“Where Have I Failed?”
Sorry to reference such a crass statement but this is the reality in some homes. In the last month, I have had three mothers express hurt and frustration as their young adult son told them to F-OFF. They are appalled with the level of disrespect and can’t imagine saying this to their parent at any age. Parents like these wonder where they have failed. What has happened over the generations, and how can this be occurring today? Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer. There are a lot of opinions as to the root cause:
- Parents being too lax
- Allowances for depression
- Other Mental Health or Substance Abuse conditions
Saying “we should have” or “we didn’t do” or “if only” doesn’t help much and adds to the already heaven burden of failure and guilt parents feel.
House Rules & Consequences
In my book Parenting our Young Adults with Love and Backbone, I try to tackle challenges like this. When they are living at home, I advise parents to pick their battles, and these should be “deal breakers.” These should be no more than five basic house rules, that if broken, and the teen/young adult is unwilling to pay a consequence, it will mean they have to find another place to live. It will be their choice as to whether they stay or leave since they know the rules; you are not kicking them out. These deal-breakers would typically include:
- School attendance or work
- No violence or threats of violence
- No drugs or alcohol in the house
- No destruction of property
- No stealing
Swearing and lying would best fit in a category of behavior that will immediately receive a consequence but not removed from the home. If living out of the home, a parent can call a time out if the young adult is verbally abusive, and propose a time to talk in the future when each can remain calm and not resort to personal attacks. Don’t believe the police will come and take your young adult away for swearing or lying whether they are living at home or not. The deal-breaker rules, if broken, have a societal consequence as well as parental. We do them no favor by ignoring or excusing such behaviors since our legal system will not.
The second set of rules or expectations would be those that are negotiable:
- House curfew (should not be later than legal)
- Use of a car
- Use of cell phone
- Contributions to the family
If they are over eighteen, high school grad, and have a job, rent, payment for cell phones, doing their wash, specific chores, etc. come into play. The last category is discretionary or their choice. This would include the choice of friends, clothes, computer games, hobbies, etc. Some parents try to control what happens outside of the family, such as what friends they can see, but this is unrealistic and will lead to covert actions and lying. As they get older, the discretionary category ought to increase.
Execution is the Key
Executing on expectations and consequences is where most of us as parents fail. The source is not always apparent but typically comes from parental guilt or a need for their young adult’s acceptance or happiness. “No” is not a four-letter word, and showing backbone and standing one’s ground is not abusive but often an act of love. Another mistake parents make is to get sucked into arguments and conflict with a need to be right or in control. We may be able to influence their behavior but can’t control their thinking. Consequences should apply to behavior with a brief explanation and minimal emotion. Consequences have the power to change behavior, not lectures, complaining, blaming, or yelling. Save your energy and put it into communications and actions that affirm their steps toward responsible independence.
Praise to Criticism Ration
Think about how many of your interactions with your young adult are negative or reactive and lead to conflict? How many of these occur in a day or a week? Then think of how many times you compliment, affirm, express appreciation, or express your affection for your young adult? In dysfunctional families, the ratio of critical comments and interactions to positive is likely 5:1 or 10:1. Research on couples and teams suggests that the necessary ratio for healthy relationships, including parents and children, is 5:1; that is five positives to one negative. An approach where we reach out in a positive and affirming way enables us to shift the pattern of them controlling us by triggering a reactive, critical or angry response to one where we proactively and positively engage them. We can’t always control or modify negative behavior in our young adults, but we can work on increasing our praise to criticism ratio. We can do better.