Supporting Teen Behavior and Loving Relationships
Supporting Teen Behavior and Loving Relationships
What happened to my loving, cooperative child? Many parents of children with special needs find themselves frustrated when their tried-and true strategies stop working with their teen’s behavior. Strategies such as proactive planning, setting expectations, teaching positive behavior, and managing consequences have been proven to be effective with children. The teen years, however, bring about significant changes. The whirlwind of puberty, increased freedom, peer and academic pressure, and exposure to sex, drugs, and other risks makes this time particularly challenging, especially for teens with disabilities. This article will provide a few tips for maintaining consistency, promoting independence, and sustaining relationships with our teens children.
Perspectives on Goals and Roles
Part of the challenge of parenting teens is the need to shift our focus to helping our teens become fully functioning adults who manage their own lives and behavior as independently as possible. We want our teens to take care of themselves, develop and maintain relationships, participate in the community, and make contributions to society. We want them to be self-directed problem-solvers, able to plan their own activities and overcome mistakes and obstacles.
It is often difficult to create opportunities for teens to develop and practice skills for independent living, while still guiding good decisions and keeping them safe – especially if they are resisting our guidance or engaging in experimentation that may put them at risk. We must learn to balance vigilance with letting go and shift from short term solutions to long term planning.
Understanding Teen Behavior
Why do teenagers behave the way they do? When teens are unmotivated or behave inappropriately, we may be inclined to label behavior (e.g., lazy, disrespectful) or make excuses for it (e.g., “it’s because he is depressed/ has autism”). These assumptions can cloud perceptions, leading to misunderstandings and ineffectiveness. Instead, we want to identify what our teens are seeking through behavior – which may be more complex than with younger children due to physiological and social changes.
To develop this understanding, we first define specific behaviors that concern us (e.g., arguing, refusing chores or schoolwork, running away) and then objectively look for clues to determine what teens are getting or avoiding as a result. We get at these patterns by listening to input from our teens and others and observing across situations.
Here are some questions we can ask to make informed guesses for what is motivating our teen:
- Is the teen getting attention from peers, teachers, coaches, or family members?
- What type of attention – admiration, humor, shock, disgust?
- Does desirable behavior go unnoticed or result in simple acknowledgments while doing something “bad” results in long lectures – or vice versa?
- Is the teen getting something of value (e.g., money, clothes, junk food, social media)?
- Are these items or activities available regardless of behavior, more available following positive behavior, or negotiated after conflicts occur?
- Is the teen avoiding, delaying, or escaping situations that may be unpleasant such as academic demands or social pressures through their behavior?
- Do restrictions you impose increase or alleviate situations they find to be challenging?
- Is the teen getting sensory satisfaction (e.g., physical pleasure, excitement, relaxation, freedom) through their behavior itself?
- Does the teen seem to gain more enjoyment through appropriate or inappropriate activities?
As part of this process, we must consider how a teen’s disabilities may be affecting understanding and responses to circumstances and contingencies. It may be difficult to discern particular patterns given that behaviors often serve multiple purposes and may be veiled by teen angst and drama.
Strategies to Consider
Understanding what motivates your teen and the purposes his behavior may serve helps us choose effective strategies. These strategies are summarized in the table below and include: 1) being proactive, 2) teaching skills, and 3) responding to behavior.
This means clarifying expectations and arranging environments. Whenever possible, create expectations for behavior with your teen, helping her clarify personal values and goals and learn to set reasonable limits. Make expectations more explicit for teens with cognitive disabilities by using repetition, visuals, examples, and/or role playing. Organize your surroundings to promote positive behavior (e.g., having a “checkout system” for remote controls, removing potentially dangerous items, increasing supervision). In addition, consider ways you can work with your teen to structure social networks and activities to provide the best possible role models.
Teach your teen ways to 1) meet needs for attention, material items, down-time, and recreation appropriately, achieving the same purpose as any problem behavior and 2) become more independent in the skills that are critical to functioning at home, school, and the community now and in the future. The best ways to teach these skills is by defining them clearly (providing or pointing out examples, possibly in the media); modeling them – or better yet, enlisting peers to do so; and providing consistent feedback.
Responding to Behavior
Maximize desirable outcomes for positive (not problem) behavior. This may be challenging with teens since the attention, items, and activities they want may not always be within your control. Provide choices and privileges for when your teen is cooperative. Do not underestimate the value of your attention, focusing it on the right things. If it is necessary to discipline your teen, use natural and logical consequences (e.g., if he breaks something, he must fix or replace it), maintaining the respect and integrity of your relationship.
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Maintaining the Relationship
It is very easy to fall into a “coercion trap” with our teens. This is when our teen misbehaves and we react in a way that escalates, rather than calms the situation (e.g., upping the ante with more severe restrictions or consequences until we are in a screaming match – and then withdrawing consequences or limits to avoid further hassles). Such patterns can significantly damage relationships; even the most loving families learn to treat each other badly when these interactions become commonplace. These patterns may be avoided through the proactive, positive strategies above, but it is also important to bolster our relationships with our teens in general.
When it is all said and done, and our children become adults, what would we like them to do? Seek us out or avoid us? Answer the phone or ignore it? The decisions we make as parents will affect our long-term relationships with our children.
When interacting with teens, here are some tips that may help as we seek to maintain our connections:
- Make non-demand dialogue and mutually enjoyable activities a priority.
- Show interest in what your teen says, thinks, or does – respecting his individuality.
- Maintain consistent expectations and limits, even when they seem unenforceable.
- Regain your composure and take time-outs as needed so you will avoid doing harm.
- Let small things go, deciding who “owns the problem” and whether it is important.
- Forgive, make efforts to repair communication, and reestablish trust as quickly as possible.
- Keep your values (e.g., kindness, independence) forefront in your decision-making.
Teen years are challenging for both youth and their parents. At times, it may seem like teens do not respond sensibly and predictably to the approaches we have learned to use. With sensitivity to the pressures they are facing and creative application strategies tailored to their specific needs, we can promote positive behavior, as well as sustain relationships.
Meme Hieneman, has a Ph.D. in Special Education and is nationally certified as a behavior analyst. She has published a variety of articles, chapters, and books including “Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child’s Difficult Behavior.” In her professional career, Meme has worked with children with severe behavior problems for more than 20 years.
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This post originally appeared on our September/October 2016 Magazine