Avoiding the Parent/Teen Torture Chamber

By Ron Huxley, LMFT

Sweat streamed done his face as the heat from the lights glared on his face. His head swayed heavily forward, weary from the uninterrupted hours of questioning. The voices shot from the either side of him, out of the darkness: “Where were you till two in the morning? Why is there mud on the care tires? Whose sweater is in the back-seat? Why are your pupils dilated like that? Is that cigarette smoke I smell? Why didn’t you call?”

This could be a scene from a movie about an enemy spy being interrogated for unknown crimes. Or it could be a fictional account of innocent child tortured at the hands of sadistic tormentors. Instead, it is a dramatization of two parents questioning their teenager for coming home past curfew. At least, this is how a teenager might describe the experience. Teens often feel parents overreact or assume the worst case scenario. They don’t feel parents understand what it is like to be a teenager today. And, they feel that parents don’t give them enough freedom. No matter what a teen does, he or she winds up violating some new rule, like hidden trip wire strung about the house, waiting for an innocent victim. And the rules! Barbaric remnants from there parents generation as children, totally unrealistic for a teenager today.

Parents don’t want to torture their children. They describe their feelings of fear and horror when they don’t know where their child is late at night or early in the morning as the case might be. They know all too well the world a teenager must live in. That is what scares them, motivating their “barbaric rules.” They fear their teenager hides their behaviors and friends from them. They worry that they will be influenced by peers and fall snare to various social evils. They question their child’s ability to make good judgments and take care of themselves in a crisis situation.

So where is the middle ground? How can teenagers feel as if they are getting the freedom they need and still keep mom and dad secure? How can parents learn to trust teens, so if possible, they can meet the teenager half way? Here are some tools that may help teens and their parents avoid the torture chamber:

Things Teens Can Do:

Give parents information. They have a legal responsibility for their child’s safety and behavior, so they have a right to know a child’s whereabouts and activities. Teens who accept and acknowledge this fact can move a great distance along the road to independence. They also want to feel a part of your life, so share with them what is going on in it. They had you because they wanted a family. You need a family for survival (for a while yet, at least) and a sense of personal identity.

Take their perspective- in other words, do a Role Reversal. Take a look at the situation as if YOU were a parent- a person responsible for their child’s safety and well being. See YOURSELF from your parent’s perspective. Do YOU see someone who is responsible and trustworthy? What limits would you set for you if YOU were your parent? Next, look at the world the way a parent looks at the world. Good kids get hurt in this world too! Now, tell yourself the truth. Then, you will be ready to:

Negotiate. Accept compromise as being a reasonable tool for establishing mutually agreeable boundaries and limits. If you are unyielding with your information (tip #1), and unable to accept the fact that parents have to be responsible about their children (tip #2), you are doomed to trouble with the folks. Yielding in areas where maybe they have reasons to set limits and boundaries (areas where your choices have not been the wisest), will give you the opportunity to earn their trust. In time, those areas can get larger as you show you’ve learned to be responsible for yourself and earn the privilege of freedom.

Things parents can do.

Give teens information. Their minds are able to process intelligent reasoning, and understanding why you make the choices you do will open them to adult perspectives and responsibilities. They also need to feel a part of your life. If they have a sense of belonging at home, they’ll
be less likely to seek acceptance with an inappropriate peer group.

Take your child’s perspective. You can do this Role Reversal more easily than your child can, because after all, you’ve been there! Look at yourself through your child’s eyes. Are you reasonable with boundaries and limits? Are you intrusive or disrespectful of, your child’s growing needs for personal privacy, independence and freedom? Do you give your teen opportunities to be responsible, to demonstrate trustworthiness? Do you give them the supports they need to learn and make mistakes? Do you remember what it felt like to be that age? After being honest with yourself, you then are ready to:

Negotiate. Ask your teen what they feel are reasonable limits and boundaries. State what yours are. Then reach compromise. Be willing to “back-off” some in areas where your teen needs to grow. Be specific in what is expected behaviorally, and with what consequences for poor choices will be. Help each other clearly understand the expectations you each hold for the other and the reasons for them. Finally, be willing to follow through with consequences when necessary, both with the lowering or raising of those limits and boundaries in accordance with your teen’s choices.

Ron Huxley is a child and family therapist and the author of the book “Love & Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting.” You can order his book online or request it through your local bookstore. The ISBN number is 1-56593-936-0.

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