...when I tell them to do something and they flat-out just don’t do it—that flips a switch inside me that really gets me going. It feels like the temperature in my head goes up to 130°.
Most hospitals have backup generators that kick in when the power goes out. These generators are important, but they’re only designed for short term, intermittent use. If you use the backup generator as the primary source of power for a long time, it’s going to break down and you’ll have problems.
In your family, consequences are your backup generator. It’s important to have them in place, and you will end up using them from time to time, but if they’re your primary tool for parenting, you’re going to run into problems.
Before we can get really into the problem with relying too much on consequences, we need to lay some groundwork, which means talking about influence.
You want your teen to take out the garbage. They have not been taking out the garbage. You need to do something to get them to take out the garbage. You want to change their behavior—you want influence.
In our hospital analogy, if consequences are the backup generator, Influence is the electricity. It is one of the most important resources you have as a parent. It is your ability to guide and steer your kid when they’re getting off course. It is as crucial to parenting as electricity is to a hospital. You cannot parent without it.
And, like electricity, there are a few different ways to generate influence. And if consequences are the backup generator, what is the main power grid? What is your primary source of influence?
Esprit de Corps
I really didn’t want to get all French on you, but this is the best way I could find to sum it up. Esprit de corps is your main power, your main source of influence. In your family esprit de corps is a deep understanding and trust that you’re all on the same team. You don’t always agree, and sometimes you get mad at each other. But at the end of the day, if asked, “Does my parent have my back?” your kid would answer a confident “Yes.”
Esprit de corps means that you have a healthy amount of trust and rapport with your child. It means that they value your opinion as a parent, and yes, this is possible with teenagers. And esprit de corps means that you can talk with your teen about taking out the garbage, negotiate if necessary, and come to a solution to the problem without resorting to carrots and sticks. If you have esprit de corps, then you trust that your child wants to do the right thing and wants to succeed, but that they need help getting there.
If you rely on consequences as your main source of influence—if your first move is to confiscate the phone for not taking out the garbage—you risk eroding your esprit de corps.
Let’s look at the “pot-in-the-sock-drawer” scenario. You find pot in your teen’s sock drawer: What do you do? What most parents do, understandably so, is jump right to consequences. “You’re grounded for a month, and no phone after 7pm.” The kid tries to defend himself, the parent stands their ground, and everyone leaves the conversation feeling angry and bitter.
Why is this a problem? Because consequences were the only means of influence. With no healthy discussion, the teen felt unheard and defensive, leading to a feeling of “me vs. you”. When your kid feels like they are in a battle against you, this means serious problems for esprit de corps.
When there’s no esprit de corps to support the consequences, then the teen starts thinking, “How can I get around this?” And they’ll scheme ways to sneak out at night, to steal the phone back when you’re not looking, etc. You are enemies, not teammates.
“Yeah, but what do I do then when I find the pot in the sock drawer?”
Good question. First, take several hours to allow your feelings of shock, fear and anger to run their course. Talk it through with your partner, do some journaling, pray, exercise, whatever you need to calm down a bit.
Then talk to your kid, and say something like, “I found this. Please know that there will be some consequences, but before we talk about that, I first want you to know that I’m really upset, and that I think you’re a great person and I love you very much.”
And then you interview them. If you don’t know how to do this, let me know, and I can help. Basically, you give them as much time as they need to tell you their side of the story. You say you believe them and that you need to look into it in order to verify.
With this approach, you’re giving a consequence, but it’s not your main means of influence. By waiting until you calm down, you’re able think more clearly and keep your kid’s defensiveness to a minimum. This means you might be able to ask your teen for their input on what the consequence should be, further strengthening esprit de corps and adding to your precious influence reserves.
We sometimes tell ourselves that if we just try hard enough or if we take away enough privileges that we can keep our kids safe. And while there is some truth to that, I think it is important to remember that you cannot protect your child from every danger. Bad things can happen, things you might not have any control over. I don’t say this to scare you. I say this to help you avoid the illusion that consequences can save your child from their own bad decisions. Your child will make bad decisions. It’s not your job to save them.
This advice is not meant to apply to every parenting situation. As with all parenting advice, this will work for some and not work for others.
If you like this, check out The Teen Mind, my podcast about understanding stress and anxiety and how it affects our teens.
Melissa just checked her son’s grades, and they’re pretty bad. He has one B and the rest are Cs and Ds. Daniel is in 8th grade, and he’s really smart, so Melissa doesn’t understand how he could be doing so poorly. She thinks to herself, “He needs to bring those grades up. He’s really smart. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be getting all A’s and B’s.”
Melissa is angry. She doesn’t understand why Daniel doesn’t try harder, why he doesn’t seem to care. It just doesn’t make sense and it’s infuriating.
And just beneath that anger is fear. What if he keeps getting bad grades through high school and can’t get into college. And, deeper than that, is another fear, one that makes her chest feel tight and causes panicked thoughts to run rampant in her mind. She’s afraid Daniel will end up feeling like a failure as a person, that he’ll end up working a dead-end job that makes him miserable. And she’s afraid she’ll be constantly reminded that she failed him as a parent, that maybe there was something she could have done to help him.
And so when she thinks, “He needs to bring those grades up,” what she’s really thinking is, I need him to be successful and happy, so that I am not a failure.
This fear; that we might somehow fail our children, that they will somehow end up as addicts or assholes—or that they’ll be depressed or unemployed or even dead; this fear lingers below the surface for all of us with this overwhelming job of raising children.
And the way this fear bubbles up in our lives is by making us feel like we need our kids to succeed, to be happy, to have friends, etc. Because if they don’t, what would that say about us as their parents?
If you find yourself needing your kid to change in some way, it’s likely that their behavior triggers a deep fear that something terrible will happen to your child.
A parent who needs their son to be involved in lots of activities might be deeply afraid he will end up a lazy person, living at home and playing video games until he’s thirty.
A parent who needs their daughter to stop dating that boy might have a deep fear of her being emotionally abused, or ending up serial-dating jerks because she has a low opinion of herself.
Now, you might ask, “What’s the problem with me needing my kid to stay out of trouble? I’m just doing my job as a parent.”
To answer that, we'll talk about the difference between needs and preferences.
When you need your kid to do something, and they don’t do it, you become angry or anxious or depressed. And then when you talk with your kid about it, your emotions take over and sabotage the conversation. Your kid gets defensive, which triggers your emotions more, and the whole thing escalates until someone says something hurtful or storms out of the room.
When you prefer your kid to do something, and they don’t, then you might be irritated or bummed out, but you won’t have the strong emotional reaction you would have if you needed them to do it. You will be able to approach in a more calm, detached way.
The vibe your kid gets from you will be, “I wish you would have turned in your homework, but I’m okay either way.” And that vibe is very calming for a child or adolescent. So now both of you are calm, you will be able to talk about the problem in a way that feels like you’re on the same team, working together, instead of feeling like it’s you versus your kid.
So, ask yourself: Do you need your child to:
- Do what they’re told?
- Get better grades?
- Eat their vegetables?
- Be nicer?
- Hang out with a different crowd?
If you find yourself answering yes (I know I certainly do), it might be helpful to take a look at the fears underneath that need. Be honest with yourself. We as parents all have these fears. The fears are there to protect you and may just need you to listen to them. Once you do, they will calm down.
All characters are fictional. Their experiences are common among real people, but they are not based on any real people. Any resemblances to real people are coincidental.
If you like this, check out The Teen Mind, my podcast about understanding stress and anxiety and how it affects our teens.
(Or at your mom, uncle, child, friend, etc.)
I heard a story the other day about a woman who, before the election, would talk with her mom every day on the phone. In the weeks since November 8th, they’ve barely talked. The daughter, who voted for Hilary, is angry that her mom voted for Trump. She’s afraid that if she calls, her anger will take over and she’ll say something deeply hurtful. The mom is angry that her daughter hasn’t called. And she’s afraid that if they talk, her daughter will act distant and aloof, which hurts more than not talking at all.
Certainly, you’ve heard or experienced similar stories. Maybe over Thanksgiving you had to wrestle with the fact that you have one feeling about Donald Trump and someone close to you has a very different feeling. Maybe you’ve gotten into an argument or a fight about it. More likely, you’ve probably avoided talking about it, changing the topic when any hint of politics comes up.
These things hurt. We feel that when someone votes in a way that is so counter to our beliefs and our identity, that they have personally attacked or betrayed us. And right now, lots of people are feeling attacked or betrayed.
Some give the advice that we all need to work harder to see things from the other side’s perspective. And this advice makes sense. Have a grown-up conversation with your dad (or mom or uncle or child, etc.) . Ask him why he voted for Trump and then listen and say, “hmm, I hadn’t thought of that before. Thanks for sharing.” Or have a conversation with your daughter (or dad or aunt or friend, etc.). Ask her how she’s feeling about the election (knowing she voted for Hilary), and then say, “yeah, I can see why you’re upset about all this.”
But we know this isn’t how it works. Because when your dad starts talking about immigrants, or your daughter calls Trump supporters racists, this overwhelming feeling takes over. It is a mix of rage and sadness, rage toward the opinions, and sadness toward the fact that this person you love dearly holds those opinions.
And so how are we supposed to act like grown-ups when the thought of talking to your dad makes you anxious and queasy at the same time? Or if you hear your daughter say one more thing about Trump supporters being racists that you’re going to punch a hole in the drywall.
It’s easy to say we need to see the other person’s perspective. It’s easy to say we need to put our emotions aside and just talk like reasonable people. But for many of us, myself included, talking about politics with family scares us more than a face-to-face meeting with a tiger shark. We love our family. We don’t want to lose our cool and then be left with an even bigger elephant in the room for the next holiday.
So, let’s assume you are ready ease the tension between you and a loved one. You don’t understand how such a smart, loving person could vote for that candidate, or how they could believe those ideas. And you’d like to try to understand.
Well, here are five practical steps that might help.
1. Ask this person to meet you for coffee. It might be weird for you to ask your dad to meet you for coffee. Do it anyway. Tell him you haven’t gotten to have a good old father-daughter/father-son talk for a while.
2. Ask to hear their story. After the necessary small talk, say, “Y’know, I think we have different beliefs about politics, and I realized that I don’t know much about your story of how you came to believe what you do. I’d really like to just hear your story.”
3. Listen to their story. Say things like, “I can understand that,” and “So, were you and mom married at that time?”
4. Ask if you can share your story. If there's time.
5. Hug, say “I love you,” and cry a little, if necessary.