4 Things You Should Never Say to Your Teen

4 Things You Should Never Say to Your Teen

Every parent gets mad and says things in the heat of the moment  that they regret—nobody’s perfect, and there is no such thing as a   perfect  parent. At one time or another, most parents also report feeling  like their teen is not listening to them. You wonder why what you’re saying  doesn’t seem to have any  effect—it goes “in  one ear and out the  other,” and meanwhile, your child’s behavior doesn’t improve.

When your child repeatedly ignores you, defies you or fights with you  over  everything, you might even wonder if you’re doing things right, and if  somehow  you’re failing at parenting.

“Focus on the behavior, not the person.”


But as James Lehman said, “I don’t like to  think about parenting in terms of  ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ It’s more helpful to talk  about effective parenting  versus ineffective parenting.” The good news is that parents can always  learn how to be more  effective.

In all of our  articles in Empowering Parents,  and in our parenting  programs and on the Parental  Support line, we operate on  that same “effective parenting” principle. If  you’re sitting there thinking,  “My kids don’t really seem to listen to me; they  just tune me out,” or if you’re  even wondering if your parenting style is  working very well at all, start by  asking yourself, “Is what I’m doing with my  family effective? Is the way I  communicate working? And am I getting the  results I want with my kids?”

Related: Feeling disrespected by your  child?

I also want to stress that if you recognize yourself in any of the following   scenarios, don’t worry. It’s never too late to change, and to start finding   more effective ways to help your family learn and grow.

1.“If you keep this  up, you’re never getting your  license!”

This one can feel a little tricky. You know your child wants  their license  (or some other big ticket item). You also really need them to comply with the  rules, or follow through on  their responsibilities. The thing is, your teen  doesn’t seem to care about those  things, so you counter with the biggest, most  powerful, most highly-desired  reward – or threat –you can muster.

Here’s where this can be ineffective, however:

  • Threatening a consequence in the heat of the  moment is never an effective strategy; it only serves to escalate  conflict.
  • An angry threat shows that you’re losing  your  own temper. Of course you are – parenting is hard. However, it’s important  that  you stay focused on the task at hand, and take a break if you’re getting  so  frustrated it’s hard to keep your cool. Role modeling calm behavior for your  child is so important; as the saying goes, kids learn more from your  actions than they do from your words. If you’re feeling on the edge, tell your  child, “I need some time to think about this. Let’s talk again when we’re both  calm.”
  • Remember: in order to truly change behavior,  your consequences  need to be attached to that specific behavior. This means  breaking things down  into clear, manageable goals, matching your consequence or  privilege to one  behavior, and giving your child a chance to succeed every day.  (This is also laid  out clearly in The  Total Transformation Program.)

Bottom line: Withholding  a big ticket item is not effective –  especially in the heat of the moment, or if the goal is far off. Plus, threats  don’t teach your child problem-solving skills.

2. “I forbid you to  do that!”

I understand the impulse here – you’re afraid your child is  going to get  hurt, possibly in some big way that you can’t fix. And your fear  causes you to  forbid them from doing whatever that thing is: go to the party,  date that  person, attend the dance. The thing is, forbidding your child from  doing  something is not effective. There are two things at play here. First,  saying “I  forbid you!” does not create compliance. It doesn’t create compliance,  it  creates secretive, subversive behavior, in which your child tries to get  away  with what they want, regardless of your wishes. Secondly, it robs you of  an  opportunity to help your child learn and grow.

So what can you do instead? Address your real concerns by saying something  like: “I’m not  sure this party is a safe situation for you. Here’s what I need  to see from you before  we can discuss whether or not you can go. You need to  let me know the names of  the parents who will be there and who will be  responsible. You also need to get  all your homework done and come in on  curfew every night this week.”

Related: How to give your child consequences that will  actually teach them better behavior.

Can you see how that might give you a different outcome? You  haven’t given  permission. You haven’t let your child go ahead and do  something you don’t  like. If you decide you might take a chance and let your  child attend the  party, (and that’s not a given), you’ve created an opportunity  to help him or  her practice compliance – and demonstrate it to you – in order  for you to  feel more confident in their ability to navigate risks safely.

Bottom line: “Forbidding” an activity actually  increases  the chances your child will take unsafe risks. It’s often more  effective to use the  opportunity to help them learn and grow.

3. “No one else will  like you if you do that!”

It’s an easy thing to say, isn’t it? You know your child wants to  fit in. You know your child wants people to like them.  You might even  be honestly afraid your child won’t be liked if they’re bossy or  argumentative,  or if they dye their hair that color! But here’s the thing: as  James Lehman  tells us, “You can’t shame a child into better behavior.” It just  doesn’t  work—for anyone. This is because shame is about feelings of humiliation and  worthlessness, and is likely to cause your child to withdraw in  embarrassment.

James and Janet Lehman stress that this isn’t about what’s  right or what’s  wrong, it’s about what’s effective. And the truth is, shaming is not an  effective way to help someone change their  behavior.

Bottom line: You can’t shame your child into better   behavior.

4. “You little $%^&##@!!!”

Swearing, name-calling, or attacks on your child’s personality are not  effective techniques when dealing with your child’s behavior.  It’s nearly  impossible to encourage responsible behavior in your child if you  aren’t  willing to model it yourself. If you’re having a hard time controlling  your own  emotions, walk away and disconnect. Get support. Good parents aren’t   necessarily born – we’re all a work in progress.

And remember, anything that targets your child personally is   ineffective. Focus on the behavior, not the person. You can be loving and   accepting AND be firm in your rules and expectations. Just because you’re  being loving and accepting does not mean you let your kid slide on  behaviors. And getting them to improve their behavior does not happen by  attacking them  personally or by calling them names. Instead, focus on the  behavior, not the character of your child—and be sure to catch them being  good whenever you can.

Bottom line: Effective  parenting is calm, clear, and focused on the  issue at hand.


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