Several years ago, Amy Sutherland wrote a terrific article about what she learned from watching exotic animal trainers working with killer whales. In a nutshell, trainers reward the behavior they want to encourage and ignore everything else. Sutherland applied those theories to her relationship with her husband, with fantastic results.
It's more than a little bit tempting to apply that exotic animal label to teens. After all, their behavior can seem, at times, downright alien. But ignoring behaviors you don't like might not work with teens as well as it does with husbands or other adults. In some cases -- for example, if your teen shows up two hours after curfew -- it might even be dangerous. So what can you do to tame teen behavior?
The teenage years are all about experimentation and pushing boundaries. Remember back when your toddler used to reach for forbidden objects while looking you in the eye to see how you'd respond? That's what your teen is doing, but on a grander scale. So instead of waiting for her to pierce her navel, sit her down and be explicit about the rules you expect her to follow. Don't assume that your teenager knows what you want her to do -- or not do. Spell things out as clearly as possible to avoid confusion.
Figure out what matters most to your teen, and make it clear that it's on the line. For many teens, driving and cell phone privileges are critical. For others, it's the after-school job that provides cash, the summer drama course, or participation on a sports team. Identify your teenager's carrot and dangle it in plain view for everyone to see.
Remember in high school when a timid substitute would enter the room and everyone would instantly know that they'd be having a free-for-all in place of calculus? Kids can smell weakness a mile away, so be strong. If the basketball team is on the line, it's the day of the big game, and your daughter breaks an established rule, then there is no big game. And that's true even if she's letting down her team, her coach and her school. And if you make the exception just this once, your teen will learn that consequences are for other people, not for her. You will do her a tremendous disservice.
One point Sutherland makes is that you don't teach a killer whale to jump 10 feet in the air. You teach him to jump an inch, and you reward him. Then you teach him to jump two inches, and you reward him again. So when your teenager hangs up the phone the first time you ask, reward that behavior. Toss her a piece of chocolate, or offer to make her a cup of tea, or let her choose the radio station in the car. Find a small reward that encourages even the tiniest good behaviors. You won't believe how Pavlovian we all are until you try it for yourself.
You can't keep tabs on your teen's behavior unless you're keeping tabs on your teen. Sure, your child may be old enough to stay home alone when you go out in the evening, but that doesn't mean that she should be home alone every evening. Make a point of spending time with your teenager on a regular basis -- even if it's just grocery shopping, a quick walk before dinner, or an afternoon of running errands. Try to give your teen an hour of uninterrupted time with you every week, and commit to being available and present at least three nights a week.
No matter how often we might wish otherwise, teens will do as we do, not as we say. That means you need to model the behavior you want to see. If you tell your teen to speak respectfully but hurl insults at your spouse, don't be surprised to hear them parroted back. If you slip up, acknowledge your flaws and apologize. Let your teen see that you're imperfect, but that you continually try to improve yourself.
Taming the wild teen might seem like an impossible task. But just as you taught your toddler not to throw food on the floor or hit his friends, you can teach your teen to behave appropriately, too.
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