Setting Limits with Teens and Preteens

By Dr Laura Markham

“This weekend, I asked my 13 year old son (who does not like to shower) to shower on Sunday morning. He whinged and finally committed (after I expressed my frustration) to do so before bed. Then in the evening, he claimed he did not recall making a commitment and would not shower the same evening, but would do so Monday am (which he ultimately did). Besides this going against basic hygiene needs, it broke what I consider a promise and his obstinacy and lack of respect for me really got me worked up. This looks to be a deep laziness and unwillingness to put effort in to doing anything he doesn’t care to do/ contribute to. I’m at my wits end and don’t feel inclined to engage with him anymore until he ‘comes to the party’.”

It’s frustrating — and even scary — when we make an agreement with our child and they don’t keep it.

It’s even more frustrating and scary when we realize the limits of our power as parents. At some point, all children become too big to force them to do things physically. Intimidation stops working.

But when our frustration gets the better of us and we resort to nagging, yelling, and giving them the cold shoulder by “not engaging,” we just drive them further away.

As that barrier grows between us, future cooperation becomes less likely. The young person begins to feel, “My parents never understand.” Managing the parent by lying becomes more likely.

So we have a choice. We can develop a chip on our shoulder because our young person is so unreasonable, irresponsible, lazy or whatever. Or we can realize that the only power we have to influence our child is connection, and work like the dickens to stay connected to our child even when we get frustrated. Lots of emotional work on our part, but ultimately a much better outcome.

And that leads to the next choice all parents have to make, especially as our children hit the teen years. We can assume we’re right about all of our beliefs. Or we can realize that maybe what we take for granted is just an assumption. Can we allow our young person NOT to agree with us, without assuming that expresses a lack of respect? If every assertion of self is a lack of respect for the parent, the teen will need to become more defiant, for his own mental health. Our unwillingness to examine our own assumptions leads to more drama.

Which brings us to another choice all parents have to make. We can go through their child and teen years taking everything personally, as in the very common response of “This is a lack of respect for me.” Or we can choose not to take it personally and to see the situation from their perspective. Which in this case might be:

  • Many boys in their early teens think bathing is a waste of time. They don’t start showering daily until they’re interested in girls and realize that grooming plays a role in their attractiveness.
  • Young people, like all people, like to be in charge of themselves. They automatically rebel against control that they consider unreasonable.
  • Our bodies are our most basic “selves”, so even before kids assert control in other ways, they will challenge (directly or indirectly) challenges to their body sovereignty.
  • When we “express our frustration” until our child commits to do something, they usually see their agreement as a promise made under duress — not something they really committed to, but simply a way to get us to leave them alone.
  • When we “express our frustration” in a self-righteous way, our child learns that this is how grown-ups work out difficulties — with raised voices instead of with calm appreciation for two different opinions.
  • The young person’s insistence on choosing what to do with his time and how to manage his body has nothing to do with laziness, or with his willingness to contribute to the family or greater good.
  • The prefrontal cortex is still under construction until humans are in their mid-twenties. That means that it is entirely possible for a young person to “forget” to include showering in their evening plans despite a promise to do so, especially if they never saw it as necessary.
  • “Hey, I showered eventually! I don’t have to do it on your schedule!”

So this is a depressing impasse, right? Hygiene is a perfect example of the conflict between the parent’s assumption about what the child “should” do and the child’s lack of interest in the task. Is there no way to influence our young person to do things we consider necessary, without provoking rebellion?

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