I think it’s important for parents of acting-out and out-of-control 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 husband or father do you think he’s 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 child’s life is petty criminal behavior (starting with stealing from you), using drugs and alcohol, 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 child is developing unhealthy behaviors that may stay with him his entire life.
I do service work at a prison and I talk to the guys there each week. You know what they were doing as teenagers? They were stealing from their parents, staying out all night, getting high and drinking. If anybody gave them a hard time at home, they acted out. They intimidated everybody in their family and at school so everybody left them alone. On visiting day in prison, you can see all the parents going in to visit their kids—but now they’re in their twenties and thirties. That is the harsh reality of ignoring or not dealing with a child’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?”
Picture a frog who goes out to a rock in the middle of a pond every day. He sits on the rock and a fly comes by, so he eats it. Now he’s full and he goes back into the reeds. That frog will do that until the day he dies, because it works. He’s happy, he’s done. I think we’re all kind of like that frog. People don’t change if something is working for them and they’re getting away with it—especially adolescents.
How to Hold Your Child Accountable: 8 Practical Steps for Change
1. Stop Blaming Yourself for Your Child’s Behavior:
I very directly tell parents who blame themselves to cut it out. Remember, it’s not whose fault it is—it’s who’s willing to take responsibility. So if you’re looking for answers in Empowering Parents, and otherwise trying to improve your parenting skills, then you’re taking responsibility. Maybe you messed up in the past, but let’s start here, today, with what you are willing to do for your child now.
The next step is to try to get your child in a position where he becomes willing to take responsibility for his behavior.
I always tell parents that they don’t have to attend every fight they’re invited to. Don’t let children 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 child a verbal reprimand right there on the spot, and then leave.
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, rinse them off first.” That’s called a “pull-up,” because you’re actually just giving your child 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 night, 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, criticism—all cut off communication. And I think 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.
If you get angry when your child stomps off to his room or doesn’t want to spend time with you, you’re personalizing his behavior. That gives him 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 child’s behavior as a personal attack upon you or your values, you’re overreacting. Your child is in adolescence; it’s his problem and it’s not an attack on you, it’s where he is in his developmental cycle. Your teen is not striking out at you—believe me, teenagers will strike out at anybody who’s there. Put a cardboard cut-out of yourself in the kitchen, and most teenagers will yell at that. I’m joking, but my point is that there is so much going on in your adolescent’s head—he’s also so self-involved at this stage in his life—that he doesn’t see things clearly. Adolescence distorts perception.
So if your teenage daughter comes home late, don’t take that personally. If she told you she wasn’t going to do something and then she 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 child know she’ll be held accountable.
The only time I think you should take something personally is when a child 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, 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 children accountable for that behavior if they break the rules.
If you tell your child the rules and then you break them, how do you think your adolescent will react? Do you think he’ll 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 children.
Believe me, I understand that it’s easy to overreact to normal 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 child 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 child need to learn so he doesn’t 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 child 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 child went to the mall without your permission. You hold him accountable and give him consequences for that breach of family rules. Then you should say, “What can you do differently the next time the other kids say, ‘Let’s go to the mall’ and you want to be cool and not ask me if it’s okay?” Then help your child look at the range of options. They could say, “No thanks.” Or they could say, “I have to call my mother, she’s a pain in the neck, but I have to check in.” I actually used to tell kids to say this. It’s a great way for teens to follow the rules without looking weak or childish. When they say, “My mom is a pain,” all the other kids nod and shake their heads, because their parents are pains in the neck, too. Sometimes kids just don’t know what to say in a sticky situation. Part of solving that problem with them is coming up with some good responses and even role playing a little, until it feels comfortable coming out of your child’s mouth.
8. Physical Abuse, Substance Abuse and Stealing:
I believe if your child is stealing, being physically abusive or destructive of property or using substances, you have to hold him accountable, even if it means involving the police. The bottom line is that if your child 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 child 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 child has to learn how to respond to 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 think that all children, but especially adolescents, 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 child is a normal adolescent or he’s 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. And I’m going to tell you something: kids who are getting high, stealing, shoplifting and acting out are making very bad choices that may affect them for the rest of their lives.
Accountability creates 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 held accountable.