Rules do work on your teens - more or less
Jackie, do you know what time it is?"
"It's 11:32. What time were you supposed to be in?"
"Uh, I'm not sure."
"You know perfectly well. Your curfew was 11:15."
"Yeah, well, one of my contacts fell out. I couldn't find it."
The following Friday:
"It's not my fault. Gregory had to get gas."
It's a scary world out there. We want to set limits on our teens' behaviour to keep them out of harm's way. But what do you do when your rules don't seem to be working?
The truth is, with teenagers, what you get is imperfect control. They obey, sort of. They obey most of the time.
But that doesn't mean your rules aren't working. Your rules are holding them - just not perfectly. Jackie is coming in at 11:41 p.m., not 2:13 a.m. The curfew is working; it's pulling her in. Just not exactly at 11:15 p.m.
Here's a tougher one: Next Friday night Jackie does not come in until 2:13 a.m. No call. Nothing.
Parents' biggest concern with rule-breaking is that once a rule is clearly broken, it means the end of parent control, that one tear in the cloth undoes the whole fabric of control. But they are wrong. If a rule is kept in place despite occasional instances of total disobedience, that rule still has effect. Most teens, once in a while, will totally disobey a rule.
In Jackie's case, maybe there was just too much going on that she felt she would miss out on. Yet the next time she goes out, and for many subsequent times, she will respect the curfew.
So, what should you do when your teenager breaks one of your rules?
There are two serious errors that parents can make in regard to controls.
First, they may begin a series of progressively harsher punishments to regain full control.
"Okay, let's see what you think about being grounded for two months."
This doesn't work. Parents never regain perfect control (if they ever had it in the first place). More seriously, they risk alienating their teenagers, becoming permanently perceived as the enemy. It's fine to have your child hate you some of the time because of a rule they don't like. But all of the time, over the course of their adolescence? That only invites worse trouble. You risk losing a battle that you may have been winning.
The other major error occurs when parents, incorrectly believing that they have no control, throw up their hands and either set no limits at all or, more commonly, change their own rules to fit their children's wants to the point that they might as well have no rules.
Most teenagers do not want to be rebels. They do not want to be in constant direct defiance of their parents. Teenagers prefer to sneak, make excuses, dissemble or argue.
"But Dad, that's a crazy rule. If I do what you say, I'm not going to have any friends. I will be clinically depressed and have to go on medication, and I will be home and unpleasant all the time."
Most teenagers feel far more secure if they have a solid connection to their family. Teenagers want to be able to do what they want to do, but they don't want to be estranged from their own family. They have enough anxiety to deal with.
The best response is fairly simple:
Confront them. Let them know that a rule has been broken, and that it's not okay. If this is late at night, wait until the next day for the more serious talk.
Do not get into a lengthy discussion of whether it was their fault. (This they will invariably try to do.)
Keep the rule in place.
You may, if you choose, add a consequence - usually some form of grounding. But the truth is that with or without the threat of penalty, rules still have their power.
Now, out-of-control teens are a whole different story. These are the ones who regularly stay out all night, are regularly into problem substance use, regularly in trouble with the law. That is, clearly putting themselves at significant risk.
In those cases, what I just recommended will not work. Nor will bigger punishments. Truly out-of-control teens are very difficult. Here is where parents need to employ all the help they can get - from professionals and sometimes though the courts.
Still, with most teens most of the time, rules do work, as long as you keep them in place. That is, they work - imperfectly. But that's the deal you get if you have a teenager.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including Get out of my life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager.