A friend of mine, we’ll call her Mary, is a single parent, a business owner, and the mother of an angry teenage daughter. Naturally, she needs a place to vent, so we talk a lot about her situation. Lately the daughter, we’ll call her Jane, has decided she’s not that interested in school. She stays up late, says she feels sick, and if she does make it in to school, sleeps through most of her classes. They are engaged in a classic power struggle, and their relationship has deteriorated precipitously.
On a recent weekday evening, Jane and Mary were in the living room sort of watching TV, and Jane was on her cell phone with her boyfriend. The boyfriend is problematic; he has dropped out of high school, is living at home, and his mother has pretty much thrown up her hands in terms of trying to impose any structure on his life. He has become Jane’s support network when she is fighting with Mom, so naturally Mary sees him as the enemy.
So Jane and the boyfriend got into an argument, which escalated to the point of Jane using some heated language and eventually telling him to do something that sounded like, “Go tuck yourself!” Mary, appalled by the outburst, chastised her daughter for using profanity and yelled at her for being so disrespectful as to use that sort of language in her presence. They ended up in a huge argument that sent Jane storming into her room and slamming doors.
The next day, unbeknownst to Jane, Mary called the cell phone company and had Jane’s service cut off. You can imagine the uproar when Jane found out her pipeline to the boyfriend and the rest of the outside world was disconnected! She borrowed a phone, called her boyfriend, and left school to go to his house for the weekend.
Unfortunately, this is a classic case of winning a battle but losing the war.
Mary has become so caught up in the need to hold her ground and show her daughter who’s boss that she has forgotten her biggest leverage point when it comes to influencing her daughter’s decisions — their relationship. I’m sure you are way ahead of me here, but sometimes we don’t see the forest through the trees when we’re caught up in a heated argument — if Mom doesn’t like the boyfriend, and Daughter is obviously fighting with the boyfriend, is this the time to be concerned about Daughter’s potty mouth? I don’t think so. This was an opportunity for Mary to validate Jane’s feelings and work on getting her to open up, i.e., “Wow, sweetie, sounds like you’re really mad at Boyfriend. What has he done to make you so angry?”
We have to look for those golden moments when we can once again prove our love and our worth to our stubborn, angry teens. They may not come along too often. And while Mary may have “won” the battle over cursing on the phone, she’s no closer to a truce in the war that’s been going on all too long. Besides, secretive discipline measures enforced after the fact are not effective in changing behavior. They are effective in giving our teens more ammunition for the next battle, which is more than likely right around the corner.