Dear Dr. Marty,
We have a 14-year-old boy, Jerry. He is a good youngster, but lately he has been having problems in school. He has had some difficulties in the past, but he always managed to pass. Now the teachers tell us he can be disruptive. He has gotten detention a lot in the past three months. We have talked to him. We have punished him. He has gone to the guidance counselor and we had him in therapy for a while. We are worried about what’s going on with him. Help! Any suggestions that you could offer would be greatly appreciated
Mary and Andy
Dear Mary & Andy,
I don’t know what is more difficult, being a teenager or being parents of a teenager. As a teenager, you’re old enough to get into trouble but don’t have a clue how to get out of it. As parents, it seems as though the old strategies don’t work the way they used to.
There are two major focuses when helping a teenager. One is the youngster’s attitude toward authority. Kids struggle with how to deal with adults who are in-charge. Often teenagers will think it is the teacher’s fault. If Jerry raises the issue of the teacher’s unfairness, you can help him to realize that even if the teacher is wrong or unfair, the teacher does make the rules. We may not like it or even agree with it, but that’s the way it is. That concept is a difficult one for kids to accept. See how he deals with the idea that the teacher may or may not be wrong but he/she does give the grade, and more than that, they can make life pretty miserable for a student if they want to.
The second theme with youngsters is that the teenager will either deny or minimize the issue. When confronted with a problem that he is facing in school Jerry is apt to say, “It’s no big deal” or “I haven’t gotten into trouble lately”.
The place to start is with your son. Does Jerry think he has a problem? What does he think the problem is? It isn’t possible to correct the situation unless you think it needs changing. The idea is to assist Jerry in developing a plan to avoid getting into trouble.
Another strategy is to figure out what Jerry would like if he behaves well in class and gets acceptable grades. Some parents would respond to this strategy by saying that this is bribery. We were brought up on the child rearing practices of punishment. We now know that positive reinforcement works best. This is not bribery. Bribery is payment for an illegal act. We are simply are making payment in a currency that is meaningful to Jerry. Most teenagers want to do well. Failing or getting into trouble may have some payoffs, but it also has its drawbacks. By finding out what is important to Jerry and then helping him to get it, we are demonstrating to Jerry that we are on his side.
The focus of the solution is to have your son feel that you are on his side and are trying to help him figure out a solution. The moment you are “the enemy” is the moment that you are in a power struggle. The goal of good parenting is to help youngsters realize that we are their parents and in charge but being in charge is not taking over, it’s guiding.
Please keep me up to date as to the progress of your son.