Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager

7 Steps to Reestablish Authority and Reclaim Love

Scott P. Sells, Ph.D.

St. Martin's Press

Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager
Step 1
UNDERSTANDING WHY YOUR TEEN IS OUT OF CONTROL
Parents ask me all the time: "Why does my teenager act this way?" It's an important question: Like an auto mechanic who needs to first figure out why your car makes those funny noises, you also need to first understand why your teenager misbehaves before you can solve the problem.
The confusing part is that there are so many experts with so many different theories. You have probably already read other parenting books and tried the suggestions of other experts; they may have sounded good at the time but haven't helped in the long run. You may be so burnt out that you are asking yourself, "Why should I believe that Dr. Sells's book will be any more useful than all those other 'experts'?" Good question.
Please read my top seven reasons for why your teen misbehaves, and then ask yourself one question: Do these reasons make sense and speak to my heart? If they do, please keep reading and try my suggestions. If not, I hope you will read on anyway with an open mind andconsult other parenting books as well. If what you are doing right now is not working, what do you have to lose by trying something different?
TOP 7 REASONS FOR TEEN MISBEHAVIOR
Reason #1: Unclear Rules
One of the biggest reasons your teen may be out of control is that you don't have a clear, written contract with him or her. Your rules and consequences are verbal, open to interpretation, or made up as you go along. For example, you may declare a rule of "no disrespect" but fail to specify what your teen does or says that is considered disrespectful. Your teen, who is not only literal-minded but very concrete, now has the perfect loophole and can argue, "You never said that swearing was disrespectful." (I call this "literal disease.") As Nick's story illustrates, your teen can quickly turn into a shark who smells blood in the water.
"But you never said mumbling to myself was disrespectful."
Fifteen-year-old Nick understood all too well the power of literal disease. One day Nick's mother told him that the new rule was "no disrespect. Nick liked the fact that his mom never wrote anything down on paper. Sometimes she forgot about the rule or asked:"Nick, now what did we agree to? All of this meant one thing: so many loopholes that he could drive a Mack truck through them.
Nick's theory was put to the test the next day. Nick started to roll his eyes and talk under his breath after his mom asked him to take out the trash while he was watching TV. Here is the conversation that followed:
 
MOTHER: Nick. that was disrespectful. Now turn off the TV and go to your room! (Mom identifies "rolling of the eyes" and "talking under his breath" as disrespectful behavior.)
 
NICK: Mom, you never said that mumbling to myself was disrespectful. I'm not going to my room. (Nick suddenly comes down with a case of literal disease and points out the loopholes like an expert lawyer.)
 
MOTHER: (Mom starts to get angry and lose control.) You knew what I meant! Don't play dumb with me. Now get your butt up those stairs and into your room. (Mom now is busy spending her valuable time and energy trying to explain and justify her actions. This could have been avoided if the rule was clearly defined ahead of time.)
 
NICK: I'm not going to my room. You never told me that was being disrespectful. I'll take out the garbage but I'm going back to watch my TV show. (Nick senses that he has his mother on the ropes. Her buttons are pushed, she is losing control of her emotions, and she is wavering in her stance.)
 
MOTHER (Exhausted and defeated): Well. as long as you take out the garbage. I guess I will let it go this time. But from now on. if you roll your eyes or mumble under your breath, you are grounded. (Mom just wants the argument to end. Besides. Nick is taking the garbage out.)
 
NICK: Sure, Mom. whatever ... . (Nick has won and feels more powerful than ever. The next time he is asked to do something, he will launch into the same tirade. It worked once so it will work again. Besides, unclear rules are always optional anyway, right?)
Step 2 will show you how to make sure your rules are crystal clear, with no loopholes.
Reason #2: Not Keeping Up with Your Teen's Thinking
Out-of-control teens can defeat you and make you back down through a special gift called enhanced social perception. Just like Tonya in the next example, your teen can run through as many different scenarios in their mind as necessary to find a loophole in your rule or consequence.
"I'm Two Steps Ahead"
When fifteen-year-old Tonya received her punishment of "no phone use" for swearing at her mom. she went to her room to find a loophole. After diagramming out several different plans on a sheet of paper, she finally decided on the best one. Tonya told her friends that she would call them at 1:00 A.M. when everyone in the house would be sleeping. She instructed her friends on how to use a pillow to muffle the sound when the phone rang. Her plan worked beautifully. Tonya had no reason to stop swearing. Thinking two steps ahead of her mom, Tonya had found a loophole in the no-phone-use consequence.
In Step 3 on troubleshooting, beginning on page 67, you will find an expanded discussion on this topic. You will learn to create a backup plan for every what-if situation you may encounter with your teenager. For examples. "What will you do if you sell your teen's CD collection at a pawn shop as a punishment and your son countermoves by trying to sell your stuff?" If you don't ask and answer such questions ahead of time, your teen will be more than happy to do this job for you later.
Reason #3: Button-Pushing
Another major factor in teen misbehavior is "button-pushing." If your teen doesn't want to do something you ask, he or she often will start pushing your "hot buttons" to make you angry or frustrated. For some of you, these hot buttons are swearing or rolling the eyes. For others, it is statements like "I hate you," "You're not my real father," or "I don't have to listen to you." Your teenager has an uncanny ability to know exactly what your buttons are and how to push them.
Teens know that if they succeed in pushing your buttons, your judgment will be clouded. And there is a better than average chance that you will back down or fail to follow through on a consistent basis. This is often why your consequences don't work. The consequence itself isn't the problem: It's the way you're unable to deliver that consequence calmly and firmly because your teen pushes yourbuttons, or you push your teen's buttons through lectures, criticisms, or attacks on his or her character.
"I was suddenly no older than my son."
At the beginning of the argument, I was forty-five years old, but after only five minutes of constant bickering, I felt that I was thirty years old. As we continued to argue, my age continued to drop. Before long, I felt like I was suddenly my son's age [sixteen years old] and that we were two kids in the sandbox scrapping for power and control.
--A frustrated parent
When you are the same age as your teen in button-pushing years, it is difficult to play the role of parent. No matter how good your consequences look on paper, you won't be able to enforce them successfully. Step 4 on Button Pushing, beginning on page 85, will detail exactly how button-pushing works with you and your teen--and what to do about it.
Reason #4: Teenager Drunk with Power
When your teenager is able to control the mood of your household and your life through extreme behavior, he or she takes on the power of an adult without being developmentally ready. At ages twelve through eighteen, your teen's time and energy should go toward being a kid, going to school, playing sports, dating, getting a job, and preparing to leave home. Instead, your out-of-control teen uses thatsame energy to figure out how to stay in control of your household and get one over on you or other adults.
The real tragedy in all this is that these kids don't have a childhood. What's ironic is that part of each teenager does not want all this power. Subconsciously, every teen wants structure and discipline.
The danger is that a teen who stays drunk with power for too long gets addicted to the feelings. Such teens can't rationally see how much better their lives would be if they were no longer in charge. This is why your lectures and negotiations don't work. Sometimes you have to take the power away forcibly before your teen can recognize that life can be happier without it. Your child will test you every step of the way: You will have passed the test when your teen stops having behavior problems for longer periods of time and looks more at peace.
In Step 5, Stopping Your Teenager's Seven Aces, beginning on page 115, you will be given a menu of nontraditional and creative consequences to stop a teen who is drunk with power. These consequences should be attempted only after you have laid down a solid foundation for success through Steps 1 to 4.
Reason #5: The Pleasure Principle
Why do so many of us eat junk food, smoke, or never exercise, even though we know that doing so may eventually lead to obesity, lung cancer, or a heart attack? Because of what's called the "pleasure principle," living for the moment or for what gives us immediate gratification rather than thinking about our future.
This is the same way your out-of-control teenager thinks nearly all of the time. He or she cannot see past tomorrow, let alone next week. Advances in technology often make the problem even worse. Today's teens have instant everything--instant food, instant messages, instant calls on their cell phones. Remember when we actually had to get up out of our chairs to change the television channel or wait for the mail? All of these small things exercised our "patience muscles." Many teens have come to expect instant gratification.
This is why guilt trips, logical reasoning, and traditional punishments often fail. Your punishments or lectures are not strong enough to compete with the immediate pleasures that come with bad behavior. For example, the pleasure of staying out all night outweighs the punishment of a grounding they may receive the next day. The pleasure of smoking pot outweighs the lecture that you will give them if caught. In Step 2, Writing an Ironclad Contract, beginning on page 29, you will be given the top ten consequences you need to conquer the pleasure principle.
"I Do What I Want When I Want"
Fifteen-year-old Darren skipped school more days than he attended. His father constantly lectured him about how he was throwing his life away and would end up flipping burgers at McDonald's for the rest of his life. These lectures went in one ear and out the other. Darren could care less about his future. He lived for the moment.
When Darren's father tried to ground him for ditching school, the boy simply walked out of the house. When his father took the phone away, Darren would borrow a friend's cell phone or leave the house without permission to use a pay phone. When Darren's father asked him why he was doing these things, Darren said: "I may die tomorrow, right? Why should I go to school? I get to see my friends and do what I want when I want. I don't want to wait a whole weekend to get off grounding or wait until school is over to see my friends. Who cares what happens next week? I'll deal with that when it happens."
Reason #6: Peer Power
Today's peer groups have a tremendous hold on your teen's heart, mind, and soul. If it is a positive peer group with good morals and values, your teen can thrive. But if the group has poor values and exhibits negative behavior, your teen is likely to get more and more out of control.
Developmentally, the teen years are difficult for almost everyone. When teens' hormones kick in around the ages of eleven to thirteen, they get caught between childhood and adulthood. Part of your teen wants to be a child and find safety in your arms, while the other part wants to explore and experiment with being grown-up and having adult freedoms. This can be a very confusing and lonely time--a time that brings about an increased sensitivity to being accepted. Naturally, teens turn to their friends--those who look, think, and act the way they do--rather than to their parents for acceptance.
This acceptance may come at a high price, however. To avoid getting "kicked out of the club," everyone must follow the club's rules, both spoken and unspoken. These rules might include shoplifting, piercing body parts, drinking, doing drugs, or dressing "goth"; often teens follow such rules rather than risk rejection. In Step 6, How to Mobilize Outside Helpers, beginning on page 252, you will be shown how to recruit your teen's friends to help your teen or stop them if they continue to be a destructive influence. In Step 7, Reclaiming Love, beginning on page 285, you will understand the direct connection between the softness between you and your teen and the amount of influence peers have on their heart.
"But He Tells Me That He Loves Me"
Sixteen-year-old Alana did not get along with her parents. There was little, if any, warmth and nurturance. Alana met a twenty-one-year-old guy named Randy who gave her something her parents hadn't given her for a long time--hugs. He also listened to her and took her out. After about two weeks, Alana thought she was in love. Randy was so important to her that Alana managed to overlook it when he became possessive and made hergive up all her friends. She even made excuses for Randy when he started pulling her hair and punching her in the stomach if he had a tough day at work. It was OK. she told herself: "Randy still tells me that he loves me."
These excuses continued until Alana got pregnant. Randy abandoned her, and Alana's parents forced her to move out of the house. Alana is now with another guy just like Randy, and it's all too easy to imagine the kind of life her child will have.
Reason #7: Misuse of Outside Forces
The misuse of outside forces is a final reason for your teen's misbehavior. In today's world, more and more of us are handing over our teenagers to outsiders like counselors, psychiatrists, hospitals, boot camps, or medication to "fix" them. What may initially look like the answer, however, can quickly become a double-edged sword. Even though your teen may change miraculously in a boot camp, detention center, group home, or counselor's office, often the same problems start up again soon after he or she returns home, comes off probation, or stops seeing the counselor. The reason is simple. Outside experts did all the work to turn your teen around, not you. Therefore, as Patricia's story illustrates, there is no reason for the teen to respect or obey you back home.
"The Honeymoon Is Over"
Fourteen-year-old Patricia ran away all the time. Her mother was unable to stop her. Out of desperation, Patricia's mother sent her to a six-month residential program. After the first few days, Patricia was calling and begging to come home. The mother held firm and did not remove her.
When Patricia finally returned home after six months, her mother could not believe the positive changes. Patricia did not run away, she did not swear, and she was a pleasure to be around. The honeymoon didn't last, however. After a couple of months, Patricia was once again running away and swearing up a storm.
The mother immediately started to threaten another residential stay. She felt helpless to stop her daughter all by herself. Patricia laughed in her face. She knew that her mom had no more insurance money left. When asked why she did so well in the residential program and not at home. Patricia had this to say: "My mom just doesn't get it. At residential, I couldn't pull the same crap. If staff said no they meant it. When my mom says no, she doesn't mean it. She is so afraid that I will run away that she always backs down. When I got back, she was as wimpy as ever. Nothing had changed. I had her wrapped around my little finger. I started doing Whatever I wanted again."
In Step 6, How to Mobilize Outside Helpers, beginning on page 252, you will find seven key strategies to help recruit friends, neighbors, and even ministers to back you up and help you regain control of your household. Remember that there is strength in numbers. It is very difficult to change an out-of-control teenager all by yourself. It takes a village.
A Road Map of Defeat and a New Highway to Success
The road map that follows will show you how the seven reasons for extreme teen misbehavior merge to create a teenager who's out of control--and how to turn your teen around. If you find you've gone down the wrong path in the past, please don't waste time blaming yourself or analyzing how you got lost. You can't change the past, but you can use this map as a personal compass to point you and your teen in a more positive direction.
Defining Your Teen's Problem
As the map illustrates, your teen's misbehavior can be either solved or exacerbated by the way you define the problem. On one hand, you may see the cause as a chemical imbalance, a mental illness, or the "fact" that your child is frail and incapable. If this is yourtheory, you are likely to seek out outside experts like hospitals, medication, or boot camps to fix the problem. After all, you reason, a chemical imbalance or a mental illness needs an expert's intervention. There's no need for you to take charge and personally stop your teen's misbehavior.
On the other hand, your theory might be that your teen is stuck in a rut, stubborn, or in need of more parental structure. With this mind-set, you are likely to believe that your teen should be held accountable for any misbehavior and that you should be the one doing the accounting. A teen who is stuck in a rut doesn't necessarily need an outside specialist; if a specialist is needed, his or her role changes from someone who does all the work to fix your kid to someone who provides backup so that you can personally stop the problem.
Finding the cause of your teen's problem can be compared to looking at a glass of water as either half empty or half full. Both viewpoints may have merit, but the way Rodney's parents defined his problem led to two entirely different approaches to solve his problem.
The Glass Is Half Empty
Rodney's father viewed Rodney's temper tantrums as being caused by a chemical imbalance in his brain (although there was no medical evidence to support this idea). As a result, he did not hold Rodney responsible for beating up his younger brother or throwing his food against the wall. Instead of punishing Rodney, the father said, "It's OK, son. Just let your anger out. We all know that you are doing the best you can."
Without any accountability, Rodney only got angrier and more violent as he grew older, bigger, and stronger. Unknowingly, the father had hurt, rather than helped, Rodney by defining his problem as a chemical imbalance. Because his father communicated that he was not responsible for his angry outbursts, there was no reason for Rodney to change. He always had a "Get Out of Jail Free" card.
The Glass Is Half Full
Rodney's mother disagreed completely with her husband. She saw Rodney's temper tantrums as a clear sign that he was spoiled and manipulative. Whenever Rodney became angry, everyone in the house got scared and backed down. If Rodney had chores to do and threw a temper tantrum, he did not have to do them. If Rodney threw his plate against the wall because he did not like the food, he got pizza for dinner. Rodney's mother begged her husband to see the problem from her eyes--a spoiled teen who needed limits and had to be held accountable.
The father would not hear of it. Instead the family consulted an outside expert who tried to solve Rodney's problems with one medication after another. Nothing worked.
One day the father woke up to find a small note from his wife on the bathroom mirror. It read, "I can't take it anymore. I'm leaving you and taking Rodney with me. Maybe now he and I will have a fighting chance."
These differences in opinion are far too common in households today. As in Rodney's case, how you define your teen's problem will bring you to a different fork in the road. Based on your theory, you will either (a) choose to take charge of fixing your teen's problem by going directly to Step 2 and establishing clear rules and consequences; or (b) choose not to take charge.
There is a third road that you can choose, though it isn't marked on the map. It is the "Fake It Till You Make It" Road. This is an ideal road to take if you are unsure about what to do or have a spouse or significant other who is firmly entrenched in the belief that "My teen has a problem, but I can't personally do anything to fix it." I will talk about this option a bit later on.
The Left Fork in the Road: "I Will Not Take Charge"
If you or another caregiver, such as a grandparent, aunt, or foster parent, refuse to take charge, one or more of these five things will happen:
1. Your teenager will be glad to take charge and may hold your entire household hostage with out-of-control behavior.
2. You will formally or informally transfer your parental authority to outside forces like hospitals, group homes, or boot camps and rely on whatever they decide.
3. You will quarrel with your significant other, spouse, or ex-spouse over the "best way" to parent your teen, thus ensuring that no one takes charge or presents a united front.
4. The button-pushing and constant conflict will drain all of the nurturance and softness from your relationship with your teen.
5. Your teen's second family of peers will take over the job of raising your teen with their own morals and values.
When these things occur, you will go down a path that will begin with unclear rules and consequences and end with your teen getting worse or pulling out of it as he or she moves into adulthood.
Parents have told me that it's helpful to use my Road Map to show them the future. Part of the problem has always been the unknown--waiting for the other shoe to drop and not knowing what your teen will do next. Here is also what's in store for you if you continue down the left fork in the road.
You Won't Set Up Clear Rules and Consequences.
As mentioned earlier, your teen has a case of "literal disease." Therefore, if you do not take charge and list both rules and consequences in the form of a written, ironclad contract, you will constantly have to explain and justify your rules. Your teen will find the loopholes and defeat you.
You Won't Troubleshoot, or Think Two Steps Ahead of Your Teen.
Unclear rules and consequences then will lead to your inability to think two steps ahead of your teen and troubleshoot all the things that could go wrong ahead of time. Your teenager will always be one step ahead of you.
Your Teen Will Push Your Buttons, and You Will Take It Personally:
Unclear rules and a lack of troubleshooting provides fertile ground for button-pushing. You are already thrown off balance when you don't have an ironclad contract to guide you through rough waters. Teens know this and will go in for the kill by using buttons like swearing or talking under their breath to make you mad. They know that if they control your mood and direction of the argument, they will win.
You Will Become a Victim of Parent Abuse or Teen Terrorism.
Parent abuse, or teen terrorism, is a teen's skillful ability to use one of seven aces--running away, disrespect, ditching school, teen pregnancy, threats or acts of violence, threats of suicide, alcohol or drug abuse--to intimidate you into backing down and handing over your authority. We will talk about how this works inStep 5. Without a clear contract, anti-button-pushing strategies, and creative consequences in place, your teen will use these "aces" to defeat you.
Isolation, Burnout, and Hopelessness Will Set In.
After several years of chronic parent abuse, burnout and hopelessness begin to set in. It will seem as if the problem is only getting worse as your teen gets older. You will begin to feel isolated as you sense that friends do not want to hear about it any more. You may become a virtual prisoner in your own home, afraid to leave for fear of what your teen may do. Deep resentment and bitterness will then build toward your teen.
You Hand Over Your Authority to Outsiders to "Fix" Your Teenager.
The hopelessness and isolation may lead you to blame yourself. You may come to believe that your teen will only be helped by an outside counselor, removal from the home, or placement in a group home. You become hopeful, relieved, and excited when you find a counselor or a temporary placement outside the home. For the first time in a long while, there is often peace and quiet. Then, after a short honeymoon period, your teen begins to return to the same old behaviors and hang out with the same old friends. You become bitter toward your teen for letting you down again. You may then go back to the system again with more doctors, more medication, or more hospitals. It becomes a revolving door with your teen still ending up back at the same place as you started.
Nurturance and Softness Will Get Sucked Out of the Relationship.
By this time, you are so angry at your teen that you stop liking him or her on any level. You may feel guilty, but the years of pain and parent abuse have taken their toll. Part of you wants to open up and hug your teen, but another part is too afraid to risk more rejection. Deep down your parental instincts tell you that your teenager needs unconditional love to thrive emotionally. You alsomay realize that part of the misbehavior is connected to a lack of softness. However, showing softness when you feel nothing but hurt is easier said than done. After all, you are only human.
Your Teen Pulls Even Further Away from You.
Teenagers feel your tension and bitterness. They are also hesitant to make the first move or open up. They desperately need your softness, but they either don't know that they need it or put up a front. As a result, they will seek out this softness through gangs, peers, or even drugs. Receiving acceptance and nurturance from these groups may come with the price tag of immoral or illegal acts in the forms of muggings, rape, or violence. In addition, teenagers may turn their anger inward and become depressed and isolated. If this continues, suicide attempts are often the next step.
Your Teenager Will Either Get Worse or Eventually Pull Out of It.
Your teen may continue to get worse or get better. Signs of getting worse include: (1) a lack of remorse for any hurtful acts on others; (2) blaming others for their problems; (3) persistent lying; (4) repeated acts of drunkenness or use of drugs; (5) repeated fighting; (6) repeated suspension from school; or (7) inability to hold a job. If this continues, your teen may develop, in adulthood, what is called an antisocial personality disorder and may pass these same traits along to his or her own children.
Other teens will pull out of it when they reach adulthood. Many of us were difficult teens, but we got through adolescence somehow. Something happened to us. Perhaps when we were on our own and had to pay bills and rent, we finally began to see how the real world worked and that we had to be responsible to survive.
After reading about this path, you may agree with where it is leading, but you may still be too tired or burned out to choose the other way. You may need a breather or a rest. One parent sent her son to a six-month wilderness program so that she could regroup andregain strength; it also made her teen appreciate what he had at home. If you are in similar circumstances, I ask only that you try to use the Steps in this book when you are ready.
Things may also need to get worse before you can commit to change. If this is the case, place this book in your cedar chest or in the back of your bookshelf. It may collect some dust, but the ideas can be put into practice later if you need them.
The Right Fork in the Road: "I Will Take Charge"
Once you make up your mind to take charge, proceed to Step 2 in this book on the next page to write an ironclad contract, and continue with Steps 3 through 7. While not every teen will progress in such an orderly fashion as my map indicates, your teen will likely improve if you follow this path.
The Third Fork in the Road: Fake It Until You Make It
If you or someone you know is firmly entrenched in the viewpoint that the teen has a problem, but you cannot personally fix it, ask yourself or that person these questions: Is what I'm doing with my teenager currently working? Is my teenager getting better or is the teen pretty much staying the same or getting worse?
If the present approach is not helping, then history will repeat itself. If you do more of the same, more of the same will happen. I urge you to perform an experiment to see for yourself if the right fork is the better road. Take the next three months to try each of the steps in this book. If you are not satisfied, you can always go back to the other path.
When you turn this page your journey will begin. This is the last chance you have to act as a parent to your child. They need you now more than ever. Through hard work, this road map, and the set of step-by-step tools contained in this book may change your teen's destiny.
PARENTING YOUR OUT-OF-CONTROL TEENAGER: 7 STEPS TO REESTABLISH AUTHORITY AND RECLAIM LOVE. Copyright © 2001 by Scott P. Sells, Ph.D. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.