MomsOnMonday: Prep for Parenting Your Modern Family

Posted on January 28th, 2013, 0 Comments

Phil Takes Over His Kids’ Problems

Season 4, Episode 13

The Framework

Tonight’s episode begins with the three teens in the Dunphy household each struggling with their own problem:

Alex: I’m having my sweet 60’s-themed birthday party next week… Karen Sullivan heard about it and decided to have the same party. Tonight!

Luke: I accidentally called my teacher “mom.” My friend Ruben went around and told everybody.

Haley: Our neighbor is out of town, and she’s paying me to move her car on street cleaning days… How do I tell her that I snapped a branch off her beloved lemon tree?

Their father, Phil, offers to help, but it’s clear that the kids would prefer the help of their enforcer mom. Like Alex said: She gets results.

And with that, Phil – who obviously thinks of himself as a problem solver – springs into action, determined to earn some respect from his kids by taking care of their problems for them. He does a quick drive-by (Literally!) of each teen’s problem, trying to solve each with his charm. But he fails miserably. Here’s how Haley summed it up: Dad tried to fix all our problems and instead ruined all of our lives.

Phil is not done yet, though. He does an about face, going from a kill-em-with-kindness mode to “mob” methods of revenge. And with a logic that only works in sitcoms, everything that got worse is resolved in the end.

Flipping the Frame: My Notes

On the night Haley went to jail, we were reminded of the wisdom in helping our teens learn to solve their own problems. As Claire pointed out, if we keep solving their problems for them, we may find ourselves supporting them for the rest of their lives. Tonight’s Godfather-esque episode went to ludicrous lengths to clarify this pearl of wisdom: It’s not just that we shouldn’t solve our teens’ problems, it’s that we can’t.

When our kids were younger, we could solve their problems. We controlled all the action: We decided what they did, when they’d do it, and with whom. But with teens, we are no longer totally in-charge. And because we have less control, we have a lot less knowledge about their social lives, making it virtually impossible for us to solve our teens’ problems for them.

Now, it’s not that we’re supposed to be uninvolved. In fact, the largest and most comprehensive study of U.S. teens to date, found that feeling close to their parents is one of the strongest deterrents to dangerous risk-taking in teens. But study after study has shown that teens learn more and that the long-term outcomes are more favorable, when we guide their actions rather than try to control them.

Our new job, then, is to collaborate with our teens – to help them make good decisions and do the right thing. Seems manageable. Even straightforward. But there’s a catch…

Becoming independent is one of our teens’ most important developmental tasks as they grow from childhood into adulthood. Thus, their new job is to prove to us (and to themselves) that they don’t need us (or, at least, our direction and advice) anymore. That they can make their own decisions.

This means that the last thing teens want is a know-it-all parent: Someone who knows exactly how they feel before they’ve even figured it out themselves. Someone who always knows the answer before the question has even been asked. And it means that although we are a critical source of information for our teens – about relationships, values, sound decision making, and consequences of one’s actions – we are most influential when we help them to come up with their own answers.


We love our teens. We’re committed to them. And while none of us would endorse either of Phil’s unconventional approaches to helping his kids with their problems, we can identify with his real desire to help:

Phil: Guys, I’m right here. What do you need?

Like Phil, we want our kids to know that we’re here for them. And if they could tell us what they need, I think they’d often ask us to start by listening more.

We parents are often most helpful when we:

Stay quiet and listen first. It’s tempting to jump in with quick advice and try to make everything okay or to scold them for getting themselves into such a mess. But we are most effective when we let our teens talk and vent first without trying to intervene.

Our quiet presence tells our teens that what they’re struggling with is a tough problem – that we don’t have an easy answer. And it tells them that we believe in them and respect their growing maturity and independence.

Sometimes our quiet presence is all they need. Sometimes all that will be left for us to do is to affirm their ability to solve their own problems and to support what they’ve decided to do.

Ask questions. At other times our teens need a bit more than our silence. In these instances, instead of telling them what to do, try asking questions that will help them clarify their own thinking and explore the problem with your support:
– Can you tell me more about…?
– What have you already tried?
– How do you feel about…?
– What makes you think that…?
– Can you give me an example?

Guide them to come to their own answers. Then use additional questions that will guide them to come up with their own answers:
– What do you think you should do?
– What have others done?
– How would that work?
– What would that look like?

Remind them of their past success. One of the best ways that we can help our teens build confidence in their ability to solve their own problems is to be an historian of their past success. We can remind them of other similar problems – ones they struggled with before coming up with their own solutions that worked. Remember when… You weren’t at all sure that you’d be able to figure out what to do. But you did by…

Flipping the Frame: Your Parenting Experiences

• Are you the one in your household whom your teens turn to when they’re struggling with a problem? If so, why do you think they look to you?

• Have you found an especially good approach for supporting your teen when they’re struggling with a problem? What do you do?

• Has there been a time when your teen struggled with a problem and in the end came up with a solution on their own? As their historian, what words would you use to remind them of their past success?

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