|Parenting - Balancing Control and Freedom
Parenting teenagers is challenging in the best of circumstances. This article discusses the balance between controlling what happens to your teen and letting go so that he/she may deal with the natural consequences of their behavior.
Insanity, apart from the psychiatric connotation, has been defined as doing the same thing over and over again while each time expecting different results. Another similar way of thinking is that if a small hammer doesn’t do the job, a larger hammer will.
For example, there is no evidence that long periods of grounding are an effective deterrent when teenagers have broken rules. As a matter of fact, once a teen has been grounded in this fashion, there is a higher likelihood that he or she will behave in a similar way in the future and once again get grounded. If the parent responds to the next infraction with a more lengthy grounding, he is employing a bigger hammer. Often the hammer gets bigger and bigger, until with tremendous exasperation, the ultimate hammer is used, and the child is kicked out of the house. Total control suddenly shifts to total freedom with no support. If you use any kind of punishment over and over again and somehow expect that it will work this time, even though it hasn’t worked up to this point, you are immersed in a cycle of insane parenting.
Grounding is about restricting freedom. Restricting freedom may be a logical consequence for misbehavior. However, if there is no concrete way for a child to earn back trust and regain freedom, most teens will break more rules, as they seek to establish themselves in control of their own destinies. How do you teach your teen about both consequences and enjoying freedom with responsibility?
Let me give you an example. Your daughter, Lila, has abused her privilege of using the family car to go out with her friends. She told you that she was going to be home by 12, but returned at 2AM. You were almost paralyzed with fear as you waited for her to come home. Once she returned, you were determined to punish her, so that this would never happen again. You informed Lila that she could not use the car and could not go out with her friends for an indeterminate period of time. You feel justified, because you were so anxious and because Lila had been irresponsible. At first Lila submits to the grounding, but as time goes on, she starts getting restless and angry. Lila almost demands that she be given her privileges back. You interpret Lila’s anger as evidence that she is not ready to handle the freedom that she had before. You refuse. Lila then decides to take the situation in her own hands and sneaks out of the house during the night. She does this a number of times until she is caught in a lie. Your response is to exert more control, and the cycle of misbehavior and control continues.
Punishment is only effective if there is also a way to earn back what has been lost. In the above situation, Lila might have been grounded for a week and then given back her privileges and the opportunity to demonstrate that she could live within the established curfew. It is not the responsibility of the child to allay their parent’s fears. The teen years are
inherently a scary time for parents. Teens need to be given more and more freedom, so that they can learn to be independent.
Teens who do not try to attain greater freedom as they get older are not especially healthy. Rather, they are operating out of fear of the authorities- parents, teachers, etc.
The value here is supporting your teenager to become more and more independent as he/she matures and ultimately leaves the family. The opposing force is control. As parents, we wish to have our children thrive and join the adult world in established and acceptable ways. Our desire to influence our children’s reality- their thinking, actions, values, attitudes, religious understanding, and morals- is natural and supportive. However, if we don’t allow our children to assume more responsibility for all these aspects of life as they mature, our children will learn to respond to us. They will not learn about or express their own personally held values. If my son gets good grades, dresses well, is well behaved, and has developed career aspirations in response to my pressure, he will not personally hold these values. Rather, he will live his life according to my standards of success. He will conform to my expectations, because the loss of my approval is such a scary proposition. On the other hand, if I moderate my influence and lessen my attempt to control how he turns out, my son may very well do things that I do not approve of and may seem to be drifting rather than sticking to a life plan. However, if I, as his parent, support his choosing for himself and at the same time offer him logical consequences for his behavior, my son will learn about choosing wisely, not perfectly, but wisely. Wisdom comes about as a result of moving through the hills and valleys, losing your way, encountering pain and loneliness, asking for help, and putting one foot in front of the other when the path is unclear. Effective parenting is the balance of parental control (structuring and directing the child’s experiences) and the child’s growing responsibility for himself. It is the balance between tightening and loosening the reins. If we do not loosen the reins as the child matures, the child will not learn to direct himself. If the child does not learn to direct himself as he grows into adulthood, he will allow others to do this for him. He will learn to react to others’ expectations rather than activate his own personally held values. He will not know himself.
As a parent, it is up to you. What do you want to teach your children? There are no right answers. These questions are about values. Do you value freedom with responsibility or do you value conformity to societal and community norms and to your expectations?
About the Author
Ken Edelston MS is a life and business coach. He has extensive experience in counseling teens, adults, and couples. For over 20 years, Ken has specialized in treating the effects of addictions, parenting adolescent issues, and conflict resolution. His coaching practice focuses on helping individuals, families, business persons, and couples identify ineffective patterns of behavior and then exploring and implementing real change.