At Empowering Parents, we talk a lot about “effective” versus “ineffective” parenting styles. In fact, James Lehman reminds us that it’s not about whether your parenting style is right or wrong, it’s about whether it’s effective.
The good news is that if you aren’t getting the results you want – for example, a less mouthy child, or a teen that follows through on her responsibilities more consistently – you aren’t doing anything wrong. You simply need to change your strategy.
Struggling is how kids learn to solve the bigger problems that will come their way without falling apart as they grow into adults.
Today, I’d like to explore some parenting strategies that aren’t effective. While many of these may seem harmless, they can actually subtly keep you from seeing the results you want.
- “Here, let me help you with that.” It’s so frustrating when your kid takes forever to do the task you’ve asked to him. It’s also tough when you see your teen struggling with something, knowing you could fix it easily.
In both cases, it can be tempting to jump in and help, or to just do the task for your child. Helicopter parenting is when parents do too much for their kids on a regular basis, but many of us are guilty of jumping in when we should let our teens fend for themselves, even if we’re not always hovering. Unfortunately, what this teaches your child is that he doesn’t need to struggle through the tough stuff; he never has to push through anything hard, because the hard things are always solved for him.
This can turn into learned helplessness—when your child learns that any time things get too tough, he can give up. A side effect of this is that he learns that he doesn’t need to form his own problem solving skills if he can always borrow yours.
If you jump in every time your child takes too long or struggles with something, it can also send the message that you don’t believe he’s capable of doing the task.
What to do instead: As uncomfortable as it is to watch your child wrestle with a problem or task, let him know you believe in his ability to work through it. Offer your support, but don’t do the job for him. Struggling is how kids learn to solve the bigger problems that will come their way without falling apart as they grow into adults.
- “A house divided against itself…” If you are parenting with a spouse or partner, don’t get stuck in good cop/bad cop roles, where one parent is always enforcing the rules and boundaries and the other is not.
Aside from causing tension in your relationship, splitting your authority like this gives your teen the message that consequences are all about the “tough” parent being, well, tough. It takes the focus off of his self-responsibility and pits one parent against the other.
What to do instead: In The Total Transformation Program, James Lehman recommends working on one or two core behavioral issues with your teen, rather than trying to tackle several at once. If you find that you and your partner don’t agree on key issues, take some time to discuss places you might agree. Find one or two behaviors you both want your child to improve. Then decide together on a clear, consistent way of addressing these issues.
Most importantly, agree to present a united front to your child. Let her know that she can’t get around the rules by appealing to one parent over another.
- “My kid’s having a tough time right now. I need to make things easier on him.” If your teen is going through a rough period in his life, whether because of school issues, a difficult life event or emotional challenges, it can be tempting to let the normal rules slide. Unfortunately, this approach can backfire. Instead of being the comforting, low stress time you might hope for, your child may revert to poor behavioral choices, or even adopt some new “bad habits.”
What to do instead: While you do want to show compassion and empathy toward your child, stick to the routine and the rules, as much as possible. Allow him to pay the natural consequences for his actions. And let your teen know that no matter what’s going on, the rules still apply.
You can help by having a problem-solving conversation with your child, “I know you’re having a tough time right now. You still need to do your chores and get home by your curfew. What can you do to make sure you do those things?”
By holding your child accountable for his normal responsibilities, you’re helping him learn to manage his emotional world, no matter what. That’s a skill he’ll need throughout his life. Help him practice it.
- “You know what I’m talking about! Don’t give me that innocent look!” As parents, we often think that teens know what we mean. It’s obvious to us that they need to clean up their attitude, or show more respect for the house they live in. They know exactly what we mean when we say they need to get their act together.
The truth is, vague statements don’t work. If you give a vague direction, kids can shrug it off, whether they actually understand it or not. In addition, your idea of having a “better attitude” is likely very different than your teen’s. “Showing respect” is a vague concept, not a specific action or way of behaving.
Without clear goals for behavior, kids float around, not making any actual improvement. If you’re not seeing the changes you want in your child, take a look at your directives: are they too vague?
What to do instead: If you want to see results, you’ll need to give specific tasks and clear rules. Make your expectations known. Make them so clear, concrete, and direct that your teen can’t possibly feign confusion. This means that instead of saying, “Ugh. You call this clean?” after she straighten her room, you give her clear directions on what you want her to do: “When you clean your room, please take the sheets off the bed and put them in the laundry, and put new sheets on. Vacuum under all the furniture, dust and organize your shelves.”
Remember that one of your primary roles as a parent is to be a teacher; one of your jobs is to help your child learn and practice the concrete skills she needs to be successful in life. One big way you can do this is by giving clear expectations, and clarifying the steps your child needs to take to meet those expectations.
- “My kid is my best friend. We share everything!” How is being close friends with your teen an ineffective parenting style? Look at this way – friends are equals. They’re peers. As Janet Lehman reminds us, when you treat your child as a peer, you diminish your authority. You can’t effectively enforce rules or influence behavior when your child doesn’t see you as an authority.
What to do instead: James Lehman points out that being friendly with your child is different than being friends with them: the former is far more effective than the latter. As much as you want to be close friends with your child, effective parenting means taking a step out of friendship and into authority. Treat your child with positive regard and set clear limits, rules, and expectations.
If you see yourself in any of these ineffective parenting roles, that’s great: it means you’ve identified places you can change. These are hard patterns to turn around, but parents can do it. Keep your eyes on your goal: a teen who follows through on rules and expectations, and who has the skills needed to be successful. As you become more aware of the things that don’t work, you’ll be more able to take consistent, effective action to reach those goals – for yourself, and for your child.