“Why do my parents have to know every step I make?!” Those were the words of a very frustrated middle schooler who was in a bit of trouble
with his parents. He was sick and tired of them “always asking questions” and felt that they were being ridiculous. My chat with Mom and Dad revealed the cause of their distrust. Mark had decided to tell his parents he was hanging out with an old friend from elementary school who they really liked when he was, in fact, hanging out with a new group of “friends” who were making very poor decisions. And so unfolds the story of many families at this stage of the parenting journey. Middle and high school kids tend to challenge their parents more at this stage than any other. They ignore the rules, defy their parents, and then get angry when they’ve been caught. Kids are mad at their parents for not trusting them. Parents are mad at their kids for going against what they have said. Unfortunately, it can result in yelling, grounding, and a breakdown in both communication and family relationships. So, what is really going on? A Preteen’s Perspective: Mark wants to begin establishing more independence from their parents. He feels they should allow him to make his own decisions on things like social groups and how he spends his free time. The Parent Perspective: They want to guide and protect him. They have years of life experience and insight. They can see the bigger picture of the consequences Mark’s poor decisions could bring. Mom and Dad have been watching him begin to pull away and rebel against their rules and now they feel they need to hold on tighter. Who’s right? Well, everyone has some valid points. What is happening is the shift that typically occurs in the preteen-teen years. Mark is pulling away from his parents, his parents are trying to pull him back in because of his poor decision-making. At times the family feels like they are doing a tug-of-war over allowing some independence but still needing to set boundaries to encourage appropriate behaviors. This is the time when I usually steer everyone in the direction of a conversation about responsibility. Responsibility is “doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” You follow through on what you say you’ll do. You make appropriate choices without being prompted or pushed by anyone. If teens want to be trusted, they have to show they are responsible. These two values go hand-in-hand, so tightly intertwined that you can’t ever really separate them. I talk often about family values because they are a huge piece of the family foundation. When parents create a family values list along with the expected behaviors, it builds clarity for everyone involved and consistency for discipline and messaging. My suggestions for this family included: 1) Clarify Your Values What do responsibility and trust “look like” in their family. When kids know what is expected, they have a better chance of successfully reaching that goal. Mark’s parents can then sit down with him and clearly explain what responsibility looks like and how he will gain more of their trust by being more responsible 2) Listen to Learn, Not to Lecture Mark's parents need to gain insight into why this particular group of friends is so important to him. During this conversation, his parents listen more than they talk. I suggested they ask open-ended questions, listen for feeling words, and reflect what they’re hearing. When parents calmly approach these conversations, they will discover more things about their child’s current emotional state than any screaming match will ever produce. 3) Understand This Stage of Development Mark believes he has everything “under control," which is very typical at this age. It's the push for independence without the maturity needed to actually be independent. The conflict of thinking you are ready for independence and actually being ready is created because of a lack of development of the frontal lobe. This stage is what I call the runny scrambled eggs stage. He is trying to make mature decisions, but this part of the brain is just not solidified enough to actually make good choices. 4) Talk about trust - and consequences When parents set down rules, it is typically for their child’s health, safety, or within the family values. It is the paren's job to follow up with discipline (teaching) and consequences should children step out of the boundaries set. Mark has to learn that he is in control of his destiny when it comes to freedom. If he wants his parents to relax and give him more freedom, it’s up to him to be responsible and make more appropriate choices. Moving forward Mark has two choices: a) He can choose to continue down this negative path and suffer more restrictions b) He can begin to be more responsible and re-establish a trusting relationship with his parents. The secret is to make it his choice. You choose the behavior, you choose the consequences. If you found this helpful and would like to receive more weekly tips and strategies like this, click here to sign up today!