What am I, Chopped Liver?

Have you noticed your son shutting you out of his life? Does he prefer to spend hours alone in his room, rather than come down to the family room to watch movies with the rest of you? Has the home just become a launching pad? He breezes in, eats something, changes clothes, grabs a skateboard, and he’s right back out again? Has it been several days since you can even remember having a conversation with your teenager?

The little girl you used to take to the mall to buy new earrings now only growls at you when she passes you, and that’s if she bothers to take the time to look at you at all. She spends hours on the phone, talking with dozens of friends, but when you ask her what’s going on, she looks at you like you’re crazy and barks, “Nothing!” The sweet little angel who used to share her every thought now keeps everything from you, but shares her thoughts online with 253 of her “closest friends” on MySpace.

However, when your teen needs something, here they come, sweet as pie, trying to get $20 or your car keys or permission to be out later than curfew. Oh no! They don’t get to be rotten to you all week long, then butter you up for a few minutes and get what they want. We become even more furious than we were when they were ignoring us. Ignoring us is one thing, but to ask us for something after ignoring us is almost too much to bear.

And yet, it happens. Time and time and time again. It’s an extremely frustrating cycle. The weird thing is, that’s it’s not only frustrating to the parent, it’s also frustrating to the teen. Frustrating to the teen? How can that be?

Well, you see, the teen has become so independent that they really don’t need you anymore. Not much, at least. They go happily along, living their lives, talking to friends, going here, going there, accepting invitations, making promises to bring things to other people’s houses, telling people they’ll meet them at a certain place at a certain time… and then… BOOM! It occurs to them – they don’t drive, or own a car, or have $20 or 3 black magic markers and some posterboard or whatever it is.

Reality comes crashing down on their exciting, independent life. How embarrassing! They are suddenly face-to-face with the oppressive reality that they do actually still need their parents in some limited capacity. Now what? Now they know they’ve got to get your help. Well, how are they going to do that? They have some comprehension of the fact that they’ve treated you badly all week. Believe it or not, it’s at this moment that they realize some of the mistakes they’ve made.

They need to think quickly. How can they redeem themselves in time to make it to the mall? Be nice! Yeah, that’s it. That’s what you have been yelling at them to do all week long. Well, they just now get it. They have to be nice and they have to do it fast, so they get very sickeningly sweet to try to win you over for the request they’re about to make.

This is actually good news. It means they have some understanding of how you want them to behave and some understanding that they have to behave that way to get things they want from you. They just haven’t yet put it together that you want that behavior on a much more regular basis, not just when they want something.

At the moment, commend them for their behavior. Tell them you really appreciate when they’re nice to you. Thank them for listening to what you’ve been telling them all week. Tell them you love them. They’re really listening closely to you now, because you still haven’t turned down their request. Praise them for their wonderful mood, hug them, tell them how awesome they are. Reinforce that good behavior for the 2-3 minutes that you’ve got it. That helps them remember that you really want them to behave that way.

Then, seriously consider their request. If it is a request you can honor, then go ahead and honor it. If their previous behavior has been so bad that you cannot honor their request, this is not the best time to tell them that. They should already be aware that their privileges are limited. They should not get kicked in the teeth during the very moment when they’re actually doing what you want them to do. That will discourage that behavior in the future. If you have already limited their privileges because of their behavior, gently remind them that their privileges are limited, but let them know that if they keep up the good behavior, you’ll reconsider.

You can suggest that if they hold their good mood or good attitude for another 20 minutes, you’ll take them to the mall then. This will give them practice treating you well, and will also show that it takes more than a minute or two of being nice to overcome a week or so of being unpleasant.

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