Parenting Teens With Influence or Control

I didn’t think it was possible, but the other day my daughter looked at herself in the mirror and texted her friends for exactly two hours! We were on a road trip, driving home from a weekend stay at the cabin. The weather was nice as we cruised home with windows cracked and music on. I looked over at my daughter who had gone quiet almost the second we got in the car. With the passenger side mirror down, she was meticulously brushing her hair, moving single hairs, trying up-do’s and down-do’s. She applied lip-gloss, mascara, and powder. Then, between breaks of texting her friend, she went back to moving single hairs so that they were in the exact right place. To be honest, I found myself feeling really annoyed. I found myself thinking things like, “We finally have time in the car together and you are totally self-consumed!” I went as far as to think, “Was I ever like that? Did I spend hours and hours just looking at myself?” I even found myself feeling a little angry. I thought, “When I was a teen, and went on long rides with my parents, I HAD to endure their company. I couldn’t have conversations with my friends as if my parents were not even there! If I chose not to talk to my parents, I had to sit in silence…thinking!” I immediately wanted to say “Haven’t you looked at yourself long enough! Or, “Put that phone away and talk to me!” Before I said anything, I sat quietly with my feelings. I felt irrational, rejected, and unsure of how to handle this interaction. (Jeanie, mother of a 12 year old)

What should Jeanie do? Clearly, Jeanie is feeling a lot of emotions. Her daughter may not be fully aware of what’s going on, but she can probably tell something is wrong since roughly 80% of our communication is non-verbal. While her daughter plays a role in this interaction, how Jeanie reacts can have a big influence on the outcome. Let’s think a little deeper about what it means for a parent to have “influence”.  Experts point out that there is an important distinction between having influence and having control. To have influence is to have an effect the actions, behavior, and/or opinions of another. Alternatively, to have control involves exercising restraint, giving direction, dominating, or making commands. How might these look different for Jeanie? If Jeanie is trying to instill influence she might say, “I really enjoy spending time with you. I am sad that you are texting your friends instead of being present with me. I hope we get an opportunity to spend some one-on-one time together before we are home. That would help me feel important to you.” If Jeanie uses control she may say something like, “You need to put your phone away right now. You have been on that phone since we got in this car. It is really frustrating that you are so self-consumed and don’t even see how your actions are affecting me.”

Which feels better? Which do you think will have a bigger impact on the daughter’s feelings and actions? By focusing on having influence, Jeanie relates to her daughter on an emotional level. She shares her feelings and her hopes. This allows her daughter to focus on her own feelings and consider how her actions are affecting her mom. Using control can make the daughter defensive and less likely to think about how her mom is feeling. Language like “you are so self-consumed” and “you don’t even see how your actions are affecting me” can sound judgmental and blaming to the teen. She may put her phone away, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a good interaction with her mom.  It is more likely that she will be angry and pull away more.

Using this technique can be challenging for parents, especially since many of our reactions come from deep, internal feelings and past experiences. Sometimes they come from things that have been eating at us for a long time. Maybe Jeanie has let her feelings about cell-phones pile up, and this car ride was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Maybe Jeanie has been feeling rejected or ignored by her daughter since her she entered middle school. Letting these negative feelings pile up can result in angry outbursts or “snapping”.  In reality, Jeanie may be afraid that she is losing the close relationship she has always had with her daughter. It can be more effective to share this feeling in a compassionate way. The Dalai Lama said that anger creates havoc, manifests problems, and undermines virtues. He went on to say that compassion is the root of all relationships. It is through love, compassion, and concern for others that we find true happiness. When these are in abundance, even the most uncomfortable circumstances are manageable.  With this in mind, parents can share intense feelings using influence instead of control. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Practice addressing your feelings right away. Stuffing them away for later usually results in anger, and/or fear that you have lost your ability to have influence.
  • Recognize were your feelings are coming from. Is it something your teen is doing or has your teen triggered existing feelings?
  • Identify the emotion that you are feeling and share it with your teen. This will help your teen connect with you instead of defending his/her point.
  • Use compassion as much as possible. Compassion communicates that you love and understand your teen. It also shows your teen that you are reliable.
  • Give yourself a break. Say sorry and try again if you catch yourself responding out of anger and/or fear.

Happy Parenting!



Parenting From Fear Can Be Crippling

Years ago I attended a Tony Robbins conference. It was a pretty intense three days and over the years, one of the biggest things that stuck with me was the idea that fear is crippling. Imagine walking into a room with about 350 other people, and hearing someone say, “You are going to walk on fire tonight!” I waited for the metaphor, but quickly realized that this really was the plan. Even though I immediately turned to my husband and said, “I’m not going to walk on fire tonight”, I actually did.

Some would say  that success has everything to do with the scientific fact that our bodies have a relatively high heat capacity, and coals and hardwoods are very good insulators. From this point of view, a person with “normal” soles won’t get burned as long as the coals are the right temperature and he or she can walk quickly across. Others would say that a person has to be in the right state of mind to produce enough energy to deflect the fire.  They have to believe they are mentally prepared and capable. Regardless of one’s belief, our instincts tell us, “Don’t walk on fire or you will get burned“.   Putting that fear aside required avoiding negative self-talk, and breaking through limiting beliefs about my ability do it.  It required trusting that what seems true in theory was also true in practice.

If you are interested, here is a little clip on the controversy and intended effect of fire walking.

How does this relate to parenting teens?  Being the parent of a teenager, you have probably noticed that your teenager is more independent.  Both in how they act and what they think, they are searching to better understand themselves and their place in this world.  Letting them do this can be very scary for parents. They may try on different styles, music, or friendship groups. They may explore different classes or job opportunities. They may even scare you at times because they say or do things that seem contradictory to the teen you believe you know so well.   As alarming as all this can seem,  parenting from this place of fear can backfire on you! This is because fear often prompts parents to respond with anger, hostility, frustration or shameful undertones. This type of reaction from parents can develop into fear in the teenagers themselves.  In other words, teens that feel as though they are going to be yelled at or shamed may choose to exclude their parents from the circle of influence all together. They may lie, withhold information, or even act out to  show they have control.

The fire walking activity is done to teach people to put fears aside.  As hard as a may feel to put aside fears of getting burned, I think it pails in comparison to putting aside fears of things that can compromise the health, well-being, and safety of our teens. We know that our teens will increasingly make decisions on their own, but we fear:  Will they make a bad decision?  How will bad decisions effect their future? Will they be safe? Will their actions hurt someone else? One of the ways parents try to manage this fear is to  control the situation as much as possible by setting rules and boundaries that protect teens.  If we fear our son will drink at a party, we may forbid him from going. If we fear our daughter is falling in with a “bad” peer group, we may restrict her from spending time with certain friends.  While the intentions are good, let’s look at a couple ways this could backfire on the parents.  A teen may say,  “My parents won’t let me go to the party, so I will just sneak out at 10:30 and you can pick me up around the corner” or “My mom won’t let me spend time with you, so we will have to make sure we see each other at lunch and meet up at the mall as often as we can.”

Does this mean that we simply condone behaviors or allow our teens to do things we don’t want them to do because they may do them anyway?  No. Parents still need to do what they can to protect, teach, model, care for, and love their children. The real question is: If parenting from a place of fear backfires, what do we do instead? Forbes and Post, authors of the book “Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control” suggest using love instead of fear to maintain influence.  What does this look like? Let’s look at the drinking party. Forbes and Post offer this type of response:

Honey, you are 15 years old and probably feel as though you are perfectly capable of making your own decisions. I can imagine that no matter what I say you are going to make the decision that you feel is best for you. I would like for you to stay home because I don’t feel that the environment will be safe and I will worry about you tremendously. That being said, I know that you are going to do what you feel is best. I do love you though.”

This response connects the teen with the parent at an emotional level and communicates love and concern for his/her safety.  The teen feels less defensive and less compelled to argue with the parent.   This puts the teen in a better position to listen, and consider what the parent is saying.  Parenting involves constant reevaluation of what is working and what is not.  While this approach may not work for every parent or in every situation, it gives you an alternative way to attack the rebellion, lying, or acting out that can happen in the teen years. Start by looking inward and identifying your own fears. Then, see what kind of loving conversations you can have with your teen about issues that are important to you.

Happy Parenting,


Motivating Teens: Helping Them Meet Their Potential

I have three children: 13 (boy), 17 (girl), and 19 (boy). Over the years, I have experienced so many feelings about being a parent, and I have asked so many questions about whether I am doing it right. I am desperately trying to establish reasonable boundaries, set fair expectations, and show unconditional and never-ending love to my children. I don’t just love my children because they are my children, but because they are truly interesting, fun, and enjoyable people to be around. Still, they make mistakes. And in those moments, I question what I could have done differently? How could I have protected them from these mistakes? Is it a reflection of me, or my parenting? One minute they look like they have it all together, and the next they are caught fighting at school, not turning in their homework, or even worse…..” I know they are good people and I hope they embrace life with all their potential.

Does this sounds at all familiar? As parents, we want our children to be happy and we want them to reach their potential. We worry and we hope we are doing it right. It is important to recognize that parents play an important role, but they are not fully responsible.  In reality, a teen’s motivation, or desire to instigate and sustain certain goal-directed behaviors, is often out of our control.  Stay engaged by  considering ways in which you can have influence, and paying attention to other people, activities, and contexts that help your teen meet his/her needs.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Resized, renamed,...
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Abraham Maslow is a famous psychologist who believed that people are motivated by a series of needs, with some needs taking priority over others. His famous Hierarchy of Needs outlines five levels, each of which must be met before moving onto the next. His description of how people prioritize their needs can help explain what motivates teens to engage in certain behavior over others.

Maslow called the first four levels “deficit” needs because they represent voids that must be met in order to continue developing.  In the final level, “self-actualization”, people have met all their deficits and can focus on growing as a person and developing their true potential.  Self-actualized people are motivated by budding goals and desires for fulfillment.

It makes sense to say that a teen cannot work on developing a strong self-esteem if the basic needs of food, water, shelter, and physical and emotional safety are not being met.  Similarly, without a strong self-esteem, it is difficult to be creative and fully accepting of yourself and others. It is important to recognize that teens are immersed in a variety of contexts that contribute to their development in each of the five levels.  For example, while teens can gain a sense of love and belonging from family, they also need to feel like they are accepted as part of a peer group. As they move up the pyramid, teens continually set goals about who they want to be.

Importantly, who they want to be is impacted by how they see themselves.  For example, it is easier to say “I want to get straight A’s this semester” when you see yourself as good at school, hardworking, and/or intelligent.  Teens are more motivated when they think they can change, “I can get into the orchestra if I take lessons this summer.” And they are discouraged, or even quit trying, if they don’t think they can change.  “I can’t be on the cheerleading team because I am not athletic.” You can also stretch your teens perceptions of themselves by helping them extend present behaviors into the future.  For example, “Getting straight A’s will look great on your college application.” or “Trying out for cheerleading will help you get in shape and give you exposure to other sports you may like.” Helping teens reach their potential involves helping them set goals that stretch their current perceptions of themselves. It is moving them from a belief of “I am who I am” to “I can be who I want to be”. Below are some ways to apply Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs to our parenting:

  • Pay attention. Consider how your teen’s behavior is related to a particular need they might be trying to meet.
  • Do everything you can to make your home physically and emotionally safe
  • Provide unconditional love and instill a sense of belonging in the family. A sense of belonging comes, in part, from being a contributing member. Find ways in which your teen can make an ongoing investment in the family.
  • Learn about your teen’s peer group. Talk about what it means to belong to that group. Group norms and values are typically shared and can guide behavior. You want your teen to see the link between how the group defines itself and the activities/behaviors it engages in.
  • Help your teen reach his/her potential. Emphasize your teen’s ability to make changes and control his/her future. Teach your teen to seek out the resources he/she  needs to grow.
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Understanding & Motivating the Middle School Student

Picture this dialogue….

Daughter: “Mom, I can’t go to school today!” (Stomping down the stairs)
Mom:  Hugging her, mom says, “Why? Are you feeling ok?”
Daughter: “Are you kidding? Look at my hair….I can’t go to school looking like this! Can you imagine what my friends will think when I walk in looking like this!” (Tears pouring down her face)
Mom: “I am sorry hunny. You have to go to school. Is there anything I can do? How can I help?”
Daughter: “Don’t worry about it! Nobody can help this! I’ll just go. I can tell it is going to be the worst day ever!”

Has this, or something like this, happened to you? Has your child hit middle school? Whether your child starts middle school as a 6th or 7th grader, this is a time of massive and intense growth.  Their bodies are flooded with emotions, making them susceptible to overreaction and mood swings.  Because of the number of changes that take place, it can be a confusing, exciting, and challenging time for both parents and teens. One of the biggest things you will notice is your teen’s friendship network expands at the same time that they are adjusting to increases in school work.  While grades remain important, how their hair looks for the day can sometimes rival as the top priority.

To a teen, middle school can be a great adventure. To a parent, it can be very scary! Parents may worry that their child is pulling away from family and relying more on friends for company and support.  Parents may also begin to notice competing motivations between academic and social goals.  This is because middle school is the transitional period when children begin to develop social and moral competencies, as well as intellectual skills. Both are important, but for different reasons.  Making friends, being accepted, and gaining support from a group of peers is important to your child’s developing sense of self.  Learning study skills and building good habits with regard to school is important for lifelong learning.  While it is easy to compartmentalize the social and academic aspects of your teen’s life, it is important to understand that they actually go together. Research shows that those who feel connected to and supported by peers, parents, and teachers do better in school.  Part of our role as parents is to recognize this and help teens develop skills to balance social and academic commitments.

Of course, parents want to see their children do well in school and in social situations. We have all heard, or even said ourselves, “I want my children to have it easier than I did“.   While some studies have shown that the transition to middle school can make young teens vulnerable to declines in self-esteem and even grades, others have provided guidelines to protect young teens from potential setbacks.  Here are a few things to think about as you help your teen develop good relationships and navigate their new school environment. All of these involve engaging in conversations, listening, and trying to understand what motivates your teen:

1.  Instill an interest in learning. When middle schoolers can find satisfaction in the process of learning, they are more likely to persist in the face of challenge or failure. They are also more likely to feel good about school.

2.  Focus less on achieving something than on the process of learning.  Sometimes, middle schoolers can be motivated simply to achieve a good grade on a test or a high status position in a particular peer group.  This desire to achieve is often driven by expectations, values, and foreseen consequences (good and bad) that are placed on them, either individually or by those whose opinions matter. Pay attention to whose opinions matter most to your teen, talk to them about why those opinions matter, and encourage them to surround themselves with people who share common expectations and values.

3.  Understand that middle school is a much bigger world than elementary school.  This can make it harder for teens to build relationships with teachers.  Because these relationships are related to academic success, it is important that parents help teens find ways to connect with their teachers.

4. Don’t loose site of what it was like to go to middle school.  Reflecting and sharing what it was like for you can help your teen disclose their own experiences.  Tell them what you think. Even when it doesn’t seem like it, your teen is looking to you for guidance and support.

5. Stay connected to friends and the parents of friends. Develop coffee times, book clubs, or other social settings where you can get to know one another.  Share your values and expectations, and let other parents know you are invested in raising healthy teens together.

6.  Understand that it is sometimes through failure and setback that teens learn the most. Don’t rescue teens from their mistakes. Instead, be there to help them understand and learn from their mistakes. It is through their personal experiences that they will develop their own motivations.

Investing in our children is an emotional experience and one that can be joyful when things are going well and painful when we have to see them struggle.  Helping them to stay on track in school requires accepting their increased motivation to spend time with friends as a normal developmental process, while also helping them learn new strategies to find the balance between social and school commitments. Being able to find balance is a life skill that will serve them for many years to come. And remember that having a bad hair day is a really big deal, with perceived social ramifications. Sometimes it is best to say nothing. Empathize and be present with them, and don’t take their lashings personal. You are their anchor, their harbor in the storm of middle school.