I was hanging in my kitchen having fun (or doing dishes) on an ordinary Sunday night. My 16-year-old daughter walked past me as if she was on her way out.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I’m going to the movies,” she said, with a little bit of attitude.
“It’s 10 p.m. You can’t go.” I said, with the utmost confidence that the discussion was going to end here.
“I’m going,” she boldly stated, a bit uncharacteristically.
“First of all, the question is, ‘Can I go?’ Second of all, there is a city curfew.” I said thinking that was the end of the discussion, or so I thought.
“I don’t care. I’m going,” as she grabbed the keys and headed for the door.
Shocked and furious, my blood pressure was rising and my heart was pounding. I chased after her and started with the least effective response—a threat.
“If you leave, you won’t drive again for a very long time.”
She dug her heels in. I dug my heels in. And I watched as her legs continued to move toward the door. Many thoughts were racing through my head, some sane, some crazy. Before I could control the impulse, I wrestled her to the ground for the keys. I often get a laugh with that line, and then I clarify that I actually wrestled her to the ground.
I was beyond furious; I did not know how to handle this overt defiance. My children had always shown what seemed like a typical amount of disagreement and conflict, but I hadn’t yet experienced this bold, in my face, rebellion. Everyone had always either followed the rules, or broken them surreptitiously.
I felt unhinged and needed help, so I called my wise and practical parenting coach Amy to set up an emergency appointment for my daughter. After listening to my rant about my insolent, irreverent kid, she said,
“Let’s talk about how you will handle this when it happens again.”
AGAIN? AGAIN? This is going to happen again?
She told me that my daughter ‘s behavior was developmentally appropriate—she was supposed to individuate and test the boundaries. Amy also said it was great my daughter would be able to stand up for herself in a relationship that wasn’t working.
That last comment really made me feel awful. I hadn’t considered any positive aspect to her audacity. Yet outside of our relationship, I would never want to diminish my daughter’s assertiveness.
Amy said it was my job was to learn a new response that offered my daughter options and consequences—an alternative to the empty threat that she would never, ever drive again.
Option #1—Ask your mother
I am in charge of keeping you safe. The curfew is also there to keep you safe. If you leave the house now, I will not be able to do my job and will need to find someone who can step in to make sure you are safe. If you leave, I will enlist the assistance of the police to help keep you safe.
Option #2—Restrict privileges
You can take the car without my permission. Then tomorrow we can talk about restricted driving privileges, or you can go over to a friend’s house and agree to come home by curfew.
I knew I would never adopt option one, so I considered how I would actually say the words in option two.
The next day, my sullen daughter said (with that “I hate you” tone) she needed the car to borrow a book for school. With measured breathing and trying to channel Amy, I said there were three choices.
- She could take the car to get the assignment, return directly home and hand me the keys.
- She could walk to get the assignment.
- She could ask the friend to drop it off.
She chose the first. She grabbed the keys from me, took the car, returned, threw the keys on my desk, and stormed off while mumbling some obscenity under her breath.
Amy had warned me this might happen. When kids cooperate with our invitation to make a choice, they will feel powerless and grasp at regaining some hint of power, saving some measure of dignity. Amy’s example was walking away and swearing under their breath. I was prepared for the swearing and was able to ignore her disrespectful response. I did see the benefit of ignoring the muttering; rather than enflame the rage, I had successfully deflated it, but it wasn’t easy for me.
Honestly, I did resent that the onus was on me. I wanted permission to rant and lose control and punish. But in the midst of testing restraint, I had a sudden flashback of myself as a teenager. I remembered my rage and hatred when my father rendered me powerless. And then it all came flooding back:
“While you are in my house, you will do as I say.” “The room where you sleep is in MY house so that room is mine too.”
I remembered feeling trapped and powerless. And suddenly I softened. I vowed never to be that kind of a parent, but I had behaved that way nonetheless.
Fortunately, a gifted professional suggested that I try a different script, and it really worked. I am forever grateful for how she helped my relationship with my daughter.
For my fellow moms out there traveling the rocky journey known as the teenage years, how do you handle rebellious situations with your teen?