I have to agree with Dr. Laura Markham – “There is no such thing as a brat, only a child who is hurting.”
‘Out of control’ is an assessment or judgment that *we* are making. The teenager likely would not use that same phrase to describe themselves, their life, or their circumstances.
Immediate first aid
Rather than claiming, ‘you are out of control’ it is preferable to say something like, ‘you haven’t been home before midnight since last Monday,’ or ‘you’ve passed out drunk the last 2 weekends.’ It’s harder to argue with reality than it is to argue with an opinion.
It’s helpful to frame the situation in neutral language based on observable behaviours. Keep discussions about the facts – a car that was driven without permission or classes that weren’t attended – and take your judgments (whether you think their behaviour is good or bad, right or wrong, helpful or misguided, etc.) completely out of it.
Ask your teen about their actions and ask what they are feeling. AND THEN LISTEN.
You can also talk about your feelings. This is something else that is difficult to argue. ‘I feel disappointed that you didn’t show up for supper after we all agreed on the time’ or ‘I felt scared when I woke up and you weren’t home’.
You can tell your teen you feel angry, but your child never ‘deserves’ your anger or needs to have your anger dumped on them. Raging on other people is a dysfunctional and toxic behaviour, even though we’ve all be somewhat desensitized to it. If your teen rages at you, don’t rage back. You are leading and guiding him/her by the behaviour you model and the tone you set. Also, you don’t have to by raged at if you don’t want to. Tell them it feels awful and you can talk when they quit raging and then walk away.
True discipline is loving guidance
Punishment is something designed to hurt. It’s cruel. It also doesn’t work and it’s an assault on your teenager’s integrity. As Dr. Laura Markham says, “Being punished erodes the parent-child relationship so kids don’t want to follow our lead. It makes the child angry and defensive. It floods them with adrenaline and the other fight, flight or freeze hormones, and turns off the reasoning, cooperative parts of the brain.”
We can feel compelled to label our teenager as ‘out of control’ or judge them as failing at life in some fundamental way because the possibility of our child being a loser is TERRIFYING. We can feel compelled to punish these young people we love with all our hearts because it is unbearable to look within at our own fear. Blaming someone else rather than noticing our own thoughts and emotions is always the cheap, cheating option.
If we don’t tune in to our fear, chances are good that our expression towards our ‘out of control’ teen will be one of anger. Just remember that anger is always a cover up for deeper emotions. Anger is actually a combination of 2 feelings: a sense of injustice and a sense of powerlessness. Basically when something unfair is going on and we can’t figure out how to fix it, we become angry.
This makes anger a secondary emotion. When we really let ourselves feel how unfair something is and notice that we can’t do anything about it, the truly human response it to grieve.
Parenting is an intense and exhausting emotional job
What do we do with our worry and concern and fear about our teenagers? How do we love them unconditionally when we feel angry?
There are 3 things that can make all the difference:
- learn some communication and emotional skills
- get some support for yourself
- practice and persist
Dissipating power struggles with our kids is mostly about our own self-awareness and our ability to control our responses when emotions are charged. We all know we cannot control others, but parents tend to forget this much of the time. We got used to a certain amount of control over our kids when they were small so having teenagers is a sudden reality check about how much we can actually do. Read stuff, watch videos, complete a workbook, and keep learning. Both you and your kid are worth it. Don’t give up on either of you.
We need support while we do the difficult and tiring work of parenting. If we wait until we’re in crisis before we build support for ourselves it’s too late. It’s such an overused phrase now, but we simply MUST put on our own oxygen mask first. We MUST find a place to look at our upset and sift through the confusions. Building support for ourselves as parents is non-negotiable.
As you gather resources it’s important to look specifically at related issues like substance use, addiction, self-harm, racism, class differences, sexual identity, etc. These can play a huge role in your teen’s life and they can impact how ‘out of control’ you perceive your teenager to be. A gender view is also helpful, as teenage girls face different social pressures than teenage boys do. Understanding the particular struggles of young males and young females and supporting your teenager in these experiences can make a huge difference.
Don’t forget to reflect on your life as a teenager
When we live with teens, almost all of the hard stuff we deal with is rooted in emotional debris from when we were their age. Part of the gift of parenting is the opportunity to heal those old traumas. We wouldn’t have access to all the feels if our kids weren’t triggering us left and right! One day you might be grateful for what you learned during these turbulent years.
When you need to, remind yourself that you survived being a teenager. This too shall pass.
How have you managed an ‘out of control’ teenager? Leave a comment below!