Over the last few years, I’ve been having an ongoing ‘discussion’ with my teens about the limits of being able to do what they want.
I’ve noticed that a lot of parents seem to be ducking the whole issue of teaching teens how to figure out healthy compromises with other people by adopting two maxims, namely:
While I can understand that attraction of both these things in theory, in practice they really don’t work to create healthy, open relationships with teens. Let me try to give an example from my own real life, to see if I can show you why that is.
The last few years, both my teens have been driving me bonkers with their ‘staying out all night’ habits. I have a lot of fears, most of which are not rational, so when my kids stay out late, I get nervous about them.
I often can’t sleep until they come home, so when they decide to come home at 2, 3 or even 4 in the morning, that’s a real problem for me, and it fundamentally affects my life. When I don’t get enough sleep, my brain doesn’t function so well, I start to feel ‘out of it’, and if it continues on for too long, it also has a real impact on my physical health.
So if that’s happening every night, or even most nights, it quickly leads us all into a very sticky situation.
Is my need to have my teenage kids in the house by 11pm at night reasonable?
But not always.
Is their need to be out very light at night multiple times a week reasonable?
But not never.
So, over the past few years, me and my children have been steadily working our way up to a compromise situation, where I let them have two nights a week where they can be out later, and I do my best to minimize my psycho tendencies to keep texting them every half an hour to make sure they’re OK.
There’s been some fine-tuning required as we go along. For example, I stipulated in our discussions that the two days shouldn’t be back-to-back unless there are extenuating circumstances (like two ‘can’t miss this’ events back to back); and recently, I also had to add another stipulation that the two ‘late nights’ should be on the same days for both kids, so I don’t end up having to deal with 4 sleepless nights a week on my end of things.
We’ve had a lot of blow-ups and heated arguments leading up to this place of compromise. Initially, the problem was mostly on my side of the equation, as I wanted the kids home at 11pm every single night, regardless of what was going on, or how important it was for them to be there.
That’s an example of my house, my rules, but I quickly learnt that if I tried to apply that indiscriminately to my children, I’d end up doing terrible damage to our relationship, and I’d also just be living with an awful atmosphere at home, 24/7.
Then, one of the kids went through a very rebellious stage (as a reaction to a lot of very difficult things we were going through, as a family) – and started staying out until 4am davka.
In effect, she was living according to: ‘her house, her rules’, and it was very hard for everyone else to cope with it.
After a few months, and a lot of praying (and a lot of figuring out where I needed to apologise to my kid for contributing to the things that had made her so unhappy to be in the house), we were finally ready to get to the next stage, which was to work on our house, our rules.
Which is a very different beast, because instead of having one person acting like a domestic dictator, this version tries its best to listen to all point of views, and to come up with a compromise situation that is acceptable to all parties.
Part of doing that was to sit down, and tell the kid:
Kid, I get you need to go out. But, you need to get that when you go out, I don’t sleep, and if that happens too much, I get exhausted, and even ill. So, let’s sit down and figure out how we can arrange things so we both give way a little, and everyone is happy.
This is a tremendous skill for life.
And it’s one that the kids who grow up in an atmosphere of ‘my house, my rules’ just aren’t being taught.
So the pressure continues to build in the home, until the parents pack their children off to boarding school, or university, or the army, or for a trip around the world where the kid can ‘indulge’ all the things they wanted to do at home, but couldn’t.
And that’s a big part why so many people go completely off the deep end, in so many ways, when they finally leave the parental home.
Because there is no ‘limit’ to butt up against, and their evil inclination is pushing them to throw all caution to the wind, and to over-indulge in all those things they wanted to do at home, but couldn’t.
I’m not just talking about drinking alcohol, smoking, doing drugs, and other types of obvious ‘vices’. Clearly, lacking healthy boundaries, and being unable to police our own appetites and urges and crazy ideas to just not sleep for three days straight and only eat Haagen Daz for breakfast is not a healthy situation to be in, long term.
But the bigger problem is that these kids are being taught a very unhealthy paradigm of how to manage human relationships and disagreements which you can basically sum up as:
The winner takes all.
Whoever can impose their will on the other – whoever can make the biggest drama, the biggest threats, whoever is in a position of ‘power and authority’, that person can impose their will on the other person 100%.
And if you aren’t that person? Then you can expect to get totally crushed for as long as you are in that unhealthy relationship.
How can we resolve this problem?
Most of this attitude is being learnt in homes where ‘my house, my rules’ is strictly policed, with very little empathy for the kids’ point of view, or compassion for their different needs and wants.
The more a parent can ‘see’ and ‘hear’ where their kid is coming from, the more the lines of communication between parent and child will be kept open, and the greater the chances that a workable, healthy compromise will be found.
The paradigm shifts from my house, my rules, to OUR HOUSE, OUR RULES.
And that's so much better, for everyone involved.
Being able to have compassion and empathy for another person is the basis of good mental health. If we can really show our kids how that’s done – when we’re the ones in the position of ‘power and authority’ – that’s probably the biggest gift, and most useful life skill, we can give them.
And as an added bonus, our kids will hopefully still enjoy being in our homes (at least for visits!) and still enjoy our company well after they are 18 and independent.