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A Different Approach to Parenting Teens
Are your teens and pre-teens, who not that long ago were great kids, becoming more and more irritable and disrespectful? Are their grades going down? Are their friends questionable? Are you finding it increasingly difficult to communicate with them? Do you "walk on eggshells" around them? Have the consequences you’ve attempted to enforce been of little or no value in changing the unwanted behavior?
Then checking out this article might not be a bad idea. It is an approach I have developed over many years of counseling troubled adolescents and their parents.
Before reading on, please understand that it is not offered as a solution to serious conduct disorders, including such areas as violence, vandalism or drug abuse. These problems usually require additional interventions. "Food, Clothing, Shelter and School" is for parents whose children have been basically "good kids" but who are becoming less and less manageable in terms of normal parent/child expectations.
These are the kids who have parents substituting the term "terrible teens" for "terrible twos." Instead of enjoying the adolescent changes from child to adult, the parent has come to dread having to deal with them just about every day. So, although you won't be able to use this for more serious problems with your kids, by beginning to employ FCSS, you may be able to avoid those serious problems in the future.
Also please be aware that this approach has limited or no value if you try to use it with a child who is too young to understand what the word “perk” means or will not be able to relate the way in which not being taken to the mall on Saturday has anything to do with his/her being disrespectful to you on Tuesday. Naturally, the age will vary based on the maturity of your child.
The major premise of this approach is the recognition that, as parents, we are obligated to provide only four things to our children until they reach the age of 18: food, clothing, shelter and school. (FCSS).
Everything else we give them or do for them is a "perk." Parents are usually more than willing to give their children these perks because they love them, want them to be happy or want to protect them from unnecessary stress.
Unfortunately, parents too often find themselves giving perks because they believe their child will love them more, listen to them more, respect them more and disrespect them less. And their children have come to expect these perks as if they have a right to them with no obligation to do anything to earn them.
The idea here is to avoid typical punishments (or consequences) as much as possible and to substitute instead, withholding perks. When this is done consistently and with the child's knowledge, unwanted behaviors begin to disappear and are replaced by desired behaviors. In addition, your child will quickly come to appreciate that we must earn the good things that come to us in life.
So let's move on and begin with some definitions.
What Is a Perk?
A perk is anything that is not food, clothing, shelter or school, that when withheld will cause the child to connect their behavior with that loss.
Let me first give examples of perks as they relate to FCS. Keep in mind that these perks are only examples, the list can be much longer.
Food... always having food for your child to eat, whether it is at a scheduled mealtime or if the child misses a meal, having the same or equivalent food available for the child to prepare him/herself.
Food perk... providing or preparing special food for your child; ex. "Sorry I missed dinner mom, can you heat it up for me?" (And mom heats it up), OR "I hate tunafish. Please let's go to McDonalds!" (And the parent takes the kid to McDonalds) OR "I hate fish. Can you make hot dogs for me?" (and hot dogs are made) OR (after the teen has opened the frig and not found anything they like even if the frig is loaded with food "hey how come there's no food in here?" and the parent responds with something like "well what do you want then?"
Clothing... making sure your child always has clean, comfortable and affordable clothes to wear.
Clothing perk... providing clothes that are beyond your budget limit, taking your child to the mall (at their request) to get new clothes when the clothing he/she has is perfectly ok.
Shelter... providing a safe place for your child to live.
Shelter perk... letting friends sleep over, letting your teen sleep over a friend's house, cleaning his/her room because they have not done so.
School... being sure your child gets to school every day, attends class, does his/her homework, and is respectful to teachers, staff and their peers.
School perk... driving your child to school when they miss the bus due to oversleeping, doing a homework assignment for them (as opposed to helping them), allowing them to stay home when they don't want to go to school on a particular day, or believing them when they say it’s the teacher’s fault that they are failing a class.
Of course perks are not confined to FCSS. Here are a few more examples:
Giving a child his/her allowance although they've done nothing to earn it.
Driving your child to a friend's house, the mall, to school (unless previously arranged), or an afterschool activity (unless previously arranged).
Paying for perks (ex. Game Boy, cellphone, gas for their car, etc.)
Allowing the teen to stay out later than a previously agreed-upon time.
Doing a chore that you have previously assigned to your teen.
Changing your plans in order to accommodate your teen's change of plans.
Feel free to add to this list. There are literally hundreds of perks that parents give their kids.
What Kids Have to Do to Earn Perks
What do most parents ask of their children? Go to school on time, do homework, get grades equal to their capabilities, do reasonable chores around the house, adhere to reasonable rules, participate in family functions, and speak and act in an appropriate manner to parents, siblings, friends, teachers and other adults.
If children do these things most of the time, parents are usually quite happy to provide those extra benefits (perks) to make them happy.
However, when children do not do these things most of the time then perks must be withheld. Otherwise, the child is assuming they can behave any way they want and still get the perks.
Withholding a Perk is Not a Punishment (although your teen might think it is).
Knowing when we are withholding perks and when we are simply punishing can sometimes be a little confusing.
First let me try to define "punishment." A punishment is anything designed to reduce a certain behavior. In this way, it is similar to withholding perks because they too, are designed to reduce certain behaviors.
One type of punishment is to take direct action.
For example, when your three-year old child said something rude to you, you might have given him a spank on the behind. Your expectation is that the punishment (spanking) would reduce the unwanted behavior (disrespect).
By the way, I'm not advocating spanking, far from it, only using it as an example of direct punishment. In psychological terms, this is called "positive punishment" although the child getting spanked does not think of it as positive.
Another type of punishment is indirect or removing the child from something they find pleasurable. This is called "negative punishment."
For example, instead of spanking your 3 year-old, you give her a time out... take her away from something pleasurable for a period of time.
The teenage version of time out is grounding. Your expectation is that the punishment (grounding) will reduce that behavior (staying out late) in the future. Another example: if you don't allow your 12 year-old to watch movies rated for profanity because he is using too much profanity himself, than you would expect the punishment (not being allowed to watch these movies) to reduce that behavior (cursing).
Once again the purpose of any punishment is to inflict some sort of aversive or unpleasant condition which we hope will reduce or eliminate an unwanted behavior.
Note: If punishments as described above have always resulted in your child discontinuing the unwanted behavior then you have no reason to keep reading. You should have a child who behaves appropriately almost all the time.
However, if you think you should keep reading, then the punishments you have been using aren't working to eliminate that behavior.
So how is withholding a perk different from typical punishing?
First, it is clearly different from positive punishment, physical or direct force. It is also different from negative punishment, grounding. When parents withhold perks they are simply saying that the teen is not entitled to anything beyond food, clothing, shelter and school unless they comply with basic family rules.
How to make your child aware of FCSS.
If you are sure you understand it yourself, explain it as best you can. Be patient and answer all his/her questions. You might want to finish this article and, if necessary, write to me with your questions before you try to explain it.
If you still aren’t sure you can explain it adequately, allow your child to read the article and if you aren’t able to answer his/her questions, I would be happy to try to answer them myself if you send me written permission to speak to them.
Here are some examples of the difference between punishments and withholding perks:
Your son is expecting to be taken to the mall on Saturday to go to a movie or hang out with friends (a perk) but has been disrespectful (attitude, cursing, eye rolling, etc.) to you on Thursday. Knowing he has been disrespectful and still wanting to go to the mall, he will often apologize, i.e. “Sorry mom, you know I didn’t mean it.” Your "punishment" in this case might be to chastise (yelling or lecture) him for waiting so long to apologize or threatening him with “not doing favors if you talk to me like that." But you still take him to the mall. So what has he learned? “If I can put up with my parent’s yelling and nagging I can still get what I want.”
Instead, regardless of the apology, you withhold the perk (going to the mall)...it is lost. Although you should tell him you accept the apology, the perk cannot be reinstated at that time. However, it can be reinstated the following Saturday provided he has not been disrespectful during the preceding week.
2. Your daughter tells you she has been doing her homework every day and you find out she has not been truthful. A typical "punishment" might be to take away her cellphone for some indefinite period of time. She is “grounded” from the phone “until you prove you are doing your homework.” Parents often do not have the ability to enforce this type of grounding or aren't sure when to end it. It usually creates resentment on the part of the teen and doesn't change the behavior.
The above might be a little confusing because a cellphone is clearly a perk in that it is not food, clothing, shelter or school. So, you might ask, why is taking it away a punishment rather than withholding a perk? And that is an excellent question.
The answer is, instead of removing the phone indefinitely, making the amount of time it is withheld reasonable (no more than one week, for example) and tying the return of the phone to a specific date contingent on her doing her homework during the time the phone has been removed. It is also clear to her that if she does not continue to do her homework every day she will lose the phone again.
Or, Instead of withholding a phone, which can be a little tricky and create other problems like her not being able to contact you in an emergency, try for example, something like withholding the perk of going to a sleepover at a friend's house that Friday evening. Nothing she says or does can redeem the perk once it is taken away until that particular perk comes up again in the future. In other words, as long as she is doing her homework she will be allowed to go to the next sleepover but the one that was taken is lost forever.
3. Your teenage son is cruel to a younger sibling after he has been told to cut it out. Typically, a parent will yell or lecture the offending child but not much more is done.
Instead of yelling or lecturing, try withholding the perk of going shopping for those new Nikes he has been bugging you about until he can treat his sibling appropriately for a certain reasonable period of time.
In all cases your teen must understand the "rules" of FCSS, so even if he/she doesn’t like it, they are never surprised when a perk is taken away (see above for how to make sure they understand). The situations that lend themselves to withholding perks are endless.
The hardest parts are:
knowing how and when to withhold a perk... each situation is different
being as consistent as possible
being as realistic and fair as possible
being fearless in the face of your son/daughter's manipulations, anger, tears, guilt-peddling, and whining
You will be amazed at how little of this you get once FCSS is in place. I realize you may have questions about how this approach works in a specific situation with your teen or preteen so please feel free to email me through my website, www.marklittman.com. I will do my best to answer you in a timely manner.