“The two biggest issues facing parents today are how to sort out what difficult behavior really is and how to manage it,” writes Michael Hawton.
In his new book, Engaging Adolescents: Parenting Tough Issues With Teenagers, Hawton asserts that not only do parents today often not know what is reasonable to expect from their teenager, they are also unclear how to navigate the difficult situations that inevitably arise in raising them.
Drawing on the theory of psychiatrist Scott Peck, Hawton writes that emotional maturity can be measured by the balance between an event and a reaction to an event. Teenage brains are not yet fully mature, so they may not know how to discriminate between inappropriate and appropriate behavior. A big part of what parents need to do is teach them how to respond to events appropriately.
Behavior that strains family values, such as distributing family business on social media is one example of inappropriate behavior. Handling situations like these require what Hawton calls “guardrails.”
“Think of it as making the invisible visible – identifying family values that represent your lives together,” writes Hawton.
While it is possible to set up situations in which teenagers learn to control their own behavior, this also requires that parents employ self-control. Hawton quotes Dr. Dan Siegal, author of Parenting From The Inside Out:
“A parent needs to be able to tolerate the tension and discomfort that a child may experience when a parent sets a limit. If a parent cannot tolerate a child’s being upset it is very difficult for the child to regulate her emotions.”
Still, parents who are overly concerned about their teenagers reaction or worried about being liked may curb their ability to act.
Making good choices also requires learning emotional regulation skills, which means being able to manage distressing emotions long enough to think through possible reactions and choose wisely. Also known as premeditation, this capacity is essentially identifying a feeling while you are having it, but also knowing that you have a choice in how you respond.
Hawton suggests a few ways parents can help their children learn premeditation; through ensuring that they get enough sleep, limit use of technology and avoid drugs and alcohol.
Even given the best set of circumstances, though, teenagers’ behavior can incite power struggles with their parents. The key, Hawton says, is knowing just which power struggles are necessary and which ones are unnecessary.
“I have seen a lot of families in my career and I would have to say that the most important part of being able to positively influence a teenager’s life has to do with having more good experiences with them than bad,” writes Hawton.
Practically, this means finding ways to connect with them. Look for the good they do and tell them. acknowledge their efforts in worthwhile causes. Teach them living skills, and take an interest in their hobbies.
When it comes to dealing with difficult behavior, it may help to first sort the behavior into one of three categories: behavior you could ignore, such as an untidy room or being grumpy; wanted behavior, such as contributing to chores and communicating their whereabouts; and serious unacceptable behavior, such as harmful behavior and risk taking.
Hawton also suggests using scripts to avoid explosive conversations and a technique for which he uses the acronym “PASTA,” which stands for prepare, set up an appointment to talk, say something positive, say what the problem is and what you want to happen, tame the tiger (acknowledge your teen’s feelings and needs) and agree on some things that will happen.
Utilizing a formulaic way of structuring an otherwise potentially heated conversation also helps parents understand the value of “straying off course” to understand their teen’s perspective, in service of achieving the greater goal of a mutually agreeable compromise.
Because teenagers often react to difficult conversations with anger, insults and unrestrained emotion, Hawton suggests that parents should prepare by focusing on what they can control.
“By keeping your wits about you, you can wrestle with your emotional reactions and keep what you want to say or do in your mind’s eye,” writes Hawton.
To do this, Hawton suggests that parents should first visualize how they want to react, and then recognize that they can control the attitude they bring to the conversation and the script they prepare. When parents do these things, they not only control their own emotional responses, they model emotion regulation for their teens.
While there is no magic bullet for parenting teenagers, Engaging Adolescents does give parents a way to feel more effective. The key, as Hawton sees it, lies in parents learning to tolerate distressing emotions long enough to teach their teenagers how to – and in the process, learn the invaluable skill of emotional maturity.
Engaging Adolescents: Parenting Tough Issues With Teenagers
Exisle Publishing 2017
Softcover, 191 Pages