The couple sitting in my office clutched one another’s hands tightly. Tears streamed down her face, staining her swollen cheeks with mascara. He traced the carpet patterns of my office floor with his eyes, not making much eye-contact with me, if any. They were embarrassed and ashamed. I could tell this was one of the last conversations they ever thought they’d be having. But they were desperate. Their 15-year old daughter was completely out of control, defiant, and uncaring of the damage she was causing. Her parents were hopeless. The end of their rope had come and they were about to give up.
For an hour I listened to their story. They told me about their frustrations, their anger, and their love for their little girl. They talked about how cute she was when she was little, how she was daddy’s girl, and mommy’s darling. They explained in detail how she had always been strong-willed, vocal and demanding, but never to this extent. “We never had to discipline her when she was little. I can’t remember a single time we told her no to anything,” her father shared.
And that’s when it hit me- Problem discovered. While their daughter was making these choices on her own, and she knew the difference between right and wrong, her parents had created a lot of this by way they parented her.
Houston We Have A Problem!
That afternoon, in my office, I spoke truth to this couple. I took them on a journey, 14 years into the past, and walked them through everything that hadn’t happened with their daughter’s upbringing- The time she stomped her feet at the state fair as a 2 year old and they gave in instead of telling her that this behavior was innapropriate; the time she badgered and badgered her mother for candy in the grocery store until her mom caved and gave her what she wanted instead of telling her no and leaving the store; the many times she screamed at her dad at bedtime, or kept coming out of her room, until he gave in and let her stay up and watch TV, as opposed to making her go to bed.
“We didn’t tell her no because we didn’t want her to hate us. We couldn’t stand the thought of her being sad,” her mother admitted. The more we talked the more it came out that both of their childhoods were marked by harsh restrictions and rigid rules. This had translated into passive parenting with their own children. It’s understandable, but not healthy.
Their problem was fear. They were too afraid to say no. They wanted their daughter to be happy to such a degree that they were willing to sacrifice anything to achieve this, including healthy boundaries. The result was not a happy child, but rather a teenager who walked all over them. It didn’t work because passive parenting never works.
Have you ever wondered where this comes from and why some parents wind up with out-of-control teenagers? Over the past 2 decades, I’ve encountered a few types of parenting that result in this:
- The Permissive Parent. You’ve probably seen this before- the parent who deems their son’s bad choices a case of “boys will be boys” or the mother who gives her daughter whatever she wants, whenever she wants because she doesn’t want to disappoint her. They function as more of a kitchen door without a latch that swings wide open for their children whenever they stomp their feet and make demands. Instead of standing up and shutting the poor behavior down, the parent gives in and steps aside.
- The Over-bearing Parent. On the other side of the permissive parent is the parent who is too hands on, too involved, and too restrictive. I’ve counseled many teenagers who are suffocating because their parent says no to everything or disciplines them for the most minuscule offense. Their broken child has resorted to counting the days until he or she can leave home and never return. And they begin acting out as a means of release.
- The Best-Friend Parent. I’ve also encountered many parents who try to be their child’s best friend. Call it a case of the Gilmore Girls complex. “I’m best friends with my daughter. We tell each other everything.” “My son is my brother. He and I are buds.” There’s a danger in parenting like this. Where does the buddy line end and the parent line begin? I’m not saying you should treat your son or daughter like they’re in boot camp and you’re a drill sergeant. That’s too extreme, and only damages your future relationship with them. What I am saying is that you should be a parent, not a best friend, to your child. Be the person who loves them enough to create boundaries and enforce consequences if those boundaries are crossed. Your child doesn’t need a best friend, they need a guide. They need someone they can look up to, who will lead them and show them how to navigate the tricky waters of life.
Healthy boundaries must begin when your children are little. When they take their first step, or start pushing the lines. That brings up a big question- How do you successfully parent your children without being too passive or too restrictive? The answer is balance. You and I must learn to balance love with discipline and boundaries. We must dwell in the margin between encouragement and guidance, and we must never compromise our standards or convictions for anything.
My children will not always get their way because as an adult, my job is to steer them towards health and responsibility, not to adhere to what they deem is fair or not. This is NOT a democracy, it’s a dictatorship and I’m in charge. I have the great responsibility of raising them to become productive, responsible adults. I will not compromise that for what they believe will make them happy.
As a parent, have you found balance? Are you dealing with a difficult teenager. More importantly, what have you learned?