- Teenage boys need a lot of structure, and they must be allowed to complain about it.
- Kids are not naturally responsible; if parents don't teach it, painful experience will.
- The key to teaching responsibility is to make sure that children understand this crucial fact: Power, privilege, and responsibility go together.
The greatest challenge parents have faced in my 40-plus years of clinical practice has come from angry teenage boys. It's so easy for well-intentioned parents to make bad matters worse.
Teenage girls get angry, too, of course, but they tend to be more amenable to processing emotions and talking them through, which at least gives parents a little more leverage in dealing with them. More worrisome, the testosterone surge that boys experience blunts their fear while disinhibiting dangerous behaviors motivated by anger and resentment.
Teenage boys need a lot of structure, and they must be allowed to complain about it. If their complaints are unheard or suppressed, the risk of self-destructive behavior looms ever-present.
Parents must know where their sons are and what they're doing at all times. Don't fall into the "You don't trust me" trap. The issue isn't trust but a realistic assessment of the dangerous world that adolescents must negotiate with limited pre-frontal cortical development. Before 18, children lack sufficient articulation in the judgment and regulatory areas of the brain to be able to see the possible consequences of their behavior when under the stress of powerful impulses. It's a dangerous combination, even when substances are not involved—increased impulsivity with underdeveloped regulatory capacity.
Compassionate parents focus on the child's long-term well-being rather than the momentary ego boost of feeling "trusted." A good parental rejoinder to "You don't trust me" is, "I don't trust myself enough not to worry about your safety and well-being without knowing where you are and what you're doing. What can you do so that you will have some freedom without me having to worry so much?"
Teenagers need to learn that:
- They're part of a family and community that require some emotional investment—helping the family (chores) and occasionally doing volunteer work in the community.
- They need to have respect for other people's rights and property.
- Money is a resource that must be managed responsibly.
In general, boys do not auditory process as well as girls. (They hear almost as well but don't interpret the meaning of the spoken word as efficiently, which is why they tend to lag behind girls in classes that rely on lectures.) Boys typically need more than one sensory modality engaged. If you want to give your son instructions or say anything important:
- Make eye contact and try to touch him while you speak (two or three sensory modalities work better than one).
- If the details are important, ask him to repeat what you said.
- Use short sentences and give him a chance to respond before going on; never lecture.
It's easy for boys to get into the habit of automatically tuning out familiar voices, a habit that will cause them serious problems in future close relationships.
Kids are not naturally responsible; parents or painful circumstances must teach them. Responsibility can be learned by modeling—responsible parents enjoy a better chance of having responsible children—but it also must be taught deliberately. Children can learn responsibility relatively painlessly up to about age 13. After that, the life lessons that teach responsibility—mostly in the form of social sanctions and punishments—become more painful. Teaching responsibility to children is one of the most compassionate things parents can do for them.
The key to teaching responsibility is to make sure that children understand this crucial fact: Power, privilege, and responsibility go together. When responsibility is high, so are the other two. And when it is low, so are the other two.
Teenagers, especially boys, feel powerless a lot of the time. They need to learn that they have the power to affect what happens to them by behaving responsibly. And they need to know in advance exactly how much power and privilege they will lose for specific irresponsible behaviors. That is really the way of the world. When you behave irresponsibly—say, speeding or cheating on your taxes—you know in advance what the penalty will be.
Finally, children learn emotion regulation principally by modeling, not by what parents tell them. Like all mammals, juveniles learn by watching adults. There is a same-sex bias to modeling: The boys watch the men more closely, and the girls watch the women more closely, but they watch both parents to learn how to regulate emotions.
Anger is an attribution of blame. Children, especially high-testosterone boys, are more likely to have anger problems if their parents are blamers. (Testosterone doesn't cause anger, but it amplifies it considerably.) It's crucial for parents to model responsibility in all that they do, including owning their mistakes, especially those that relate to disputes with their children.