Flexibility Pays Off in Parenting

Increase Your Flexibility as a Parent

How much flexibility do you show when dealing with your teens? Do you find yourself saying things like, “Why? Because I said so” or “Rules are rules and while you’re under my roof you’ll follow mine.” Young people who hear these messages from parents may closely follow rules when they’re young, but are likely to rebel during adolescence.

During adolescence, young people must expand their limits and try out new responsibilities if they are ultimately going to function when they are no longer under our watchful eyes. Young people who sense their parents are inflexible worry they’ll not be able to expand their boundaries. So, they sometimes choose not to talk about what they’re doing and test the waters on their own. Their parents care about monitoring them closely and try to do so by setting firm rules, but in fact, they may lose authority because of their inflexibility.

Show Authority and Balance

Parents must have authority. It is their authority that positions them to shape their children. Decades of research and real-life experience shows that the parents who hold the most authority are those who practice a balanced approach — otherwise known as authoritative parenting, get it? These parents express warmth and their children know they are cared for and about. They also set clear rules and monitor their children so they are ready to exist in a complicated world. Their teens understand that the boundaries set are not about control, but are there because their parents love them and are committed to keeping them safe while raising them to be fine people.

Balanced parents, or what we like to call Lighthouse Parents, have the easiest time monitoring rules, because their teens are more likely to tell them what is going on in their lives. The secret to successful monitoring is getting them to choose to talk to us. Asking a lot of questions doesn’t get them talking. Demanding obedience doesn’t get them talking. They talk when they think they will benefit from the conversation. (This is true of adults too!)

Ideally, we have two-way communication with our teens. There’s give and take. They know our goal is to give them increasing freedoms when they take responsibility.

Be Responsive

Responsiveness is a fancy way of saying flexibility. It means that you don’t just set a rule and walk away. Instead, pay attention and respond to the unique and changing needs of your child. Understand that it is your teens job to test limits and expand their boundaries as they learn to stand solidly and confidently on their own. But flexibility does not apply when issues involve safety.

Don’t be Afraid of a Fight

Many parents dread arguments, but heated discussions can help us more effectively monitor children. As long as they are fighting with us, they are telling us something. We remain engaged in their lives. In sharp contrast, some teens go silent and parents miss out on what is going on in their lives.

If you are fortunate enough to have a fighter, consider bending the rules. Expand the boundaries. But only if your teen made a good case and has demonstrated responsibility. Your silent teen too, may open up if he or she notices that you are flexible enough to reward responsible behavior.

Nancy Darling, a renowned psychologist, points out “verbal wrestling” can be productive and lead to increased agreement over time. Young people learn reasonable negotiation, open communication, and that their thoughtful actions pay off.

Imagine your 16-year-old daughter gets asked to a concert. She communicates clearly why she should be allowed to go. “I’ll be home after curfew, but you’ll know where I am. I’ll finish my homework before I go. I’ll catch up on my sleep this weekend and I promise to do my chores tomorrow.” If your response is, “Curfew is 11:00, rules are rules,” don’t be shocked if when the next opportunity arises, she lies about what she’s going to actually be doing.

We may unintentionally encourage our teens to lie to us if they find there is no give when they talk to us. When we are flexible and let them earn a win, they are more likely to share their lives with us.

Don’t Worry about Being Unfair

If you have more than one child don’t be surprised if when you’re flexible with one, you’ll hear “You’re not fair!!” from the another. If you haven’t been told you’re unfair, you’re probably not doing your job. Flexibility means looking at each individual child’s needs. And no two people are alike.

So, here’s your answer: “It may not seem fair to you that I am letting your brother do _____________ tonight. But he’s shown he’s ready to handle this privilege because he ____________.  You’ll get there too. There will be times when I let you do something and he says I’m being unfair. You’re two different people and I love you both.”

Communication is a Two-Way Street

Ideally, we have two-way communication with our teens. There’s give and take. They know our goal is to give them increasing freedoms when they take responsibility. Flexibility is all about that give and take.

About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional, and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit www.fosteringresilience.com.

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