I think it’s important for parents of acting-out teens to ask themselves this question: If your teenager is abusing you verbally, calling you disgusting names and punching holes in the walls, what kind of spouse or parent do you think they are going to make? Unless something dramatic happens, people stay on the course of the lives they set in motion in childhood and adolescence. And if the course of your teen’s life is petty criminal behavior (starting with stealing from you), using drugs and alcohol, breaking personal property and intimidating everybody at home, know that this is not going to change on its own. Make no mistake, this is not a phase—rather, it’s a sign that your teen is developing unhealthy behaviors that may stay with them their entire life.
You should always try to have a conversation that solves problems, not a conversation that lays blame—because blame is useless.
I do service work at a prison and in talking to the men they often share their the stories of their teenage years. You know what they have shared with me about their behavior as teenagers? They admit that they were often abusive, both verbally and physically, stole from their parents, skipped school or stayed out all night, getting high and drinking. If anybody gave them a hard time at home, they acted out. They and pushed away their family, concerned friends and any teacher or school administrator so everybody would leave them alone. That is the harsh reality of ignoring or not dealing with a teen’s out-of-control behavior. So as a parent, I think you always have to ask yourself, “Where is this behavior headed? Where does this go?”
Some Tips on How to Hold Your Teen Accountable
1. Stop Blaming Yourself for Your Teen’s Behavior: Remember, it’s not whose fault it is—it’s who's willing to take responsibility. So if you're looking for answers and are trying to improve your parenting skills, then you're taking responsibility. Maybe you feel that you made mistakes in the past, but let's start here, today, with what you are willing to do for your teen now. The next step is to try to get your teen in a position where they become willing to take responsibility for their behavior.
2. Avoid Confrontations: I suggest to parents that they should not engage with their teen when they are angry. Don’t let your teen suck you into an argument when they slam their bedroom door loudly or roll their eyes at you. I think the best thing to do is say, “Hey, don't slam the door,” and then leave the room. Give your teen a verbal reprimand right there on the spot, and then leave.
3. Use “Pull-ups”: I think it’s also a good idea to be very specific with instructions in order to avoid a fight later. You can say, “Hey listen, when you put the dishes in the dishwasher, can you do me a favor and rinse them off first.” That’s called a “pull-up,” because you're actually just giving your teen a boost. It's like taking them by the hand and helping them get on their feet. You may need to do ten pull-ups a day, but that's okay. There are no hard feelings there. You don't hold a grudge, you don't cut him off when he’s talking, you're not saying, “I told you so; I warned you about this.” These responses—blaming, speeches, and criticism—all cut off communication. If you can have a relationship with your adolescent where you're still communicating 60 or 70 percent of the time, you’re doing pretty well.
4. Don’t Personalize It: If you get angry when your teen stomps off to their room or doesn’t want to spend time with you, you're personalizing their behavior. That gives them power over you. I understand that this is easy for parents to do, especially if your teen used to enjoy spending time with you and was fairly compliant when he or she was younger. But I think if you take your teen’s behavior as a personal attack upon you or your values, you maybe overreacting.
So if your teenager comes home late, don't take that personally. If they told you they were not going to do something and then they did it, don't personalize that. It’s not, “You let me down.” It’s, “You broke the rules and here are the consequences.” Just reinforce what the rules are and let your teen know they will be held accountable. The only time I think you should take something personally is when a teen is being verbally or physically abusive. If your teenager calls you foul names and is destructive to others or to property, you need to respond very strongly.
5. Run Your Home Based on Your Belief System: I believe parents should run their homes based on their own belief system, not on how other people operate, or how it appears families on television do things. It doesn’t matter if “Everybody’s doing it.” You need to tell your teen, “Well, I'm not ‘Everybody’s’ parent, I’m yours. And in our family, this is not allowed.” So if you believe it's not right for 16-year-olds to drink beer or smoke pot, then that's what you believe—and you need to run your home accordingly. If you believe that lying and stealing are wrong, then make that a rule in your house and hold your teen accountable for that behavior if they break the rules.
6. Develop and Implement a Behavior Contract: I don’t believe contracts are magic wands. But I do believe that if everybody understands what the game is and what the rules are, the chances of your child following those rules increase. In my experience working with teens, I’ve also found that if something is written down on paper, it becomes more real to them.
Behavioral Contracts are an important tool to use when your teen continues to act out and disregards house rules and is disrespectful. So sit down and draw up a contract with your teen that clearly defines what they have to do in certain key areas. Keep the contract simple, no more than 4 to 5 rules or “requests.” For each rule there should be 2-3 consequences attached to each rule. The consequences should increase in severity every time the rule is broken. Start out with a consequence that is significant but fair. It could also state that if they comply with the contract, they will be rewarded—and it should specifically outline what those rewards will be.
I will often, knowing in advance what the rules or requests that the parents would like to implement, offer to sit down with the teen and ask them to design the contract, especially the consequences. You would be surprised how often they agree to this idea and feel empowered to be part of the process that will help contain their behavior. The “buy in” is that they are now a part of the process rather then having the contact dictated to them, they feel more accountable to the contract for it is now their contract.
If you and your teen sign the contract together, it tends to place a greater importance on the contract. If your teen refuses to sign the contract do not force them, simply post the contract in plain view, such as on the refrigerator door. When a conflict arises due to one of the rules of the contract is broken simply refer to the contract.
Allow the contract to bear the brunt of your teen’s anger and frustration. Remember you must be consistent with the consequences and both parents must be united in supporting and following through with the terms of the contract. Two parents who can't get on the same page about how to hold their kids accountable can easily create that vacuum in power, which their acting-out child will only be too happy to fill. If one parent is seen not enforcing the contract or undermining the other parent that will send the wrong message to the teen and it sets up the other parent to be abused and seen as the “Bad Guy.”
Expect Some Pushback
You should expect your teen to react strongly to the new structure you impose as soon as you establish it especially if they had no say in the contract. Adolescents do not give up power easily. Your family may even go through some chaos for a time as your child fights against you. Their behavior will often get worse before it gets better. This can prove too much for the parents to endure and they will often give up before the contract has had a chance to work. However, you have to make that value judgment. Ask yourself, “Is it worth continuing to live like this, or is it worth going through some chaos for awhile to correct the situation?” Remember their behavior unless corrected will be with them for many years to come.
7. Be a Role Model: If you tell your teen the rules and then you break them, how do you think your adolescent will react? Do you think they will respect what you’ve said, or do you think the message will be, “Dad says that I shouldn’t lie, but he does sometimes, so it’s okay.” It’s imperative to be a good role model and abide by the rules you make yourself—or risk having them be broken over and over again by your teen.
8. Try Not to Overreact: Believe me, I understand that it's easy to overreact to teenage behavior. They can be really annoying, and they are often unaware—and don’t care about—other people’s feelings very much. But I think some objectivity on the part of parents is vital. So if your teen makes a mistake, like coming in past curfew, you don't want to overreact to it. Don't forget, the idea is not to punish—it’s to teach, through responsibility, accountability and giving appropriate consequences.
I think you should always ask yourself, “What does my teen need to learn so they do not make that same mistake next time? What can I do about that?” When a teen fails a test, the question should be, “So what are you going to do differently so you don't fail the next test?” You may hold your teen accountable, there may be a consequence, but you should always try to have a conversation that solves problems, not a conversation that lays blame—because blame is useless.
So let’s say your teen came home past their curfew and was high and or intoxicated. What do you do? Hopefully you will choose not to engage at this time but rather discuss the issue the following day, when you both are in a better state of mind. The following day you hold them accountable and enforce the consequences for that breach of the contract. Then you might ask, “What can you do differently the next time?” Then help your teen look at the range of options. If they become enraged simply refer to the contract and walk away. Never engage with an angry teen.
9. Physical Abuse, Substance Abuse and Stealing: I believe if your teen is stealing, being physically abusive or destructive of property or using alcohol or other drugs, you have to hold them accountable, even if it means involving the police. The bottom line is that if your teen is breaking the law or stealing from you, you need to get more help. I know parents who say, “I can't do that to my son,” and I respect that—it’s a very difficult thing to do. But in my opinion, you're doing your teen a favor by telling him that what he’s doing is unacceptable. He is not responding to parental authority or to the school’s authority, so you have to go to a higher level. Your teen has to learn how to respond to and respect authority if he's going to go anywhere in life. You may worry about your teen getting a record—but if he's under 18, I think you should worry more about him not changing his behavior. I have worked with many parents who in hindsight stated that they wished they allowed their teen to experience the legal consequences as a minor instead of as an adult.
I think that all teens have to be held accountable for their behavior. Ideally, we teach them how to behave. We model it ourselves and then we hold them accountable through giving consequences and helping them learn problem-solving skills.
Whether your teen is a well behaved or an out-of-control teenager, you need to hold him accountable. That means you tell him he’s responsible for his behavior; he’s making choices. Teens who are getting high, stealing, shoplifting and acting out are making very bad choices that may affect them for the rest of their lives.
These are had choices for parents but accountability does create change. It doesn't guarantee a complete inner change right away, but it sure forces behavioral change. And here’s the truth: nobody ever changed who wasn't.
Thom Kessler, LMFT, RAS
Marriage & Family Therapist and Registered Addiction Specialist