Parenting teenagers: The rules of engagement
Parenting during the teen years can be a minefield, so how do you set realistic rules and clear boundaries for your teenager? Sorcha Corcoran talks to two experts about the process
IT may seem tricky and unpleasant sometimes, but experts agree the bottom line with teenagers is that when you set limits and they know how to keep them, they actually feel safer and know you care about them.
"Giving in is what spoils children and does not teach them about limitations. If you're having a lot of rows, think about whether you're giving a lot of negative attention to things that are better ignored, such as moodiness and annoying habits," explains Anne Conroy, training and resource manager at Barnardos.
"It is important to have rules but only a few. They should be about serious things like safety (what time to come in, not hurting anyone), money (limits on spending), education (not skipping school, doing homework) and overall respect at home and outside."
Rules about these serious issues should be clear, consistent and agreed between parents or guardians, notes the Barnardos publication brought out recently,
Parenting positively – teenage wellbeing for parents of teenagers.
Clinical psychologist Donna Shannon says parents should try to prioritise what the most important family rules are and involve their teenagers in discussions about setting boundaries and consequences.
" Throughout the adolescent years parents often struggle with balancing their child's need for structure, consistency and security with their growing demands for independence," she says.
" Trying to meet all of these needs is an ongoing negotiation with your adolescent child and will require lots of listening, patience, an ability to admit when you're wrong, as well as being able to 'stick to your guns'."
Shannon reckons it's a good idea to try to get to know the parents of your teenager's friends both for support and so that you can have a better idea of what actually are the norms of your teenager's peer group in terms of boundaries. This is always helpful when the "everybody is allowed to do it except me" arguments occur, she says.
" While your relationship with your teenager should not be ruled by rules, when everyone is clear that the rules do exist and that these boundaries are stable and consistently adhered to, it provides a sense of security for your teenager.
"Part of the job of being a teenager is to test, bend and break the rules so that they can discover their own set of attitudes, beliefs and moral values and establish their unique identity."
Behaviours have consequences
Boundaries teach teenagers that they have responsibilities – that our behaviours have consequences – and assist them in developing coping skills such as negotiation, the ability to assert themselves, control their emotions as well as building their confi dence,
Conroy advises that consequences don't have to be major to be effective – they could be the removal of something for a short period of time such as TV or games, reducing pocket money or cancelling a social event.
"Avoid cancelling sport or similar activities. This is a time for action, not words. Avoid getting caught up in excuses or rows. Teenagers learn from experiences; they help them to make choices and take responsibility for their lives. When you have to set limits for your child, let them know you still love them and that it is the behaviour you don't like."
In a similar way to disciplining a young child, establishing consequences with your teenager will only be effective if they're followed through. If you have consequences already in place and agreed with your teenager this avoids unrealistic punishments decided on the spot or in anger, such as "you're grounded for the summer" or "no more use of the computer".
Consequences should also be as much as possible logical in that they follow on from the behaviour that led to them, Shannon advises.
"For example, if your teenager is home late one night, then they get reduced time spent out on one of their weekend nights that week. If they run up an excessive phone bill, they will have to contribute to repaying their share over an agreed time."
There's a delicate balance for parents between giving their teenage children enough privacy and at the same time keeping them safe. For example, mobile phones should be good from a safety viewpoint, but teenagers need to be aware of the risk of theft or assault for their phone and what to do in such an event. Bullying via mobile phones can also be an issue.
"Bullying sometimes occurs at night through texts or calls. Keeping phones downstairs and switched off at night helps to prevent this. If you have reason to be worried about your daughter's safety, talk fi rst and explain your concerns," says Conroy.
" Tell her reading her text messages would be a last resort and that confiding in you would maintain the trust that exists between you."
And while your child has a need for privacy, staying in their room for very long periods is a worrying sign and could mean something is wrong, she explains.
"It is normal for teenagers to sometimes appear withdrawn and in their own world, but this shouldn't last for long periods or get progressively worse."
Shannon says parents need to be aware of the pressures that can face adolescents in relation to their peers, school and popular culture and acknowledge and support the efforts of their children to stay within the boundaries.
"Be willing to show that you will consider reasonable requests with counter offers, for example telling your 14 year old that she can attend the local disco if you drop her there and pick her up at an agreed time, or when your 13 year old asks for two extra hours on their curfew you could offer her one hour and try it out on a trial basis for a week. When your teenager wants to stay over with friends, you can agree that you will always speak with their parents first before you decide to give permission."
When it comes to alcohol and drug experimentation, the Barnardos booklet Parenting Positively advises parents to lead by example.
If you think there's a problem, tell your child firmly you are concerned, it states. "If you establish there is a problem, get help from the school counsellor or your GP can help you fi nd other services.
" Then keep the lines of communication open, monitor money, where your child is going and who they're with. Get the names and addresses of people they're hanging out with, find out what time your child will be there and what they plan to do. Your child may not like this level of intrusion at this stage, but will appreciate it later."
Mother & Babies