by James Dobson, Ph.D.
Q: My sixteen-year-old daughter is driving me crazy. She is sassy, noisy and selfish. Her room looks like a pigpen, and she won't work any harder in school than absolutely necessary to get by. Everything I taught her, from manners to faith, seems to have sailed through her ears. What in the world do my husband and I do now?
A: I'm going to offer you some patented advice that may not make sense or seem responsive to the problem you've described. But stay with me. The most important thing you can do for your daughter is to "just get her through it." The concept is a bit obscure, so let me make an effort to explain it.
Imagine your daughter riding in a small canoe called "Puberty" on the Adolescent River. She soon comes to a turbulent stretch of white water that rocks her little boat violently. There is a very real danger that she will capsize and drown. Even if she survives today's rapids, she will certainly be caught in swirling currents downstream and plunge over the falls. That is the apprehension harbored by millions of parents with kids bouncing along on the wild river. It's the falls that worry them most.
Actually, the typical journey down the river is much safer than believed. Instead of the water becoming more violent downstream, it eventually transitions from frightening rapids to tranquility once more. What I'm saying is that I believe your daughter is going to be OK even though she is now splashing and thrashing and gasping for air. Her little boat is more buoyant than you might think. Yes, a few individuals do go over the falls, usually because of drug abuse or other addictive behavior. But even some of them climb back in the canoe and paddle on down the river. Most will regain their equilibrium in a few years. In fact, the greatest danger of sinking a boat could come from . . . parents!
Q: Why do you focus your comments on parents? It's the kids who do crazy things.
A: I'm particularly concerned about idealistic and perfectionistic moms and dads who are determined to make their adolescent perform and achieve and measure up to the highest standard. In so doing, they rock a boat that is already threatened by the rapids. Perhaps another child could handle the additional turbulence, but the unsteady kid — the one who lacks common sense for a while and may even lean toward irrational behavior — could capsize if you're not careful. Don't unsettle his boat any more than you must!
I'm reminded of a waitress who recognized me when I came into the restaurant where she worked. She was not busy that day and wanted to talk about her 12-year-old daughter. As a single mother, she had gone through severe struggles with the girl, whom she identified as being very strong-willed.
"We have fought tooth and nail for this entire year," she said. "It has been awful! We argue nearly every night, and most of our fights are over the same issue."
I asked her what had caused the conflict, and she replied, "My daughter is still a little girl, but she wants to shave her legs. I feel she's too young to be doing that, and she becomes so angry that she won't even talk to me. This has been the worst year of our lives together."
I looked at the waitress and said, "Lady, buy your daughter a razor!"
That 12-year-old girl was paddling into a time of life that would rock her canoe good and hard. As a single parent, Mom would soon be trying to keep this rebellious kid from getting into drugs, alcohol, sex and pregnancy, early marriage, school failure and the possibility of running away. Truly, there would be many ravenous alligators in her river within a year or two. In that setting, it seemed unwise to make a big deal over what was essentially a nonissue. While I agreed with the mother that adolescence should not be ushered in prematurely, there were higher goals than maintaining a proper developmental timetable.
I have seen other parents fight similar battles over nonessentials such as the purchase of a first bra for a flat-chested preadolescent girl. For goodness' sake! If she wants it that badly, she probably needs it for social reasons. Run, don't walk, to the nearest department store, and buy her a bra. The objective, as Charles and Andy Stanley wrote, is to keep your kids on your team. Don't throw away your friendship over behavior that has no great moral significance. There will be plenty of real issues that require you to stand like a rock. Save your big guns for those crucial confrontations.
Let me make it very clear, again, that this advice is not relevant to every teenager. The compliant kid who is doing wonderfully in school, has great friends, is disciplined in his conduct and loves his parents is not nearly so delicate. Perhaps his parents can urge him to reach even higher standards in his achievements and lifestyle. My concern, however, is for that youngster who could go over the falls. He is intensely angry at home and is being influenced by a carload of crummy friends. Be very careful with him. Pick and choose what is worth fighting for, and settle for something less than perfection on issues that don't really matter. Just get him through it!
Q: What does this mean in practical terms? Give me some examples of demands that would rock my daughter's boat unnecessarily.
A: Well, you will have to decide what the nonnegotiables are to you and your husband. Defend those demands, but lighten up on lesser matters. That may indicate a willingness to let her room look like a junkyard for a while. Close the door and pretend not to notice. Does that surprise you? I don't like lazy, sloppy, undisciplined kids any more than you do, but given the possibilities for chaos that this girl might precipitate, spit-shined rooms may not be all that important.
You have to ask yourself this question: "Is the behavior to which I object bad enough to risk turning the canoe upside down?" If the issue is that important, then brace yourself and make your stand. But think through those intractable matters in advance, and plan your defense of them thoroughly.
Someday, when the river has smoothed out again, you may look back with satisfaction that you didn't add to the turbulence when your daughter was bobbing like a cork on a stormy sea.
Q: I think I understand what you're recommending. You're not suggesting that my husband and I let this kid run wild. Instead, we should choose our battles very carefully and not push her into further rebellion by trying to make her something she can't be right now.
A: That's it. The philosophy we applied with our teenagers (and you might try with yours) can be called "loosen and tighten." By this I mean we tried to loosen our grip on everything that had no lasting significance and tighten down on everything that did. We said yes whenever we possibly could, to give support to the occasional no. And most important, we tried never to get too far away from our kids emotionally.
It is simply not prudent to write off a son or daughter, no matter how foolish, irritating, selfish or insane a child may seem to be. You need to be there, not only while their canoe is bouncing precariously, but after the river runs smooth again. You have the remainder of your life to reconstruct the relationship that is now in jeopardy. Don't let anger fester for too long. Make the first move toward reconciliation. And try hard not to hassle your kids. They hate to be nagged. If you follow them around with one complaint after another, they are almost forced to protect themselves by appearing deaf. And finally, continue to treat them with respect, even when punishment or restrictions are necessary.
Then wait for the placid water in the early 20s.