Parenting Priorities + Changing Teen Behavior

When your teen has a history of hard times, setting effective limits can feel daunting. 

You may fear triggering a safety concern or starting and argument with your teen, or you may just not know where to start given the host of concerns at hand including:

  • Not completing school assignments
  • Arguments at home
  • Isolation, depression or self-harm
  • Anxiety that shows up as avoidance and shutting down

Prioritizing parenting goals... 

When your teen is making unsafe choices or engaging in self-destructive behaviors, this take priority over all other concerns (yes, even grades.)  The #1 priority to reinforce for teens who are experiencing safety concerns is getting them into treatment and ensuring that they engage in it (even if this makes them angry with you.)

When your teen is safe, prioritizing goals and tackling issues comes down to a few things:

  1. What is the most challenging concern that your teen or family faces?
  2. What values do you have as a family and how does this impact the decisions and goals you develop within the family system?

The goal or challenge you choose to address first matters less than being clear and staying consistent in communicating expectations and consequences to your teen.  This is how they learn what to expect and where limits lie... limits that create consistency and security for your teen.

Increase Positive Behaviors by Reinforcing Them 

When you respond to your teen with attention and/or reward, it increases the likelihood that whatever behavior they are exhibiting will continue to occur.  Some examples of reinforcers include:

  • Smiles
  • Hugs
  • Praise
  • Compliments
  • Extra privileges
  • High fives
  • Gratitude
  • Attention

There are lots of ways to say or show that you appreciate your teen's behavior and that you want more of it.  

Your interactions with your teen (whether they'd like to admit it or not) can be a POWERFUL way to reshape their behavior.  

Be very mindful of what you may be accidentally reinforcing with your time, attention, or strong emotion (and also aware that giving too much focus to an unhealthy behavior can reinforce that behavior too.)

Punishing your teen sucks (and it doesn't even really work) 

Taking something away from your teen, like the car or phone (or even having them do chores or other tasks) has been proven to be LESS effective at getting them to stop problematic behaviors.  AND, it often leads to sneakiness and dishonesty as your teen will just continue to do the same thing but try harder to make sure they don't get caught.

Punishing your teen doesn't tell them what they should do either and ends up creating a divide in the parent-child relationship.

What works?

Notice and reward healthy behaviors.  << Years of psychological research back this up.

What if it doesn't work? 

Help your teen learn natural consequences by not fixing mistakes for them.  As long as they are safe, let forgotten homework, embarrassing social judgment and failed tests have real world responses.

When you protect your teen from what would naturally happen in these situations, your teen doesn't learn that their behavior has consequences and you give them permission to shift blame to others when life doesn't work in their favor.

It's hard and scary to watch your teen "fail' but it's a necessary life lesson so that they can learn from these experiences and adjust their behavior accordingly.

It definitely gets worse before it gets better 

It's called the behavioral burst.  As you're making changes (which take time), you're shaking things up and your pulling your teen out of their comfort zone.  Expect that your teens emotions and behaviors will increase in intensity as they try to maintain the status quo.

Trust the process.  Stay the course.  It makes sense that you'd want to give in, but doing so will only strengthen your teen's unhealthy patterns.  

You're about to make the changes that will set your teen up for success today, tomorrow, in college and beyond. You got this!