by Avis Rumney, LMFT
What parental qualities contribute to creating a healthy child? Love and discipline – a generous measure of each – form a solid base for healthy child development. Out-of-control teens generally have missed out on some aspects of healthy parenting. In the 1990s, three experienced professionals – a police officer who worked with juveniles and two licensed psychologists who treated families and teens – formed the Parent Project, an educational and support organization designed to teach parents how to work with their out-of-control kids. The Parent Project described the parental elements that support the development of healthy, functional, kids, and developed strategies to teach these skills to distraught and hapless parents.
Love is the underpinning of a child’s sense of value. Parental love and affection communicate to the child that he or she matters and is cared about. Love fosters a child’s development of a healthy self and an inner self-image of him or herself as a person of worth. But discipline – which must continue through the teen years – is equally vital to healthy development. Although teenagers need encouragement to take on more responsibility, make good decisions and move towards autonomy, the reality is that the prefrontal cortex – which governs judgment and critical thinking – simply is not fully developed until the early twenties. Kids need parental guidance, and interpret their parent’s lack of boundary-setting or follow-through as a lack of caring and concern.
The founders of the Parent Project described four parenting styles which they differentiated according to the proportion of love and discipline that characterize each. High love and high discipline, their Authoritative Style, is the ideal approach to good parenting. With significant demonstration of affection and attention (love) coupled with clear, consistent limit-setting and appropriate consequences (discipline, which is an act of love), kids have the highest probability of successful development. Kids in this kind of environment feel seen and appreciated. They possess the foundation for healthy self-esteem and good relationships. Their successes are acknowledged, and they feel motivated to achieve and stretch into new territory. They can discriminate healthy from unhealthy behavior. And when they stray outside the lines, which all kids do in the normal course of exploration and individuation, their parents rein them in with immediate, consistent and situation-appropriate consequences. These kids feel loved and safe.
Lots of love without sufficient discipline is termed Permissive in style. Kids parented this way tend to feel entitled but be out-of-control – they are missing the clear and necessary boundaries that help them feel safe and secure. Their entitlement, untempered by appropriate limits, leaves them prone to act out to provoke the attention and boundaries they crave. Their self-esteem may be rocky because entitlement does not translate to feeling good inside. The paucity of limits can leave them feeling not seen and cared about, because discipline is a necessary component of attentive parenting.
In her book, The Price of Privilege, psychotherapist Madeline Levine describes in detail the impact of permissive parenting on child development. Examples of kids parented permissively abound in the upwardly mobile and often well-off families where parents provide ample material goods and a slew of extracurricular activities for their children but are lax in supplying solid boundaries and clear consequences. It is often parents who grew up with strict parenting who then vow to create a different family environment for their own offspring. A perfect example of this dynamic is the story of 15-year old Kenny. His mother worked as a buyer at a high-end clothing store and his father was an investment banker. Both parents had grown up in households with strict rules, and neither wanted to replicate their childhood situations as parents. When Kenny was a high school sophomore, he started hanging out late on weekends with his friends (he had no firm curfew). His grades slipped and his mood shifted. It turned out that he had become enamored of pot, and smoking weed not only sapped his energy in the moment, but also left him listless and unmotivated in general. Kenny’s parents didn’t recognize the signs of drug use, and for many months ascribed his behavior to “growing pains.” Only when Kenny’s situation worsened and he was suspended from school one day for smoking pot on school grounds did his parents wake up to the reality and the fact they needed help to get Kenny – and themselves – on track.
The third style of parenting described by the Parent Project is termed Authoritarian. It is characterized by a large measure of discipline, coupled with a corresponding love and attention, resulting in a bullying style – kids may be well-behaved to avoid negative consequences, but their infinite small successes and good behaviors are seldom acknowledged. Eventually these kids rebel against the overbearing parenting they receive. They are likely to have low self-esteem and tend toward depression. They use anger and acting out to try to find a way to quell their pain. Rather than feeling safe, since the discipline is not coupled with the affection and attention that makes them feel good about themselves, these kids feel controlled and punished.
14-year-old Carey fits this description. Her father was a harsh disciplinarian, stern and unyielding. Carey’s mother was meek and mild-mannered, and generally caved to her husband’s rules. Carey despised both her father’s rigidity and her mother’s spinelessness. She began to sneak out of the house at night and hang out with friends, often getting drunk and sneaking back into the house before her parents woke. Then Carey was too exhausted to get up for school, and would claim to have a migraine so she could miss school. Needless to say, Carey’s grades suffered and the home situation deteriorated with her father getting angrier than ever. Fortunately, Carey’s mom finally realized that something different was needed besides her husband’s yelling at their daughter and establishing ever more punitive consequences, or Carey was likely to run away from home. Carey’s mom called a local drug counselor for help.
The fourth parenting style the Parent Project terms Neglectful. Characterized by a deficiency in love and discipline, neglectful parenting leaves a child feeling abandoned and empty. A child that grows up in this environment is likely to feel unmotivated and lack motivation to achieve. He or she often remains emotionally immature, lacks interpersonal skills, has very poor self-esteem and does not feel safe. Unboundaried and unloved, a child that is parented neglectfully is likely to be unhappy, and to act out both to get attention and boundaries.
People generally parent by modeling after how they were parented, and continue the pattern they know best, or do the opposite, determined not to repeat the mistakes their parents made. When parenting has been deficient in love or in discipline, overdoing the undersupplied element in the next generation generally does not make for a great outcome. If a girl who felt unloved by her parents determines to compensate and super-love her kids when she becomes a mother, it can backfire. This mother may neglect her own needs, model poor self-care, over-caretake her kids and become resentful. And kids in this situation often have little opportunity to learn self-responsibility – mother does everything for them in the name of love.
The good news is that parents can grow and change, just like kids. They can learn to parent with calmness and consistency, to be attentive and acknowledging, to set and maintain good boundaries, to deliver immediate and appropriate consequences. And they can discover that healthier parenting means less strain and distress for them, as well as producing better-behaved kids and more rewarding parent-child relationships. Even with a child who is already an acting-out teen or a young adult, it’s never too late to become a better parent.
The foundation of successful parenting is love, attention, consistency and consequences. Love must be the basis of all behavior, and be communicated in a million little ways every day. The Parent Project suggests that you tell your teen you love them through words, voice tone, touch, hugs, notes, gestures, and eye contact. Catch your teen doing something right ten times more often than you catch them doing something wrong. Show interest in your teen and your teen’s friends, hobbies, classes, life, but refrain from intrusion – simply respond with appreciation to whatever your teen shares with you. This is attention – orienting yourself toward your teen, making time to be with them, giving them time without allowing yourself to be interrupted. Spend time with them doing something they enjoy – listen to their music (it’s not all just noise), play their video games, let them choose a movie and go with them. Find activities you like and can do with them. Dads can go to ball games, car shows, play golf, basketball or other games with their sons. Moms can chat and just be with their daughters, go for a walk, ride bikes, play tennis, make beaded jewelry, cook or garden.
Setting limits and imposing appropriate consequences are loving acts – you are taking care of your teen, providing protection and helping him or her learn healthy behavior – and these are necessary for your teen to feel safe. Communicating these consequences works much better when it is done in a calm, rational and logical manner. Not only does this model adult communication for your teen, it is more effective and productive than reactive, emotional interchanges. Parents get angry – kids do provocative things – but if you can’t cool down enough to act calmly, you can let your teen know there will be a consequence, and take a time out to let yourself cool down. Take a walk, or get absorbed in something that takes your mind from an emotional tsunami to a place of adult thinking and logic, and then return to talk with your child.
16-year-old Suzie was living alternate weeks with each of her parents who had divorced each other when she was nine. Suzie’s mother, Alice, and her daughter tended to butt heads over Suzie not doing her homework, staying up too late talking on the phone, leaving her room a mess, driving her friends to places despite the fact that she was underage. Plus Suzie was now coming home occasional evenings out red-eyed and smelling of alcohol. Typically, Suzie’s mom would get angry, ask Suzie why she was doing the most recent “terrible thing,” reprimand her for whatever current behavior she had manifested, and ground her indefinitely. It was never clear how long Suzie was grounded for or just what it meant that she was grounded. Suzie would often walk out of the room while her mother was talking. At this point, Alice would raise her voice and a yelling match between mother and daughter would ensue. Alice would then call Susie’s dad, telling him hysterically “to do something about his daughter.”
Alice loved her daughter and simply wanted her to act responsibly and to think about the consequences of her actions. However, without clear, consistent, enforced boundaries delivered in a reasonable way, Suzie did not feel safe. Her mother was getting angry and setting limits without following through. Plus, whether Suzie was driving her friends, which was against the law, or not cleaning up her room, her mother levied the same penalty. Suzie tended not to think about the consequences of her actions because there were none – except her mother’s wrath.
When Suzie’s mother brought her daughter and ex-husband in for therapy regarding their “out-f-control” daughter, she was surprised to learn she had a role in her daughter’s behavior – and in her daughter’s behaving better. Alice learned to differentiate which battles were worth fighting – a point stressed by the Parent Project. In the hierarchy of transgressions, those behaviors that threaten health are paramount, particularly those that involve illegal behavior (driving others under age eighteen before permitted; using drugs or alcohol when underage) are of most significance, and the consequences for lapses in these areas need to reflect their importance. When Alice focused on the important issues and let go of some of the more trivial ones, the frequency of battles subsided. And as Alice learned how to better communicate with her daughter and to set clear, consistent boundaries and consequences that limited Suzie’s privileges, Suzie’s behavior improved.
While limits and consequences are situation-dependent and family-specific, they have common elements that give the growing teenager containment and structure. Therapist and author Michael Riera in his book Uncommon Sense for Parents of Teenagers describes the function of limits and structure as “providing security for adolescents through consistency, clear expectations, appropriate guidelines, direct feedback, acknowledgement, and the separation of consequences and moral lessons” (Riera, 2007, p. 73). Furthermore, Riera states that “only when teenagers experientially understand and trust the structure around them are they able to fully develop” (Riera, p.73). Kids need age-appropriate structure, reasonable limits and relevant consequences to quell the anxieties innate to adolescence so they can go undertake the business of being a kid – learning, growing, experiencing and integrating new things and getting to know themselves. This is what healthy parenting provides: the love and containment that gives children the best opportunity to become fully functioning, curious and vital young beings who have a solid foundation for maturing into healthy, happy adults.
If your kids’ behavior has become problematic for you, know that you are not alone and that help is available. You can meet with a family counselor who can help you build on what is working and strategize with you and support you in changing the patterns that aren’t working. You can foster happier, healthier lives for your kids, as well as create a life of less stress and more contentment for yourself.
For help with family issues, please contact Avis Rumney at (415) 602-1403 or AvisRumney@me.com .