Communication 101: Proactive parenting

Better to have fewer rules and stick to them.

Teenagers feel very alone at times and desperately need to connect with their parents.
(photo credit:BATSHEVA LITOVSKI)

Now that you have some tools for healthy communication with your teens/young adults, it is time to co-create a home environment that anticipates and prepares for crises.

One of the biggest mistakes parents make is not paying sufficient attention to kids when everything is chugging along just fine. We all know that sooner or later something will go awry. It is better to be prepared to deal calmly with situations that arise rather than succumb to the ebb and flow of crisis management. Naturally, it is the parents’ job to set some ground rules so that kids know what is expected of them.

We would be remiss not to mention the groundbreaking work of Alfred Adler, an Austrian-Jewish medical doctor and a peer of Freud and Jung. He was the first psychiatrist in the modern era to do family therapy. His philosophy has inspired contemporary parenting courses and support groups around the world.

Adler’s emphasis was on developing a more collaborative model of parentchild relations, one that also stresses the importance of structure and boundaries. He noted that many parents tend to be too permissive, too autocratic or both simultaneously. They flip back and forth from one extreme to the other.

Active parenting is described as an “authoritative approach” that emphasizes family meetings and problem solving, the importance of encouragement and the significance of the “logical consequences of behavior.”

This concept is especially important because it offers kids the opportunity to make real choices based on the consequences of their actions.

Adler and his followers emphasize the important principle of privileges vs responsibilities, instead of the more arcane notion of punishment – such as blanket “grounding” whenever a child does something inappropriate. There needs to be a direct correlation between the infraction and the assigned consequence. If there is a curfew infraction, the consequence is about curfew. If it is about overuse of phone or computer, the consequence should be related to time limitations on media use. This method also deflects parental outbursts because parents will feel comfortable (entitled) in their responses rather than angry. No surprises here.

This brings us to the most important rule in active parenting: Consistency. Once you make a rule, you should be very careful about changing it. It will save you a lot of breath and unnecessary energy. Better to have fewer rules and stick to them.

A second principle of active parenting involves the word “no.” Contrary to popular belief, this is not a curse word. It is actually a hessed (kindness). Giving our kids too much freedom is like giving them a car without brakes. It can often be scary for them. They need structure, and hearing “No” from us can actually be a relief.

On the other hand, it is totally normal for teens to push the envelope. This is exactly why they need our help to define what is appropriate. By giving our kids boundaries and rules with consequences, we are empowering them to make better choices. And the earlier we start, the better. Tweens that are practiced in making choices will probably cause less family chaos in their teens and young adulthood. Pay it forward!

In addition to assisting our kids in making better choices through appropriate consequences, positive reinforcement is crucial to self-esteem and confidence building, as well as a great motivator. It is just as important to stroke as it is to scold, sometimes even more so. It’s easy to notice when our kids mess up, but a big part of our job is also to notice when they don’t. Catch your kids doing good!

One way to do this is with a star chart. This may seem childish, but it is amazing how well it can work, even with sophisticated teens. We don’t even have to say anything. Just put it on the refrigerator. “Wow, Mom noticed that I did the dishes and cleaned my room.” It’s our responsibility to present them with opportunities to do good and to applaud them when they do.

Another rule of thumb: For every criticism, give two compliments. It might be a stretch at times and take some creative thinking, but finding something positive to say will make them feel like winners. And aside from its importance for your children, you will be surprised to see how much better you feel about your kids when you are forced to focus on what they are doing right.

Finally, one extremely effective tool for establishing good parent-child relations is a family or household contract. Such a contract should be based on natural and logical consequences à la Adler. Moreover, the most effective home contracts are written in collaboration. If kids are invested in the process, they are more apt to stick to the contract. You would be surprised how often they come up with stricter consequences for infractions than their parents.

Remember, you are not alone. Chances are other parents are going through the same thing and will be relieved to hear that they are not the only ones having a tough time. Look for a support group, speak to other parents and consult your kids’ school guidance counselor.

Whatever you do, don’t suffer in silence. Educate yourself. Find a parenting class. Look on line for articles and books. For a really excellent blog on home contracts, see Keeping Your Teenager Accountable: The Home Behavior Contract.

Tracey Shipley CAAP, is a teen counselor and addiction specialist. She can be reached at 054-810-8918, jerusalemteencounseling@gmail.com; http://jerusalemteenteencounseling.net.

Judith Posner, PhD, is a social scientist, writer and researcher.