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How to Control Your Kids Outside of the House (Hint: You Can't)

by Megan Devine, LCPC
How to Control Your Kids Outside of the House (Hint: You Can't)

Recently, I talked with the mother of a 16-year-old girl on the Parental Support Line about her daughter’s behavior outside of the house. This mom had just begun the Total Transformation program, but had questions about how to use its techniques to make her daughter follow the rules when she was away from home. “In some ways,” she said, “I wonder if it’s too late for my daughter. She’s smart and caring, and she gets good grades. She’s not violent or abusive, but she’s always been willful. Most of the time, she just does whatever she wants. We don’t like her friends very much – none of them want to go to college or work, and she’s starting to act and talk like them. How can I make her follow my rules when she’s out on her own? I have to find some way of controlling her so she doesn’t ruin her life.”

Many parents wish they could ensure that their children behave according to their family’s values and rules when they are outside the home. While it’s a common wish, know that it’s not necessarily realistic. Your child will encounter different rules and different levels of acceptable behavior once they leave your home – whether it’s at school, or if it happens when they leave the nest for good.

The fact is, it’s not possible (or healthy) to have your child under your control at all times. And, although it’s difficult for many parents to come to terms with, there is a limit to how much you can enforce – after all, your child will make their own choices, and they are ultimately responsible for their own behavior. This does not mean that you are powerless, however.

What You Should Control: Issues of Safety
You can’t always control your child’s choices, but that doesn’t mean you have to let them do everything they want or that you can’t give consequences for rule violations. This is especially true when it comes to issues of your child’s safety. If you are concerned that your child is using drugs or alcohol, or is engaging in physically dangerous or illegal acts, you need to do what you have to in order to keep them safe. That may mean requiring drug or alcohol treatment, or enforcing a limited curfew. If your child is trying to date someone before they are old enough, or they want to date someone who is too old for them, make sure you are double checking that any group activity is supervised by a parent you know and do your best to host social events. If you find your child has gone out at night and is participating in very risky behaviors, involve the help of your local police department each and every time you discover your child has left your home during the night. Let your child know that they are unsafe and you will do anything it takes to keep them safe.

In this article, we will be addressing what you can and can’t do to control activities that are at odds with your family rules and values, not issues that put your child in physical danger.

Your Child’s Choices
Just because your child makes choices that you don’t agree with outside the home, doesn’t mean you need to tolerate their choices inside your home. You always have the right to control what happens inside your house. Be clear and direct about your household rules. And keep in mind that your family rules can actually have some bearing on the choices your child makes when he or she is away from you. If you want your child to make different choices outside of your home, focus on the behavior you’d like her to change, and relate them to a household rule. For example, if you want your child to have a part-time job, you might tell her:

  • “In order to be allowed use of the family car, you need to maintain a part-time job. I’ll help you find one, if you’d like.”
  • “You can earn money by doing chores at home, or you can get a job outside of the house. That choice is up to you, but not working is not an option.”

If your child quits or loses her job, you can give her a consequence for that, while also helping her learn the skills she needs to be successful in the workforce. Those skills might include being on time, being professional, or finishing assigned tasks.

I Don’t Like My Child’s Friends
Many parents have concerns about the kids their children spend time with. When you present your expectations or rules to your child, don’t make it into an argument about whether she should make her friends her top priority or not. When you try to talk your child out of her friendships, the end result is often a deepening of those friendships – it’s not a battle you are likely to win. So stay focused on the rules, and how they relate to your household.

For example, you may require that your child does not go out on school nights and has a curfew on the weekends. Sometimes this alone will end these friendships because the other kids are hanging out on school nights and staying out very late on the weekends.

Differences in House Rules
Parents often talk about the differences in house rules on the Parental Support Line. If you have a rule in your home of no video games, but your child has access to games at friends’ houses, have a frank discussion about the difference in rules. Be sure to let your child know that you’re not changing your rules, you’d just like to hear from him about his experience. Don’t assume that your child would rather have the games than not. When you keep the lines of communication open, you encourage a dialogue that may help your child – and you – learn. Ask your child what it’s like to have the “no-game” rule at home, and access to games elsewhere. You might ask, “Do you notice a difference in how you play with your friends when you’re over here, versus at their houses?” Or even: “What’s it like playing those games?”

If you are concerned about your child’s video game playing at other’s houses, you can say, “I know that Tim and Luke play video games after school. In our family, we have a rule against video games, so you don’t have my permission to go to their houses anymore. You’re welcome to have them over here, though.” If you discover your child had managed to get into an R rated movie with a friend, you might tell him he can’t spend time with friends outside of your home next weekend. You could use that opportunity to host an appropriate social event with your child, his friends and your family.

Why Does My Child Defy Me?
Parents often wonder how their child can behave so differently outside of the home. Remember that part of being a teen is trying new things. Keep in mind that many times for your child it’s actually more about the activity than it is about an attempt to defy you as a parent.

If you find that your child has disobeyed the family rules outside the home, keep the lines of communication open. Rather than give lectures, discuss the choices your child is making, and how they relate—or don’t relate— to family rules and expectations. In this way, you continue to communicate your family’s rules and values while realizing your child’s need to experience the world for themselves. When they disobey your rules, there may be a natural consequence for their choice, or you can impose one. Kids caught smoking on school grounds receive consequences at school.Those caught smoking in town can receive a citation from the police. Have your child pay any fines themselves and serve school detentions. You can let your child know that any cigarettes found in your home will be thrown away and if you smell cigarettes in your car when they borrow it, they lose access to the car for a specific, short period of time.

Play the Coach
One of your primary roles as a parent is that of a coach. As James Lehman explains in the Total Transformation Program, you are the “trainer” for the skills your child needs to learn to become a responsible, accountable adult. As James says, “It’s your job to teach, and your child’s job to learn.” You can’t do all the learning and practicing for your child. You can’t legislate what they will do outside of your home, or how well they will use the tools you’ve given them. For better or for worse, your children will make choices you wish they wouldn’t. They will get hurt; they will make mistakes. All the control in the world won’t stop that.

You can’t always choose for them. But you can use your role as the primary coach and teacher in your child’s life to teach them the skills they need to help get back up when they do, inevitably, fall down. By keeping the lines of communication open, you’re teaching your child to consider the choices they are making, and the effect those choices will have. By enforcing the rules in your own home, and giving consequences designed to help them practice new behaviors, you’re helping your child learn practical, useful skills they will need as they go out into the world. Remember, your child is ultimately responsible for his or her own behavior. Your true empowerment as a parent lies in your ability to teach and coach your child so that they will be able to make the right choices later on.

Need more support? If you are a Total Transformation customer, you can access the Parental Support Line for help with these and other challenges you’re experiencing with your child. Support Line specialists have helped hundreds of parents deal with their children’s choices, and we can help you, too. Specialists can also work with you to formulate realistic, appropriate consequences to help enforce the rules of your home.


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Megan Devine is a licensed clinical therapist, a former Parental Support Line Advisor, a speaker, and writer. She is also the bonus-parent to a successfully launched young man. You can find more of her work at www.refugeingrief.com, where she advocates for new ways to live with grief.

READER'S COMMENTS

I feel it is very informative, I wish you had more articles on blended families. Sure seems like there are a lot more out there. We have issues of respect with my son and My husband, who is his step father. I try to instill in him the tone he uses and the way he responds, but the rules are different at his father's house. Like you say, you can't control what they do outside your house

Comment By : Shelkd

Very helpful and thought provoking. I am a grandmother and watch my grandkids everyday. I want to help them in every way I can and these newsletters answer a lot of questions. Thank you

Comment By : Emma

Your children grow up and become the very people that will someday choose the nursing home in which you will live. Keep thinking about that for awhile. It can make a big change in the way you deal with your children. Children deserve respect, just as I would hope they would show me respect when I am old and in need of nursing care. They also need the respect from you to let them try out life, even if they make mistakes. As I recall, I learned the most from the mistakes I made in my life. So our parents need to loosen the reines long enough to let us experience life. I ride horses and experts will tell you that you can ctell a well trained horse by looking at the reins. If the rider has a tighr grip on the reins, the horse is not as well trained as the moving correctly with loose reins. Natural consequences are a way to learn to apply what our parents have taught us. Some of us are just slow learners, and we need more practice.

Comment By : Arbonnelady

This article was so helpful at relieving my guilt as a parent. Even though I've tried to instill values in my grown children, it has always been a battle with them to "do the right thing". It's true, when they're out of your sight, they are free to choose what path to take and it's sad when the outcome is not how you had planned for it to turn out.

Comment By : deb

It is a let down for you as a parent when you instill the right thing and they choose the wrong. Other than instilling the right thing and letting the child fall countless times(which he has), how else are you able to approach what choices he will make with peer pressure? Especially when you have a vulnerable child. Rob

Comment By : Rob

Thank you so much for this article. I'm a single mom of 3 teens. My 16 and 13 year olds, both boys, are miss behaving outside the home. They are now facing the natural consequences that society and the law are giving them. I hope they will realize that what mom has been saying is worth listening too, but if they don't, I know that I've done my best, as have the rest of you.

Comment By : 3 teens

I just want to thank you for this article I was just about to give up felling that every thing I do was in vain. I see that everything is not just my responsibality it's our responsibality I will continue to coach and stop worring so much and give them the chance to make some descions on their own. some time I fell that I could be there where ever they are and wish they would fell I am there well What ever I will continue to do what I can and let them have their space to do or not to

Comment By : Denise

Your article was very helpful especially at a time of immediate need. My some has decided to live full time with his father. During the past 4 months he has increased his use of drugs and now his father wants our son to return to my home to live. I am at a major crossroad as to the direction I want to take that will be most helpful for my son. Any more information you can provide for divorced parents and shared custody parenting will be very helpful.

Comment By : Kate

Total Transformation is a good piece of news and instructions for both parents and kids and i seize this opportunity to congratulate you for your good work. keep it up.

Comment By : Augustine Baiden

thanks alot...verry usefull

Comment By : Fazel.Mabeyni

can I just say that this newsletter and program are our life saver....we are going thru some difficult waters with our third child, 17 year old boy and let me tell you before I do anything or answer any questions or act in any way I go to this web sight first. Thank you so much for the information and support!

Comment By : Toni

My partner dispares at the behaviour of his ex wife and children.She does not set any boundaries, they do not have to work( the eldest son is 20 and chooses to be unemployed), they take frequent sick days from school, they do not contribute to household chores, go outside or see friends. There are no expectations of them. They are all computor addicts. They stay up all night, eat rubbish and basically do nothing. He has tried to support them, encourage them, help them with jobs and school and all of his efforts fall on deaf ears. They do not want to come to his house as they do not like rules of any kind. What can you advise a father who is just about to give up on all of his children. His ex wife does not respect any of his ideas or wishes and has encouraged the children to ignore him. No ammount of talking has made things better after a 5 year separation.

Comment By : Lynne

* To “Lynne”: Thank you for sharing your story with us. I can hear how much you want to help your partner and his children. You ask a difficult question. It’s challenging when parents in separate households have such contrasting ways of parenting. As Debbie Pincus points out in her latest article Parenting After Divorce: 9 Ways to Parent on Your Own Terms it’s not unusual for parents who are separated/divorced to parent differently. It’s not going to be constructive to try and change how their mom is parenting. Ultimately, it’s her choice as to what rules and structure she establishes within her house. We would suggest focusing on what you can control in the situation, namely, the rules and expectations you and your partner have in your house and how you respond to the choices other people make. His children may choose not to spend time there if they disagree with what has been established. It’s not uncommon for children in these situations to gravitate towards the parent that has fewer rules. This doesn’t mean your partner can’t still have a relationship with his children. Maybe the two of you can spend time doing activities with them that everyone can enjoy. Perhaps spending time together outside of the house may help to re-establish a connection. Here is another article you may find useful: The Do's and Don'ts of Divorce for Parents. Keep in mind if there is a custody/visitation agreement in place, it might be helpful to involve the court system to ensure its being upheld. We wish you and your partner luck as you continue to address this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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Responses to questions posted on EmpoweringParents.com are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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