Put Your Teen at an Advantage by Parenting Like a Proactive Consultant

Posted on March 28th, 2012, 0 Comments

When our kids become teens it’s time to give up our role as their managers and start parenting like proactive consultants. To be successful at our new job, we need to stay connected to our teens. Because if they are to learn how to make good decisions and do the right thing, they need our input more than ever.

Sounds easy enough. But there’s a catch. Teens see their job as extending away from us and getting to do what they want to do. And because their brains are wired to reward risk taking and to underestimate bad consequences, for them, getting to do what they want to do really boils down to dealing with us, their parents.

How we respond to this challenge depends on the parenting style we use. Whether we take a micromanaging boss, a permissive friend, or a proactive consultant approach, our parenting style forms the mostly unconscious stance we take when we interact with our teens. And as the curfew example below shows, our stance affects how our teens think and act in response.

Teen: There’s a party I want to go to on Saturday night. It’s going to be awesome!

Parent: You know the rules – parents have to be home and you have to call in if your plans change.

Teen: That’s fine. But the party is after the game. So can I stay out until 1:00?

Micromanaging Boss Stance

Parent: What?! 1:00 in the morning? That’s after the city curfew! Absolutely not!!

Permissive Friend Stance

Parent: I don’t know, sweetie. That’s pretty late. Let me think about it.

Teen: C’mon. This is a big deal. Everybody is going. And I really want to go. Pleeeeease!

Parent: All right, I’ll let you go. But you’ve got to promise me that you’ll come straight home after the party.

Proactive Consultant Stance

Parent: I don’t know, sweetie. That’s pretty late.

Teen: C’mon. I’m a good kid. You know I almost always get home by my 11:30 curfew.

Parent: That’s true. But there are reasons why you have an 11:30 curfew – most of them having to do with your safety.

Teen: Yeah, but remember the couple times you’ve let me stay out past my curfew? I handled everything just fine. I think I’ve earned this by following the rules and being responsible.

Parent: I’m willing to think about it. But if I let you stay out that late, I still need to be a responsible parent. And 1:00 is after the city curfew. So what are you willing to do to assure me that you’ll stay safe and follow the law if I let you stay out that late?

Teen: How ‘bout this? I’ll check in at 11:30 just so you’ll know I’m okay. Then instead of driving home after the party, I’ll get a ride with Sam – he always gets picked up by one of his parents. That way I won’t be breaking the city curfew law. And I’ll even come home two hours early on Friday night so you won’t have to stay up late on both nights.

C’mon. You know that’s a pretty good deal for you. And I won’t mess-up. I promise.

When we fear that they will go in the wrong direction, it’s natural to respond by trying to hold on to them tighter. When we worry, all of our instincts tell us to become a micromanaging boss. We give lots of warnings, lectures, and restrictions. Under this regime, teens learn that to get to do what they want, they have to outwardly acquiesce and then sneak and lie to get around us. And if they run into problems, they’ll be reluctant to seek our input. Instead, they’ll have only their own instincts (and those of their like-minded friends) to guide them.

Sometimes, to avoid becoming a micromanaging boss or to steer clear of all the battles, we overcompensate. We so value the close connections that we’ve established with our teens that we turn into a permissive friend. We become reluctant to set and enforce limits, putting few demands on our teens’ behavior and giving them more freedom than they’re ready for. Under this system, teens learn that if they pester us long enough, we’ll say yes to just about anything they want to do. And if something does go wrong, they don’t get a chance to learn from their mistakes. Instead, they let us worry about the consequences. After all, we let them do it – not because they’d earned the privilege with their past behavior but just because they really wanted to.

Neither the micromanaging boss nor the permissive friend styles of parenting get the level of control right. Micromanaging bosses stay involved but act like they own the controls with their default set on no. Permissive friends stay connected but surrender control entirely, saying yes even when the answer should be no.

Proactive consultants stay connected to their teens and gradually relinquish control as their teens earn more freedom choice-by-choice and deed-by-deed. When proactive consultants have to say no, they shift the conversation to why. By sharing their reasons for saying no, these parents let their teens see how their brains work. And by sharing their concerns they are helping to train their teens’ brains.

Parenting like a proactive consultant is a lot of work. It is much easier to be a micromanaging boss or a permissive friend. But a huge body of research says the effort is worth it. The evidence overwhelmingly shows that teens with parents who act like proactive consultants are at an advantage. These teens are more open to their parents’ influence. They get a better chance to hone planning, negotiating, and problem solving skills. This adds to the teens’ self-assurance and ability to withstand stress and negative influences. And these teens learn that past behavior matters – something that all kids need to learn.

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It’s Time to Change Your Job Description

Posted on March 12th, 2012, 0 Comments

Last week I took part in a panel discussion aimed at reducing teen drinking and drug use. One of the questions dealt with how we can underscore the important role of parents in preventing teen risk-taking without blaming them if their children use or begin to use.

Truth be told, how we parent does matter. Study after study supports this notion. So when our teens mess-up, we often do feel that we are to blame. After all we’re in-charge. Aren’t we?

Pondering this question caused me to think back to how my parenting job changed over the course of my kids’ growing-up years. When my children were very young, I was in-charge. I decided what they got to do, when they’d do it, and who they’d do it with. I was their manager. But my parental control shrank as my children got older and became teens. It had to.

Attempts to maintain tight control – with too many restrictions, warnings, and punishments – can keep teens from learning how to make good decisions for themselves. Plus this type of micromanaging can invite rebellion, causing teens to dedicate all of their energies to out-maneuvering us and eluding our checkpoints.

On the other hand, becoming too hands-off also puts teens at risks. In fact, the more teens feel that they’re truly on their own without their parents’ supervision and guidance, the more susceptible they are to all the major risks – to drinking, drugs, early and unprotected sex, anxiety, depression, and even suicide.

So while we’re still responsible for our children when they become teens, we’re no longer in-charge. At least not totally.

When parenting teens, it makes more sense to think about our power (and responsibility) in terms of influence rather than control. This means our job description needs to change. It’s time to give up our job as our kids’ managers and become their consultants. And not just ordinary consultants – we need to be proactive consultants.

As a proactive consultant, you still make rules, set limits, and enforce consequences – especially when it comes to your teen’s safety and health. But as a proactive consultant you no longer make all the decisions. Instead your new job is to stay connected to your teen and keep the conversations going so that you can collaborate with them and guide them – by helping to manage the risks you can’t eliminate and by helping to train their brains so that they can learn how to make good decisions for themselves.

There is a huge body of research showing the relationship between parenting styles and teen behavior. (A good overview of the protective effects of good parenting can be found here.) But it is not a perfect one-to-one relationship. We cannot be with our teens at every minute. At the end of the day teens will make their own decisions – including decisions about whether to drink or use drugs. Our job is to influence our teens’ decisions by making it harder for them to make bad decisions and easier for them to make good ones.

Parents who think, talk, and act like proactive consultants (termed an authoritative parenting style in the research literature) have lots of influence over their teens’ decisions. The next blog post will take a more detailed look at how these parents go about their job.

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