Hitting Doesn’t Lead to Hugging: Parenting an Angry Teen
[Reprinted from The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline by L.R.Knost. Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood and Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages also available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]
The teen years can hit a family with the force of a hurricane. Parents who practice control-based parenting and have felt confident in their control over their children up until this point often find themselves lost, dazed, and bewildered, entangled in a parenting morass of their own making. The truths they discover shock them and leave them vulnerable and defenseless in the face of outright or passive mutiny:
- Hitting doesn’t lead to hugging. Just ask the mother struggling with her teenage daughter who had become withdrawn around the age of twelve or thirteen, often spending hours in her room and refusing to engage with the rest of the family. The mother recognized that there was a problem at the time, but interpreted it as laziness, selfishness, and rebellion and responded with correction instead of connection. The mother says, “My daughter won’t accept discipline given in love anymore, and I don’t know how to control her behavior.” The ‘discipline given in love’ her daughter refused to accept was being spanked with a paddle wielded by a parent who then demanded an apology from the child for her behavior, followed by a hug. This mother is discovering that, now that her daughter has reached her teen years, she no longer accepts the hitting, and she no longer accepts the hugs, either.
- Lectures don’t lead to learning. Just ask the father who complained that every time he sat his son down to read him the riot act for something, he could see his son’s eyes glaze over as the teen retreated to an inner world. The father would repeatedly demand that his son pay attention, and his son would then quote his lecture verbatim, but nothing worked to change his son’s behavior. The father shared, “I don’t know what to do. How can I control my son if I can’t reach him?” What this father is discovering is that lecturing instead of listening is a one-way street that leads nowhere.
- Coercion doesn’t lead to cooperation. Just ask the mother who was so frustrated with her son’s inability to finish his math homework that she began to take his things and hold them as ransom to try to force him to cooperate. She emptied his room piece by piece, day after day, until she’d literally taken away everything he owned, including every article of clothing except for the clothes on his back. After six weeks of her son wearing the same clothes and sleeping on the floor, she said, “I don’t know what else I can take away from him. He doesn’t have anything left! How can I control him now?” What this mother is finding is that you can’t force cooperation and children outgrow coercion just like they outgrow clothing.
- Ridicule doesn’t lead to respect. Just ask the father who made his daughter post on Facebook that she had lied to her parents about her screen-time and couldn’t be trusted to have a laptop, so she wouldn’t be online for a month. The father was infuriated to then discover that his daughter was using her friends’ computers to go online, so he made her call every one of her friends’ parents and explain why she wouldn’t be visiting for the next month. When the father later found out his daughter was using the computers at the library to go online, he made her stand in front of the library with a sign that said, “I’m a liar.” A week later the father found his daughter online in the middle of the night, using a laptop borrowed from a friend. The father says, “What can I do? Every time I find a way to control my daughter, she finds a way around it. How can I make her respect me?” What this father is finding is that you can’t force respect. Ridicule and shame are disrespectful and only breed more disrespect.
What these parents are discovering, and what you may have already discovered yourself as your children have reached adolescence, is that no matter how much you escalate punishments, they won’t work to get your children under your control because one human can never really control another. Yes, you can overpower a small child, and you can use fear and intimidation and manipulation to force children to comply, but only for a season. Once they reach the teen years and their own identity begins to fully emerge, they gain enough separation to realize that they can finally say no to the hitting and threats and manipulations. They may say no with outright rebellion or by withdrawing into passive resistance, but they will say no, and then you are lost because you haven’t built a relationship based on mutual respect and cooperation. You’ve simply spent years forcing your will on a smaller, weaker human.
Can you make changes, even this late in parenting? Yes. Stop hitting, threatening, intimidating, coercing, shaming, and trying to control your child. Wipe the slate clean with a sincere apology, and then start rebuilding your relationship from the ground up:
- Create a foundation of trust by proving yourself trustworthy. That means honoring your word that you won’t punish or manipulate your teen to try to control them, no matter what.
- Sacrifice your own hopes and dreams for your teen and support their hopes and dreams. Will they make mistakes? Yes. That’s part of life. Let them make the mistakes without repercussion from you, and help them through the natural results of those mistakes so they will know they can count on you when life hurts.
- Set limits with your teen instead of for your teen. Ask their opinion about curfews and relationships and housework. Tell them that it’s an honor system from this point on, no punishments, and ask them how you can help them to honor the limits they’ve helped set.
- Remember that, while your teen is rapidly approaching adulthood, they are still a child and still need guidance. Don’t disconnect (i.e. give up) and just let your teen figure things out for themselves. Yes, they do need to try and fail and try again so they can learn from their mistakes, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need you. Your role at this point is supportive as you stay in-tune and available and help them to process all of the big transitions and emotions and events that happen in adolescence. Walk them through the problem-solving steps (see The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline, Chapter Twenty-Five) as many times as they need you to so that they can learn how to become problem solvers themselves.
- If they backtalk, LISTEN (see The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline, Appendix B). If they struggle with homework, help them. If they lie, forgive them and work with them to come to a place where they feel safe to be truthful. If they break curfew, ask them why and work with them to sort out the problem.
- Memorize these words, “I’m here. I hear you. How can I help?” They encapsulate the Three C’s of gentle parenting—Connection. Communication. Cooperation. Use them every day to rebuild your relationship.
The thing to remember is that you are the only adult in the relationship for the time being, so be the first one to listen, the first one to forgive, the first one to apologize, the first one to understand, the first one to back down and try to find another way when the going gets tough. Before you know it, your teen will be an adult, just like you… Just. Like. You. Make sure the ‘you’ they see is the ‘you’ that you want them to become.
Award-winnning author, L.R.Knost, is the founder and director of the children's rights advocacy and family consulting group, Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, and Editor-in-Chief of Holistic Parenting Magazine. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood ; Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages ; The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline ; and Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting the first four books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, and children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series.