Family life: How can I get through to my unruly teenage daughter?
Published 26/07/2010 | 05:00
I have a 15-year-old daughter who is confident, assertive, intelligent, beautiful and ambitious but also defiant and refuses to stop drinking or to come in on time at night.
She is a liar and a thief (from my handbag) and there is no trust between us as she has constantly let me down. I have followed the advice from Parentline and other websites on grounding, compromise, talking, screaming and arguing but to no avail. She is refusing to be grounded and is a potential runaway. At this stage my husband and I are without hope. I desperately want to keep our relationship open but it is increasingly hard. She has no real reason to be like this but she says she hates her family and this house and her life. We constantly tell her we love her but I am not willing to let her continue drinking and coming in two hours late at night. She is hanging around with bad company and I am afraid where she will end up. Can you advise me what to do?
You describe your daughter as confident, assertive and ambitious. In many ways these are very positive traits that indicate she is independently minded.
Of course the flip side, the negative side, of being independently minded is that she will choose her own course in life before the course you might choose for her.
As you are experiencing, her choices about socialising and drinking are in direct conflict with yours and so her assertiveness becomes defiance instead. Naturally, you are concerned about her choices because you see danger for her in those choices.
We know that the frontal cortex of the brain is not yet fully developed during adolescence. The frontal cortex is that part of the brain that controls impulsiveness, decision-making, analysis of risk and planning, amongst other things.
This frontal cortex immaturity means that teenagers are more likely to make bad decisions, without thought for consequences or outcomes.
For this reason I am always in favour of setting limits and boundaries for teenagers, especially young teenagers. They may have great designs on doing their own thing but, as we can see, they rarely have the foresight and maturity to make consistently good decisions.
That means that we parents must remain part of their decision-making. What we can't do, however, is to try to take over that decision-making.
There comes a point at which we must accept that we can no longer be authoritarian in our approach to our teenagers.
When we are autocratic in our stance, making the decisions and brooking no argument, we invariably end up in polarised conflict with them.
It sounds to me like your situation has developed into just that.
Moreover, when you try to set limits about when, where and for how long your daughter goes out, you find that she can and does simply break the rules you have set and there is little you can do to prevent her.
You can punish her, but the punishment rarely has the effect of teaching her some other, more acceptable behaviour. Instead the punishment just leads to greater resentment, anger and possibly hatred on her part.
Meanwhile her behaviour, which defies your rules, leads you to become more frustrated, resentful and also possibly hating of her. A successful outcome, therefore, cannot come from one-sided rules, disobedience and consequent punishment. You need to find a new way.
Perhaps getting some kind of support for yourselves, either professional or from friends and family, might facilitate you in thinking afresh about the difficulties you face.
A new way that I suggest is for you to call a truce with her. Explain the dilemma you face, ie, that you can see that her behaviour is self-destructive (even if she doesn't) and yet you realise that you can no longer force her to change that behaviour using external pressure.
Remind her of all the positive attributes that she has, which you described to me. Point out to her the positive side of each of those but draw her attention also to the potential negative side. Give her real responsibility for the choices she makes.
Talk to her about how you genuinely want to support her because you love her so much. Focus perhaps on her ambitions. Remind her of the routes she has to achieve those ambitions and, if you can, show her how her behaviour might prevent those ambitions being realised.
The core of your relationship with her is deeper than the surface squabbles you have with her. Don't give up hope on her.
Because you are the adult, you have to be the one to keep faith in her and to keep giving her opportunities to be trusted and to be responsible, even if her current behaviour suggests that doing so is a bad risk.
If you can maintain this kind of positive relationship with her then you will also maintain the power to influence her decision-making. You just can't make her decisions for her any more.
David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author. Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence.