Aim to Guide Rather than Control

Posted on November 7th, 2011, 0 Comments

Although they will almost certainly not tell us this directly, our teens are counting on us to help them take the good kinds of risks and weed out the bad ones. This requires some explicit teaching about our values so that they’ll know what they need to do and why it’s important. Below are some suggestions for approaching these conversations in a way that will get heard by your teen.

Start early. The research indicates that younger adolescents are more responsive to parental influence. The longer you wait, the tougher the competition will be for your teen’s attention.

Stay focused on one thing at a time. One good helping of values is probably enough for any one conversation with your teen. You can stay focused most easily by using a Here’s what I’m most concerned about … approach.

Avoid scare tactics. Scare tactics turn teens off, and teens’ tendency to underestimate the seriousness of bad consequences can make these counterproductive.

Be straightforward. Try to be as clear as you can when you communicate what is and what is not acceptable to you. The more vague your messages, the easier they are for your teen to ignore.

Brainstorm for a decision-making framework. Working with your teen, come up with specific criteria they could use to gauge danger in various situations. For example, when making a decision about whether to stay at a party or not, the criteria might include the following:
Are parents or adults present?
– How many kids are there?
– Are alcohol or drugs visibly present?
– What’s the noise level?
– How rowdy is it?
– How respectfully is the property being treated?

Then give your teen practice using the framework to evaluate different scenarios. Help them explore the potential risks associated with each criterion and to think through actions they could use to get out of high-risk situations.

Find opportunities for spontaneous conversations. Rather than lecture, look for everyday openings – after watching a movie, observing people, reading a newspaper article, or listening to music – to ask a question or make a comment designed to spark a conversation. For example:

Parent: That song makes it seem like sex, drugs, and money are the only important things in life.

Teen: What are you talking about? All songs sound like that.

Respond quietly, floating your ideas by your teen rather than doing it loudly with insult or by giving orders.

Instead of:

Parent: I can’t believe you listen to that kind of garbage!


Parent: That’s it. I won’t have you listening to music like that. Give me that iPod right now!


Parent: I know you want to choose your own music, and that’s understandable. But I’m concerned about those lyrics and the effect that listening to them can have on you. It’s part of my job as your parent to pay attention to things like that.

What messages do you think kids take away from these lyrics?

Listen with curiosity and then share what you’re most concerned about, remembering that this is not about controlling your teen. It’s about helping them develop their decision-making muscles.

Parenting teens can be a tricky business. Almost all teens are intent on extending away from their parents. And we can’t know where they are and what they’re doing every single minute. This means that just when our teens need our protection most, our parental control systems become less effective. But the risks go way down when we aim to guide rather than control them by providing lots of opportunities for interactive communication coupled with appropriate monitoring and supervision.

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