Parents and Teens

By Shefali Tsabary, PhD Posted September 15, 2014 under Guest Authors

When teens misbehave, act in a juvenile manner, talk disrespectfully, or yell at us, it can be utterly frustrating to a parent.

If a teen’s behavior deteriorates further—into failing classes, going behind our back, lying or – heaven forbid – stealing, the connection we inherently have with them can quickly morph into anger and perhaps even rage. And sometimes, we find that a part of us wants to disown our own child.

In other words, as a teen’s behavior spirals downhill, the child we love so much can become our worst nightmare.

Parenting tends to revolve around either requiring children to “toe the line,” or letting them run wild as we tell them we want them to grow up to be a “free spirit.” However, neither polarity works. As a clinical child psychologist in New York City, I’ve had an opportunity to witness firsthand, in countless homes, how strictly disciplining our children doesn’t work anymore than a laissez faire approach to raising children works.

And, too, from my own experience with my daughter, I saw that none of the popular methods of raising children—the tricks and tips of the countless books on bookstore shelves—are truly effective. Which is what led me to stumble upon what I call “conscious” parenting.

We all hope that our children will grow up to be aware. By “aware,” I mean that we want our children to know their own mind and be able to connect from the heart. We want our teens to be young adults who can both hear their own inner voice and also express it. We want them to value themselves, believe in themselves and love what they do. Plus, when we love ourselves and our lives, we are in a far better position to love others and want to make their lives better.

For a teen to find fulfillment, it’s crucial they discover the difference between their heartfelt feelings and the tendency we all have – until we learn to train ourselves otherwise – to react to situations with untamed emotion. In other words, a child who grows up to be true to themselves, contributing to their family and the broader society in their own special way, becomes a teen who engages in self-discovery coupled with emotional containment and self-regulation.

With a self-disciplined teen, no one has to be on their case. They don’t require shaming or guilt-tripping to get them to do things. There’s never a need to instill fear in them, be angry with them, ground them or inflict any form of punishment upon them.

Conscious parenting doesn’t resort to discipline—ever. Instead, it’s built on the two pillars of consequences and connection.

The moment I mention “consequences,” many of us tend to think in terms of how we need to “figure out a consequence” for what our child may have done. But when we, as parents, step in to devise what we call a “consequence,” we aren’t allowing consequences to do their vital work. In fact, we’re doing the very opposite. We’ve resorted to punishment—and punishment always builds resentment, which doesn’t bode well for a child’s chances of growing up to be self-regulating.

Consequences should never be imposed. They aren’t something we have to think about or “give” our child; rather, they are the natural outcome of a person’s behavior. When consequences are allowed to do their important work, a child learns from the simple correlation of cause and effect.

For instance, if a teen speaks to us in an ugly fashion, where’s the connection between taking away their computer or cell phone? These aren’t consequences, but impositions that will be resented and generate further hostility and negative conduct, eventually leading to either depression or truly dysfunctional behavior.

Parents have a hard time with disrespect. But a teen’s disrespect for us is no different from the way we often speak disrespectfully to one another as adults. Do we take each other’s cell phones away or shut off another person’s computer when an adult disrespects us? Of course not. And neither should a child be subjected to such punitive—I would even say sadistic—behavior.

Disrespect is something to be discussed, just as we discuss it with a spouse, a friend or an employee. We need to determine what’s triggering the disrespect, so that we can reach the underlying issue.

Honoring a teen as a unique person, with a right to pursue their unique path in life instead of having to bend to ours, requires that we know our boundaries as parents. We must model the conscious person we want our children to become. This means we don’t walk all over our teens, either verbally or by forcing them to act contrary to their nature, any more than we permit others to walk all over us.

Emotional containment is crucial in such situations. If we hit back when a child is rude or disrespectful, we descend to a primitive level and teach nothing about being adult. Here again, what we model is so crucial. That’s why my book is entitled The Conscious Parent.

If our teen is yelling at us, perhaps even cursing, we don’t try to control them. Attempting to one-up them at such a time by yelling, “Don’t talk to me in that tone of voice, I’m your mother” will only escalate the problem into a fight, while ignoring what’s really driving the disrespect. Instead, the key is to model a mature response by containing and restraining our impulse to react. Rather than venting our emotion on our teen or stuffing it, we let it be known calmly that we aren’t their punching bag. In this way, we become an example of setting appropriate boundaries.

The key is to engage our teens on a moment-by-moment basis. We don’t drag up what happened yesterday. And we don’t inject our fears over what might happen. Instead, we seek to understand and be understood, as we increasingly negotiate with our teens in an age-appropriate manner. We must never forget that we are the parent, but we must simultaneously remember that we are not our child’s overlord.

It comes down to the fact that connection, not correction is paramount in any relationship, not least of which is how we relate to our children and especially our teens. As adults, we don’t enjoy being called on the carpet and often resent it. This is also true of our children at any age. We all long to understand and be understood.

Parents have a huge ability to influence their teens. But this influence needs to be along the lines of encouraging them to engage in self-discovery by asking questions, developing their initiative and experimenting with their natural tendency to be creative.

When I say “encouraging” them, I need to make it clear that I don’t mean in a way that pushes a teen, which will ultimately have the opposite effect and create resistance, but in a way that simply provides an atmosphere conducive to self-development.

As we learn to honor our teens as real people who are our equals, guiding them in an age-appropriate way, we will discover all the ways in which we grew up to dishonor ourselves. In this way, we can all learn what it means to be whole people.

Shefali Tsabary, PhD, received her doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University, New York. Dr. Shefali was exposed to Eastern philosophy at an early age and integrates its teachings with Western psychology. This blend of East and West allows her to reach a global audience and establishes her as one of a kind in the field of mindfulness psychology. She lectures extensively on mindful living and conscious parenting around the world and currently has a private psychotherapy practice in New York City. She has appeared on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday and Life Class, as well as speaking at events such as Wisdom 2.0 and TEDx. Her books The Conscious Parent and Out of Control are published by Namaste Publishing,