One of the biggest struggles parents face is getting their teens to listen. Many parents tell me that they try to set limits, but their teens just don't listen. And my teenage patients are quick to tell me that they will push back and won't accept consequences. As you can imagine, this is a recipe for disaster. Teens are risk takers. They may be able to talk like an adult and will try to rationalize away the limits you set, but the teenage brain, especially the areas responsible for impulse control and planning, are still developing.
As parents, it is our responsibility to create structure for our teens and enforce rules. It is naive to think that our teens will behave in a responsible and safe manner if left to their own devices. Parents must learn to balance their teen's growing independence with the need for structure and safety. Setting house rules, i.e. clear expectations for curfew, chores, and unacceptable behaviors, is key to getting your teen to listen.
House rules are a great way to minimize conflict with your teen. When rules and consequences are clearly spelled out in advance, your teen knows what to expect. House rules take the pressure off parents. You don't have to engage in a power struggle every time your teen wants to stay out late or resists doing homework. Instead, refer back to the rules. When your teen knows what the consequences are for his or her behaviors, he is much more likely to adhere to your expectations.
How To Set House Rules:
1. Prioritize your teen's most challenging behaviors
If you have never had house rules before, start slow. Think about the areas of your daily routine that create the most conflict between you and your teen. Does your teen struggle with getting to school on time? Coming home on time? Completing school work? List out the top 5 biggest struggles you have with your teen, and list them in order of priority. If the problems are big--like significant school absences, staying out late, drinking or drugs--you may need to focus on just one problem at a time, and you may need to enlist the help of a professional. If there is less overall conflict in your home, and you are targeting behaviors like getting your teen to clean his room or take out the garbage, you will have more success with instituting multiple house rules at once. You can individualize the rules to your family's needs, but some examples of house rules that many families enforce include:
No drinking or drugs in the house
No physical aggression
No cell phones or other devices until homework is finished.
A set curfew
Set chores your teen is expected to complete--like cleaning her room, taking out the trash or helping with laundry
All homework must be completed before a teen can go out with friends or have access to their devices
2. Involve your teen in the process:
Let your child know that you are changing the way things run in the house by instituting house rules. Explain that the rules are meant to hold them accountable, but also to decrease conflict by making sure everyone has clear expectations. Invite your child to suggest house rules. They may even suggest some rules for you--like no cell phones at the dinner table, or weekly family dinner. When they are involved in the process and removed from the heated emotions that often go with setting limits, they may surprise you with their insight into the need for limits. Giving them some input in the process also shows them that you are respecting their increasing independence, but in a way that doesn't undermine your ability to parent.
3. Figure out rewards and consequences that work for your family:
There are so many wonderful things that we give our children already--video games, a new cell phone, money for dinner out with friends. Does your child get an allowance? Think about what privileges your child can earn by completing chores, being respectful and following rules. Ask your teen what they feel a fair consequence would be for their behaviors. Once your teen begins to think about these privileges as earned rewards contingent on their behavior, they will be more motivated to follow through. However, corporal punishment or withholding necessities like food or clothes is never an appropriate consequence. Think about consequences that are sustainable and commensurate to the negative behavior. Grounding your teen for a month after they stay out late once may be excessive, and difficult to enforce. Making them stay home for the next night may be enough to get the message across.
4. Enforce consequences:
When you first set up house rules, your teen may push back and test limits. If you do not enforce consequences, your teen will keep pushing the limits. This speaks to why consequences must be sustainable and measured. It may be tough to act on a threat to take away your teen's phone for a month, and if you give in early, your teen will not respect the rules. Even if you manage to hold out, your teen may become so discouraged that they will break the rules regardless--you have already taken away their incentive to respect the rules.
5. Recognize and Praise Your Teen's Efforts
House rules are not about punishing your teen for not listening. The hope is to give you opportunities to recognize and praise your teen when they follow through. Creating a plan and following through are important life skills. By enforcing structure in your home, you give your child skills that will help him or her throughout their life.
Finally, it's ok to ask for help. Although these guideline may be helpful for many families, oftentimes when a teen is struggling with mental health or substance issues, they need additional support to reach their potential. Your curiosity and desire to learn ways to help your child is so important. Sometimes, enlisting the help of a child psychiatrist is necessary to identify the underlying problem. There is no one size fit all approach to parenting your teen.