When a teen "doesn't care"

I have a 15 year old son who thinks he can do what he wants whenever he wants. He is a sophomore in high school and plays varsity football and basketball and runs around with upperclassmen. His grades have fallen from a's and b's to c's and d's we know he smokes and drinks occasionally. He tells his mother one thing and tells me something else. These lies are causing problems between us and he also says he doesn't care what the rules are because he is going to do what he wants most of the time anyway. We have tried grounding him but he begs to be off early by making deals and then later says he never made a deal or he won't be found after school or at practice.

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Your son has got you by the tail! He is right to say that he does not have to "go by the rules" since "making deals" has effectively side-stepped consequences in your parental system. However his lack of respect is most damaging to his own self-discipline and esteem. It is time to turn things around!

You are the parents and you make the rules by which your son can succeed. No doubt things will not be easy to change. But being willing to "go the distance" with your son instead of taking the path of least resistance for short term relief, will be a marker for his future development. He will be able to look back on his adolescence and make corrections later if not sooner, if you are willing to make a stand now.

Talk with your wife about the importance of consistency and consequences. Strengthen your parental team by agreeing to "stop making deals" with your son. He has learned that he can come between the two of you to "get what he wants" in the immediate sense. Though you may want to achieve a sense of emotional closeness with your son by "giving in", what you are really doing is contributing to his acquisition of skills to "get around" things instead of taking full responsibility. This will lead to inevitable failures for him ahead. Do not sacrifice his future for short term relief. Your current approach is undermining his respect not only for his parents, but for himself.

Establish clear rules and guidelines to help him get back on track academically. Let him know that you care about his future, and that since he is not attending to the consequences of his current actions, that it is your job as parents to step in to assure that he has choices open to him in the future. Let him know that you are available to provide help if he has fallen behind in his studies. Visit with his teachers to assess his needs and get an accurate understanding of his current situation independent of what he tells you, since he lies. Do this with his full knowledge and invite his cooperation.

Invoke clear guidelines to help him achieve success in getting focused on his best interests. Let him know that while you very much support his sports activities, that a certain gradepoint average ("B" perhaps with nothing below a "D") is necessary to maintain his status on the football team. Inform his coach of your standards and follow through on consequences. He may return to sports following the attainment of your academic requirements for him.

Provide similar guidelines that relate responsibility to privileges in other areas. For example, being able to use the car should be predicated on completing family duties, such as taking out garbage, washing dishes, mowing the lawn, etc. Consequences should be firm, but neutrally carried out. Do not match his emotional hysteria when things change. Simply explain that you realize your mistake in not helping him achieve his responsibilities in the past, and you and your wife are learning how to correct your own mistakes.

Take responsibility for your errors, clearly state your apology for having failed him by not teaching him that lying doesn't work, and set clear expectations for his future behavior. Overtime you will gain his respect for not "giving in" to the moment. But do not take your cues from your son! You and your wife must turn to each other for strength and nurturing.

Be prepared for his initial resistance! After all, it is your own actions that have left the door wide open for disrespect. You and you wife have inadvertently rewarded your son for using deceit to get what he wants. His flaunting this "advantage" by saying directly that he will do only as he desires, is a clear indication that he is crying out for help. It is as if he is waving a red flag in front of a bull. He is trying to get you to react! If he cannot respect the actions of his father, how will he ever be able to internalize the self- respect that is based on his identification with you as the male authority figure in the family?

Talk with your wife about how this pattern of division instead of teamwork developed between the two of you. What parental role models did each of you have when it came to discipline and respect? How did husbands and wives interact with one another around parental decision-making? You may find that you have repeated patterns of parental division, resulting in disrespect in your own childhood relationships, or you may be overcompensating as a result of feeling your own parents were overly strict and unyielding. Either way, you need to redirect your course in order to answer your son's emerging developmental needs to develop the skills necessary to succeed as a young adult man.

Talk with other parents, especially fathers, and refer to the website "fathersforum.com" for further insight into strengthening father-son relationships. Develop an emotional connection with your son, based on what interests him, what his talents and strengths are, and what his dreams for the future might be. Develop at least one new shared activity which allows for consistent positive interaction time (playing basketball, going to a special sports event, etc.). This activity can serve to keep you in touch with one another through otherwise trying times. Do not let "consequences" interfere with these activities of connection. Choose other areas for setting limits.

By taking charge of your parental duties, you teach by example. Your own changes in behavior not only express true caring, but offer your son a role model he will come to respect.

It is not easy to face your weaknesses, to learn from your mistakes and to set things right when they have gone astray. It will no doubt feel like quite a battle, initially. But keep in mind that when you "win" this one, your son "wins", too!

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