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For Parents Only: Rebel with a Cause - Part 2

  • Shaunti Feldhahn & Lisa A. Rice Authors
  • 2007 20 Sep
For Parents Only:  Rebel with a Cause - Part 2

EDITOR'S NOTE:  This is a continuation of "Rebel with a Cause," chapter two from For Parents Only by Shaunti Feldhahn and Lisa A. Rice ...

Fact #3:  Kids deeply fear losing their freedom.

Once we understand just how much teenagers revel in their first tastes of real freedom, it shouldn't be surprising that, like other addicts, they're also dealing with deep fear that we will forever take that freedom away.  An enraged teenager's out-of-proportion response to your words or actions may be a sign that you've set off her ultra-sensitive "loss of freedom" radar.

So what pushes a kid's fear buttons?

  • The sense that freedom has been snatched arbitrarily.  Most kids said that they felt their freedom was often taken away for no good reason or with no consistent pattern, and they were thus overly sensitive to the mention of possible restrictions. 
  • Seeing their social life sabotaged.  Kids seem terrified that parental restrictions will make them outcasts—a fate worse than death for a fifteen-year-old.  One kid declared, "When they ground you for so long, it's social suicide, and of course you sneak out.  You've got to cover your rear and protect your life."
  • Not understanding the rules.  We'll cover this in a later chapter, but as Dr. Carbery notes, "When kids say, ‘That punishment was so unfair,' it actually means, ‘I wish I understood the reason for those rules.'  If they don't understand the reasons, what their highly emotional and irrational brains hear is, "I'm going to control you for no reason.'"

Fact #4:  Teens will do anything to get freedom and avoid losing it—including deceiving themselves and you.
Driven by the all-consuming quest for freedom and the intense fear that we'll revoke it, even teenagers who are generally good and trustworthy sometimes resort to bad behavior.  They may downplay problems, fool themselves into thinking that they weren't doing anything wrong, hide things, and even lie to us—all in an effort to secure and protect their independence.

"What's the big deal?"
First, like other addicts, our kids may try to delude themselves—and us—into believing they don't really have a problem.  For example, one afternoon, I (Lisa) got an uncharacteristic call from one of my daughters.  She said, "Mom, I'm still planning to spend the night at Jessica's, but just FYI, I had the teeniest little boo-boo where I backed into this lady's headlight.  I don't think it's a big deal, and you might not even need to come over here. …"

In her eagerness to gloss things over, my daughter neglected to mention that this teeny boo-boo happened while she was breaking our rule of not talking on her cell phone while driving.  She clearly wanted to assure me that this wasn't a big enough deal for me to bother with or—heaven forbid—impose penalties that would interfere with the planned sleepover!  (More on my response later.)

One clever cousin to downplaying is to create nice, logical-sounding rationalizations.  One family we know has a strict rule that the kids keep Mom and Dad informed about the "five Ws" of their plans:  who, what, when, where, and why.  The dad was astonished to learn, therefore, that instead of being out at the approved movie the night before, his daughter had gone to a fairly wild party.  Not to worry, she had an explanation:  "The movie was sold out, so we went to Starbucks across the street.  Then these guys we knew came by—the guys you met and liked from the Academy, remember?—well, my cell phone was dead, and I figured you and Mom were asleep anyway.  And I knew you liked the guys. …"  This girl had fooled herself into thinking it was okay to break the family rules and rationalized her way into a potentially dangerous situation.

Dr. Carbery (who, trust us, is no pushover!) assured us that many times such teens aren't being deliberately deceptive.  Their train of thought truly leads in this direction, and they need help understanding why something shouldn't have been rationalized.

The hiding game.
Of course, sometimes the deception is intentional.  In order to protect their freedoms, 83 percent of the kids we surveyed admitted hiding things from their parents.

Do you ever hide negative information from your parents because you're worried about how they will react?  Choose one answer. 

31%   Yes, I often don't tell them those things because of that.
52%   Yes, I sometimes don't tell them those things because of that.
17%   I rarely or never hide those things from them.

We found very little difference between kids who attended church weekly and those who held no particular religious beliefs.  But there was, again, a distinct difference among the small subset of kids attending private Protestant Christian schools.  It turns out that "only" half of those kids said they would hide things.  Ah, well.

Obviously, one type of hiding is simply failing to mention an infraction, so the parent never hears about it.  But this comment from a teen girl reflects the more "active" examples we heard from many of her peers.  "If my mom won't let me wear a spaghetti-strap shirt, I'll just put it on under a loose, dumpy shirt and wave goodbye to my mom.  Then, as soon as I get to school, the big shirt comes off."

Liar, liar!
The most insidious tactic, of course, is outright deception.  And when we asked the teens why they lie, they basically all said the same thing as this boy:  "Because parents will freak out about the truth."

We found that some forms of teenage lying are fiendishly clever.  One boy we'll call Ken told us about being at his girlfriend's house, which was a violation of his parents' rules.  When his mother called his cell phone to check up on him, he fibbed, "Hi, Mom.  Yes, I'm at Jonathan's … You want to talk to him?  Well, you can't right now.  He's in the other room … with a girl.  You understand. …"  The next day Ken's mom had the proverbial sex talk with Jonathan, much to the guy's amusement.

The kids also described common untruths that most parents will buy, such as, "We're at the movies, and there's an hour left.  When it's over, I'll be right home."  After all, what kind of unmerciful parent would yank their child out of a movie that's only halfway over?

Fact #5:  Ironically, too much freedom can be scary, and our kids want to involve us in their quest. 
After this fairly brutal reality check, the good news is that even freedom-intoxicated teens realize that unlimited freedom isn't a good idea. 

One girl eloquently captured the perspective so many teens shared with us—and which we'll cover in more depth alter:  ‘My parents are really strict, and I wish they'd lighten up a bit.  But if they didn't give me rules, I'd know they didn't love me.  We expect some boundaries."

We were also thankful to hear that kids didn't always want to hide things or lie to their parents.  In fact, they'd much prefer to talk to their parents about the choices and challenges they face, if they could do so "safely."

What's a Parent to Do?
As I (Shaunti) read about the freedom-seeking teenagers that my sweet little kids will soon grow into, I felt a strong desire to climb into bed and pull the covers over my head!  But since that's hardly a viable reaction, what can we do?

First off, it may help to realize that the desperate pursuit of independence is nothing new.  In its selfish form, it's been causing problems since the human race first arrived on the planet.  And as our kids seek a positive, necessary form of freedom, we can look for ways to help them understand the deeper spiritual need revealed by that craving and point them toward healthy ways to satisfy it.

Thankfully, the kids themselves offered a lot of wisdom for this process, starting with the appeal to neither give them all the freedom they want nor clamp down so hard that they're dying to get away.  Instead, they say, we can help them learn to want the right things and to handle their independence responsibly.  Let's look at how we can do exactly that.

1. Get to know your teen.
One of the most common appeals we heard from the teenagers was for parents to see them as individuals and understand how they're wired.  Quite simply, some children can handle more freedom than others.

As we noted in the introduction, we suggest going through the points of this chapter with an eye toward what lessons they hold for your response to your individual child.  But next, consider asking yourself some pointed questions before giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to a request.  Questions like:  How responsible is this child?  Is he cognitively able to process consequences yet, or does he still give in to impulses easily?  Does he choose good friends?  What do other adults think of him?

As we look for evidence of growing maturity, recent events can provide insight.  Does she lose her cell phone weekly?  If your son can't turn in his math homework, is he really responsible enough to be trusted with your car?

One particularly helpful exercise is to determine which of these two actual teen comments sounds more like your child: 

  • "I have to admit that if my parents were more lenient, I'd take advantage of it.
  • "I'd never take advantage of them.  I enjoy their trust and my wide leash."

2. Choose discipline with their key fear-triggers in mind.
The fear of losing freedom often explains why a teenager's reaction seems way out of proportion to a given situation.  And knowing what freedoms are most important to your child will help you avoid unintentionally triggering her fight-or-flight instincts.  For example, one child might view her cell phone as her lifeline to the world and as vital to her identity as a "real person."  For another teen, the use of the car may be a far more critical tool of independence.

Since we usually have multiple discipline options at our disposal for a given infraction, it may be most productive to focus on the option that brings home the consequences without setting off the "loss of freedom" radar.  Sometimes the loss of freedom is itself the appropriate consequence, but we want to exercise it wisely, understanding that for our child it is the "nuclear bomb" of discipline.

For example, after my (Lisa's) daughter's car accident, I realized that the most effective consequence was not taking away her phone.  Instead, we required her—and she preferred!—to pay the eight hundred dollars for repairs on the other driver's headlight.  That meant four months of work with little take-home pay for herself, but she internalized an excellent lesson without the resentment that might have built up from a lengthy grounding or loss of cell phone privileges. 

3. Set specific expectations.
Your kid will tend to feel more settled and secure—and be more honest with you—if he understands exactly what circumstances will result in his losing a particular freedom and what circumstances won't.  For example, if your child feels particularly possessive about his cell phone, establish that it is for your convenience as his parent, and if he doesn't answer your calls or if he abuses his minutes, the phone will be taken away.  But if he sticks to the rules, he can rest assured his cell phone privileges are secure.

Teen expert Vicki Courtney saw the power of establishing clear expectations when her kids started using the Internet.  Setting the ground rules, she told them, "Now that you're going online, it's not a matter of if you'll be made uncomfortable, it's when.  I know you can accidentally stumble onto bad sites, and I know that bad people can contact you.  If a porn ad pops up, or if someone contacts you and makes you feel uncomfortable, let me know so I can figure out how it happened  I promise I will not take your Internet away."

Some time later, her daughter was contacted by someone who seemed threatening.  When she approached Vicki to talk about it, the first thing she said was, "Uh, Mom, remember when you said you wouldn't take my Internet away?"

As Vicki told us, "We have the freedom to discuss these things now because my kids know I'm not going to ban the Internet because of something they couldn't help, or because they made a mistake."

And since gaining freedom is a huge incentive, you might want to help your child realize that he'll have more freedom if he shows he can handle it—and that purposeful deception is the quickest way to lose it.

4. Equip them to cope wisely with their growing freedoms. 
We've seen that seven out of ten kids will do what they want to do, no matter what we say.  Even the fear of their parents' finding out doesn't compel them to stop their behavior, only to hide it.  (Scary!)  So we need to help our teens want to do the right things and not want the wrong ones.  Beyond consistent, fervent prayer—which we advocate wholeheartedly—here are a few suggestions for pointing them in the right direction.

Help your kids learn to think through their decisions—and see where they might have been wrong.
As we'll detail in another chapter, the kids said they have to understand the reasons for the rules—embracing the rules for themselves and not thinking of them as being externally imposed.  In addition, since the frontal lobe of your child's brain is probably underdeveloped, she may need you to act as an "external frontal lobe" to help her think through consequences.  ("If you go to the mall, what does that mean for how much time you'll have to do your homework?")  Similarly, your child could easily be deluding herself about whether a choice she already made was actually a bad one or whether it involved deception.

Although it may seem that she should already know what's right, give her some guidance anyway.  Even mature teenagers may need an adult's help from time to time to look back on a given choice and recognize where their train of thought derailed.  The kids suggested asking good questions ("Did you think of which kids might turn up at the party?") instead of giving a lecture, so that your child can work through the issue and draw a conclusion for herself.

This may also be why so many kids urged parents to let their kids learn on their own, even through their mistakes.  One boy said his father often says to him, "It's your decision whether it's wise to go.  I will allow it, but if you get in trouble, you will have to pay your own consequences." 

Help them move from fearing parents to fearing God.
On the survey, we were surprised that fully six in ten kids said they consider whether God sees everything they do when they're tempted to do something that might be wrong.  And among those God-aware kids, six in ten also said that the fact that God might be disappointed in them was a bigger influence than whether their parents would be disappointed.  Parents can help such kids transition from fear of Mom and Dad to fear of God.

I (Lisa) saw this principle in action when I overheard my kids asking their dad if they could do something, and he answered, "You know your mom wouldn't like that!"  Without looking up, I casually answered, "Oh, it's not about me.  I'm not the ultimate One they have to answer to in the end.  They'll have to talk to God about their choices."  Later that night I was amazed when two of the girls separately came to me, saying that they felt God was urging them to be careful about certain friends and activities.  His view of their actions had a far greater effect on them than I realized. 

As we watch our cherished no-longer-little ones begin the process of flying free, what a comfort it is to entrust them to the One who made them and to know that he holds them securely in his hands.

Although it may be scary to watch your child venture toward adulthood as an independent person, one thing the kids said was scary for them was figuring out who on earth that independent person is.  That's the subject of the next chapter. …

*This article first published on October 5, 2007.

Excerpted from For Parents Only © 2007 by Veritas Enterprises, Inc.  Used by permission of WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.  Excerpt may not be reproduced without prior written consent.

Shaunti Feldhahn is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, public speaker, and a best-selling author whose books include For Women Only.  After working on Wall Street and Capitol Hill, this mother of two not applies her analytical skills to illuminating surprising truths about relationships.

Lisa A. Rice is the associate editor of Christian Living magazine, the mother/foster mom of three teenage girls and one teenage boy, and an experienced screenwriter and producer.  She's also the coauthor, with Shaunti, of For Young Women Only and a movie reviewer for