New podcast: Staying cool talking with your teen's school.
Jan. 27, 2023

What's going on when our boundaries and consequences don't seem to work?

What's going on when our boundaries and consequences don't seem to work?

Whenever I research any topic for this podcast I start by stepping back from the question to think about the concept.

Take consequences; I set out trying to understand what consequences work, and why some teens go off the rails, but found myself searching behind the curtains for the why.

Why are we setting consequences? What are we actually trying to achieve? If we ask ourselves that question the answer can be both uncomfortable, but also revelatory. 

'I've taken away his Xbox because he won't tidy his room.' Why do you want their room to be tidy? 'Because it bothers me.' Why does it bother you? and so on down the rabbit hole of understanding our own needs, wants and motivations as parents.

It's an important thing to do because when we set standards and expectations for our teens we need to appreciate:

  • Humans are different, with different motivations. For example, my husband has the most brilliant mind and range of skills of anyone I've ever met. He's also extremely messy and doesn't notice a lot of what's going on around him. Do I need to change this? Can I change this? What if I just accept and love him for the brilliant man that he is? Isn't that what we all want?
  • All change is difficult. We know this because we know how many of us struggle to follow through with our New Year resolutions. And not all change is necessary, or equal. (see episode 31 )

When children become teens the extraordinary number of demands ramp up very quickly. You need to succeed at a massive range of school work, make (and keep) new friends, be successful in sports or music, look like a grown-up, be respected by your peers, do your chores, be polite and respectful... it's really tough.

These skills, and they are skills, don't happen overnight. Every teen will struggle with getting the balance right at some time. So it’s vital that we don’t  make them think it’s a catastrophe when they stumble. We need to firmly, but kindly, help them try again. 

When they become teens it's also a time of reckoning for us. It's when it becomes very clear which kids are going to be skilled, or strong enough, to play first team rugby, which ones have the firepower to be excellent at academics, and which ones will simply never meet those requirements.

As one of our listeners so wonderfully put it, 'Some of us have to mourn the child we thought we would have before we can accept and love the one we've got.' This is a critical concept, because every child needs, and deserves understanding and love, but most kids can't live up to some mythical perfect standard.

Back to consequences. I've just watched a brilliant, and entertaining, Ted Talk by Judge Victoria Pratt. It talks about getting people to obey the law; sounds familiar? I highly recommend it whilst thinking about consequences.

She's based her thinking on the research by Yale Professor Tom Tyler, who established that people were most likely to obey the law when they perceived they were treated fairly, with dignity and respect. Here are the key priniciples she talks about:

  • Fairness: She says, 'That perception of fairness begins with how judges speak to court participants.' Translate that to parenting and we can ask ourselves, 'How am I talking to my teen?'
  • Voice: She also says it comes down to the participants voice, and the need to give people an opportunity to speak. Have we asked our teens to give a clear explanation of why they are doing what they are doing? Do they even know? Because change starts from understanding ourselves. She pointed out that 'It gives them an opportunity to look on the inside, which is where all the answers are anyway.' 
  • Neutrality: the judge cannot be perceived to be favouring one side over the other.
  • Respect: This is critical, because without it none of the other principles can work. She talks about looking the person in the eye, asking what's going on, and being genuinely interested in the response. The wonderful truth is that respect is contagious; when we show our teens that we value their thoughts, they're far more likely to value ours too, and those of others.

So, whilst this little list gives you a good way of checking whether your consequence will work, I think it's far more deep and complex than that.

In the podcast I talked about what to do if your teen is completely unresponsive to your consequences, and doesn't seem to care at all. I said that at that point you need to concentrate on repairing the relationship, but didn't really explain in detail.

After the podcast was made, I saw a mother talking about her experience. She says her son had 'gone off the rails'. He was unresponsive to all of her consequences and techniques, and she'd become desperate. Her therapist told her, 'You need to stop reacting to him. Stop noticing what he is doing wrong and spend time each day trying to notice what he has done right, praising that, then doing something - anything - nice together. The whole point is that we need to rewire our teen's brain to feel pleasure in their interactions with us, and to show that we have the ability to be the 'fair' judge of their needs. 

The great news is that she followed this path and completely turned her son around so that he is now working hard at school and being a strong, positive, loving member of her family.

Once again, it demonstrates that without connection and respect all of the techniques in the world won't help us parent our teens effectively.