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Being a Consistent Parent to Your Teen

A very common behavior in adolescents is that they do not listen to their parents. When a parent talks to them, the message goes in one ear and out the other. One reason teenagers do not listen to their parents is that adults often do not mean what they say - or don't follow through on what they say. This simple concept is extremely important to keep in mind in any type of dealings with your teenager. Inconsistency on the part of the parent is often the basis for the teen not listening, and is one of the main reasons that techniques tried by parents do not work.

We do not listen to adults who say one thing and do something else, so we cannot expect our teenagers to listen to us if we behave in the same way.

There are many ways in which parents are inconsistent and thereby confuse children or teach them to be manipulative or not to listen. Some examples follow.

Empty Statements

  • Unless you come in right now, I'm going to break both your legs.
  • If you don't straighten up in school, I am going to send you to boarding school.
  • I'll kill you if you don't stop bothering me.
  • If you and your brother don't stop fighting, I'm leaving home and never coming back.
I'm sure you could think of many other similar statements where parents say things they have no intention of carrying out. The adult knows this, but, more importantly, the child knows it too. Therefore, using threats like these will not stop the behavior and the child will continue the behavior you are trying to modify.

Overstatements

  • Go to your room. You are punished until you are 18 years old.
  • You cannot talk on the phone for the entire school year.
  • You are grounded for a month.
Overstatements like these are also a major source of inconsistencies in families. Parents get angry and make a promise or threat they can never keep. Or they say or do something and then start feeling guilty. As the guilt increases, they may try to do something to undo the comment or reduce the punishment if the child shows appropriate behavior. However, in both instances, the child interprets the parents' behavior as saying, "Don't believe or listen to what I say because I don't really mean it."

Turning "No" to "Yes" and "Yes" to "No"
In this situation, the parent says one thing and does something else. Remember the example of the teenager who asks to use the car and is told "No"? The youngster does not accept this answer and starts to harass his parents. After a time the parents give in and let him use the car in order to end the argument and preserve their sanity. Here, the original "no" has been changed to "yes." How many times have you promised something like this: "I'll take you shopping Saturday. We can also practice your driving this weekend. And I'll help you work on your car this Sunday"? However, when the time comes, you say, "I'm a little too busy this weekend. We'll do it next weekend."

The major point here is that a "no" has been changed to a "yes," or vice versa - that a positive statement has become negative. Not only are we teaching our children not to listen to us when we respond in this fashion, but we are also showing them how to manipulate us. In other words, we are saying, "If I tell you something that you do not like, do this [complain, get me upset, argue] and I'll change my mind." This type of inconsistency should also be avoided.

Not Checking Up on the Behavior
You can also show inconsistency by telling your child to do something and not checking to see that it has been done. You tell your son that he cannot leave the house until he cleans his room. He goes in his room while you are busy somewhere else in the house. In a few minutes he comes out and says, "I'm leaving." You ask, "Did you clean your room?" and he responds positively and leaves. Half an hour later you happen to pass his room and notice that he has not picked up a thing.

The necessity to check on behavior and performance is not important in the case of some adolescents, but for others you have to follow up and see if the child has done what he was asked to do or what he was supposed to do. Some children will try to get away with as much as possible if you let them. This form of inconsistency on the part of the parent tends to interfere with the development of responsibility and also teaches children to be manipulative.

Consistency from Both Parents
The examples used all pertain to the need for consistency from each parent. In other words, both parents need to be very predictable in dealing with their teenager. If one tells a child that he cannot use the car until the room is clean, the child should be able to bet his life that the only way he is going to be able to drive the car is to clean his room.

Consistency must come from both mother and father as a unit. Each parent must mean what he or she says when dealing with the child, but they must also support and back up one another. A child asks his mother, "Can I go to a concert tonight?" She says, "No." Then he asks his father the same question and gets a positive answer. Now it is almost time for the concert and the child starts getting dressed to go. His mother sees him and asks him what he is doing and where he is going, and he responds by telling her that he is going to the concert and that his father said he could. The mother then confronts the father and an argument starts. In the meantime, the son finishes getting dressed and leaves for the concert.

Parents can create inconsistency by undermining each other and not presenting a unified approach to the child. By doing this, several things happen. First, the child learns to play one parent against the other and to manipulate them to get his way. Also, when one parent disciplines a child or makes a decision and the other contradicts the action, the first parent's authority is reduced and, consequently, the child views one parent as holding authority and may not listen to the other. In addition, this type of approach tends to identify one parent as the "bad guy" or the mean one, and the other as the "good guy" or benevolent one. If you happen to be the bad guy, look out! This type of inconsistency also produces arguing and fighting between parents.

It is extremely important for parents and relatives (aunts, uncles, grandparents) who frequently deal with the teenager to be consistent as a unit. If you disagree with your partner or another person who has a significant part in disciplining your child, it is best to support the other person in front of your child. Later, when your child is not around, discuss the situation and, more importantly, resolve it. If the punishment is to be reduced, the person who established the consequence should be the one who modifies it.

Different Reactions to the Same Behavior
Depending on what mood we are in or how the day has gone, we often treat the same behavior in different ways. For example, one day a child may be insolent and we react to his impudence by giving him a lecture. The next day the same type of behavior occurs and we ignore it. The following day the behavior is seen again and we restrict the child from some type of privilege, and so forth. Rather than reacting differently, it might be better for you to set up a standard rule that whenever your teen acts up or talks back, he or she will lose some phone privileges or be grounded for a certain period. Setting up rules and consequences in this fashion will reduce this type of inconsistency and make the environment more structured and predictable. It is important to spell out the rule and the consequence at the same time.

Environmental Consistency
So far, the discussion of consistency has related to how adults interact with teenagers. But is the child able to predict the adult? This type of consistency, called interpersonal consistency, is probably the most important type, and is essential for effective behavior management. In addition, consistency, structure, or routine in the environment sometimes reduce behavioral difficulties. For example, a child who has a set time to get off the phone will usually cause less trouble for the parent than one who is allowed to talk for different time lengths each night. A child who has a particular time to come home will often give the parent less trouble than one who does not. In general, environmental consistency - that is, consistency of routines - should be established if you are having trouble with a particular behavior.

Consistency might seem like a minor concept but it is a major principle in behavior management. It serves as a foundation on which other techniques and methods are built. A good rule to keep in mind when interacting with your adolescent is this: Do not say anything you can't do or don't want to do, and do everything you say you are going to do. You have to follow through in order to deal effectively with the child.

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From Keys to Parenting Your Teenager by Don Fontenelle, Ph.D. Copyright 2000 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by arrangement with Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

Buy the book at Barron's.


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