth of clothes (as plain and boring as can be!) to his dresser. Then take the door off the hinges and store off site too. He’s lost the privilege of having a door since he can’t be bothered to treat doors kindly.

As for his phone, well that’s immediately sold or returned. That’s gone for a good long time and not having it in the house or available at all will send that message loud and clear.

When he comes home and sees his “new” life, he will inevitably ask why. To which you say, very short and sweetly, “I’m sorry dear. This is your life for now. I think you’d better get used to it.” Then walk away without making promises that if he behaves, he’ll get stuff back. No, you let him stew in his own juices for a while. When he tries to argue, smile and shrug but don’t engage. This is essential. You don’t negotiate with terrorists! You don’t have to talk to him about this again.

However, you do have time to cook his favorite meals, include him in family discussions and outings, and fill his life with kindness, without expecting the same in return. Shower him with love just because he’s your son and you love him.

Then you wait. If he’s as smart as you say he is, he will figure out that he needs to have a major attitude adjustment and correct the course. But it might take several weeks or even months for that to happen. You can do this, You must do this. We are all rooting for you to succeed!