I had just finished an iBrain presentation for parents when a couple approached me. “Do you have a minute for a question?” the gentleman asked.
“Sure,” I responded. “How can I help you?”
“We’re really struggling with our fifteen-year-old daughter’s cell phone use,” he began. “She’s spends so much time talking, texting, or Facebooking that we can’t even get her attention. The real problem, however, is her use at night. She has her phone under her pillow and we know she’s using it at all hours of the night. She's sleeping through her alarm and is exhausted in school. What would you suggest we do?”
I’ve had questions like this a lot lately so I had my answer ready. “I’d recommend that you start a tech curfew. Choose what you think is a reasonable time and have everyone, even yourselves, turn in the phones in a common place and recharge them overnight.”
“See!” he blurted as he turned to his wife.
I immediately realized that I was being pulled in as an arbiter for a disagreement.
He quickly explained. “I’ve been wanting to do that for months, but she refuses to go along with me.”
I turned to her and asked, “What’s your objection to a curfew plan?”
“If we did that she would so angry, and I am not willing to put up with that!”
I tried to diplomatically explain that it sounded to me that their daughter was really in charge, not her parents. “It’s not a good idea to let a fifteen-year-old run the family. It’s not fair to her either,” I added.
“Well to be fair to my wife, you haven’t seen our daughter's temper tantrums,” the man responded.
The good news is that twenty minutes later these two parents had agreed on a tech curfew plan. Moreover, they realized that they needed to take charge in some other areas as well.
Don't let your child's anger rule the house
This conversation is not an isolated incident. I hear about more and more families where the kids take charge with their anger. I talked a month ago with a single mother who was so physically afraid of her 13-year-old son that he was able to do whatever he wanted. It’s not healthy for anyone in the family, most of all the kids themselves, to learn that all they have to do is use their anger to get what they want.
It’s not easy, but here are some steps that can help you take charge and teach your kids a very important life lesson.
- Modeling. The first step in preventing out-of-control behavior in our teens is modeling. We’ll be less able to confront our teen’s inappropriate behavior if we lose control ourselves. If you do lose control of your anger, find a way to mend and apologize.
- Adjust your expectations. Remember that changing an unhealthy pattern won’t change overnight. Look for progress, not perfection.
- Talk. Choose a time to have this serious and important discussion when there is no immediate burning issue or amped up emotions. Check out these tips on avoiding power struggles.
- Validate feelings. Make sure your teen knows that being angry is okay. It is not okay to fly off the handle, throw things, swear, or threaten. Talk about more appropriate and respectful ways to handle and manage big feelings like anger.
- Be an emotion coach. When things escalate, remember that you are your teen's primary emotion coach - learning how to handle disappointment and anger is part of growing up.
- Be clear. Be very specific about what behaviors you will accept. Our kids need to know that they step over an important line when they call us names, scream, swear, threaten or throw and break things.
- Formalize it. Consider creating a formal "Respect Plan" together that lays out a roadmap for respectful behavior. Start by writing down the goal (for example: to treat one another with respect) and then generate the behaviors that are out-of-bounds (for example: hitting, throwing things, or name calling). Make sure that you also write down what the reward will be if the goal is met for a specific number of days and appropriate consequences if not.
- Draw the line. We should never let our kids get what they want if they can’t respect themselves and others. Conversations should end, for example, if out-of-control behavior starts. Make sure to come back to the conversation once your child is under control again.
- Remind your kids that respectful behavior is a prerequisite to negotiation.
- Teach kids about their brains. Explain to them that they need to practice strategies to avoid letting their brain get hijacked by anger. I explain this in detail in my book on adolescents, Why Do They Act That Way? A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen.