Keeping Your Daughter Off the Fast Track
*Donna Gibson of Jacksonville, Fla., is at her wit's end with her 12-year-old daughter, Jenna. Jenna was hanging out with a group of kids that Gibson knew had a bad reputation, so she forbade her from seeing them any longer. Gibson thought that had solved the problem, until one evening when she heard a thump and went to investigate.
"The minute I opened Jenna's door, I could tell that the lumps in her bed weren't her," says Gibson. "She had tucked her laundry under her covers and snuck out the window. I didn't know what to do, who to call or how long it had been going on. My first instinct was to call the police, but my husband convinced me to just wait. We turned her lights back off and sat in her room. Very quietly, about two hours later, she snuck back in the window. To say she was startled to see us was an understatement."
Although Gibson was upset and worried, she wasn't entirely surprised to find Jenna gone or to find that the problem they'd had with Jenna's unsavory friends had reached the next level. Jenna had been strong-willed and difficult to discipline since she was a very young child. Gibson's other two children, a boy, 17, and a girl, 14, are really no problem at all, beyond some typical, easily resolved conflicts as they've grown.
According to psychologist Scott Sells, Ph.D., the author of several books on raising troubled adolescents and teens and founder of the Troubled Teen Information Center, children don't usually just turn wild overnight.
"A lot of the problems we see with teens actually start well before the teen years, and parents are rarely taken by surprise by their children's behavior," says Sells. "The child who is throwing uncontrollable temper tantrums at age 6 could very well be the child experimenting with drugs or sexual activities at age 12. In the majority of cases, you can see problems coming. There are exceptions, such as having a child's behavior change negatively due to some sort of trauma, but that's not quite as common."
Part of the problem is our culture of parents being busy and overwhelmed, says Sells. He also names the media for modeling behavior that's inappropriate for preteenagers. Instead of just enjoying being kids, they want to be like the latest pop star or live their lives like the star of the evening teen soap. It seems very glamorous, and the media makes it seem normal and desirable. Sometimes the parents simply aren't able to counteract that negative cultural representation.
Gibson says she's been fighting with Jenna over how she dresses and the types of shows she wants to watch since she was at least 10. Complicating matters was the fact that, although Gibson may have wanted Jenna to dress more modestly, often the stores in their mall gave them very few choices that weren't provocative. Even when Jenna left for school in something as innocent as a T-shirt, she might come home with it rolled up almost to the bottom of her bra.
"I finally backed off on the clothes issue, simply because I kept reading books and articles that said not to make a big deal out of your child's appearance and to save the fights for the big things," says Gibson. "But everything seems like it's a big thing. She simply doesn't recognize the word no. If we ground her or punish her in some other way, she just laughs and says she doesn't care if she's grounded or doesn't have any money or TV or whatever. What makes me so sad is that she really doesn't [care]. If we take everything, she'll just sit around and stare at the ceiling."
When Jenna entered middle school, clothes quickly became the least of Gibson's worries. Jenna dropped the "nice" friends that she'd played with since her toddler play group days and started hanging out with a group of kids with a bad reputation. Gibson fears that she's tried, or would be willing to try, drugs or alcohol, and that she might start experimenting sexually.
Based on her experience with her older children, Gibson thinks there is something emotionally wrong with Jenna that is worsening as she enters adolescence. The family has an appointment with a counselor in order to salvage their relationship. Sells says teens with particularly bad behavioral problems may have conditions that call for professional help, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). In these cases, counseling is a remedy for parents to seek as soon as possible.
Often, defiance, disrespect and rule-breaking are behaviors that are normal processes of puberty, but if left unchecked they can turn into bigger problems. The way to deal with those cases is by taking a stance as early as possible and sticking to it. "It may be tough to start having behavioral problems with your preteen, but it's actually great when you catch it that early because it's not as hard to get things back on track," says Sells. "If you let things go until they're teenagers, it becomes much more difficult to deal with."
What Sells does with parents who come to him for counseling is to have them go over a blueprint of what a behavioral contract should be and build a contract with their child that clearly spells out objectionable behavior. For example, vague statements, such as "Stop being so disrespectful," need to be changed to very specific instances of disrespect so that the child has no doubt about what is meant by the word. The contract should also have built-in rewards and punishments.
Sells notes that most parents react negatively to the idea of rewarding kids for doing what is expected of them, but he also points out that a kid's work is being a kid, and that most adults won't work for free. Even more important, he encourages the parents to get the kids involved in creating rewards and consequences.
"Most parents think that their child won't give themselves any real consequences, but I find that the opposite is true. Kids will often offer up the one thing that will really motivate them," says Sells. "It just shows me how much kids do want limits and that they appreciate when parents set limits and stick with them."
Another step that Sells feels is important is to role play the conversation you're going to have with your child before you have it. This helps keep you on track and helps to keep the discussion from bogging down into a confrontation. He says it's not what you say, but how you say it that counts. In his practice, he actually helps parents with this by pretending to be the child who pushes the parents' buttons in order to help the parent figure out how not to go over the edge.
"Setting limits for your kids in a concrete way isn't a new idea necessarily, but many therapists just tell the parents to do it and then send them off to the slaughter," says Sells. "I've found that role playing with the parents first has a much higher rate of success."
*Name has been changed.