Flexible Boundaries & Firm Consequences
If you are listening to The Call to Love and have finished Chapter 13, you will know that this was one of the toughest chapters for me to write and record. I was pretty honest, sharing the struggles we have had in our home, and when narrating it for the audio book I found myself in tears while recording the final paragraph of this chapter,
"Much like your home, I’m sure there are days you look back on with pride,
and there are days when you are ashamed or confused about how you got there.
There have been days for us filled with joy and patience and love. And then days of heartbreak.
Sometimes my heart would hurt so much I thought I literally
couldn’t get off the floor in my bedroom closet.
There have been more than a couple hours I have spent lying there
in tears with no strength left to love.
Parenting these five beautiful children has often been the most painful season of my life.
CS Lewis said, “To Love, is to be Vulnerable”.
And choosing to fiercely love these children with all of my soul, has been my joy and my pain."
I didn't go back and edit out the sounds of my crying, because I wanted you all to hear my heart on this subject. Because I know you have been there too. I know you have had those days where you are sobbing in your room, heartbroken by the pain of parenting your children. I wanted you to hear it in my voice; I have been there too and my journey is far from perfect.
Balancing consequences and grace, love and structure, freedom and protection is a challenge for any parent. But when you are parenting a child or teen that has been through trauma, it becomes even more difficult. Almost impossible sometimes to discern. What is required of me in this moment? It's so hard because while we may have learned all about attachment and trauma, we are personally offended by the behavior of our child and we are hurt.
We have sacrificed and poured out our lives for this child only to have them make choices that are damaging our home, our reputation, our financial situation, and our safety. We have hoped and dreamed for the kind of future they could achieve only to watch them decide to ruin their relationships, education, health and freedom.
We desperately want it to stop! We want so much for them to choose what will lead them to years of fun, health, success, and yet they don't. Over and over they can only see what will make them feel better today. They make choices to manage their pain or increase their pleasure, today. They seem to have a very limited view of the future and that scares the crap out of us. We lie in bed at night worrying about what their lives will look like in 5 or 10 years if this pattern of behavior doesn't stop. We wonder what our lives will look like if we continue to endure this abuse for another 5 or 10 years.
So we try to take control. We try to stop it. We punish and we consequence and we obsess over their social media accounts and we micro manage their spending, all in efforts to change their behaviours. And sometimes that works. Sometimes they need more structure, they need to feel uncomfortable, they need to change. But sometimes all that does is damage our relationship with them. They are not becoming young people capable of loving and trusting relationships. They are just getting more and more angry. They are just becoming more convinced that they are in this world alone and need to do everything they can to survive.
So my one word of caution to you, fellow parent of traumatized young people, is to slow down. Take some time to reflect on your parenting strategies. What is actually working to change their behaviour and shape them into adults capable of loving and trusting relationships? What are you able to emotionally manage in your home? What is causing a rift in your relationship and damaging your ability to love one another?
There are times when boundaries have to be put in place.
There are times when you need to model for them what it looks like to make decisions based on logic and not emotion.
There are times when our kids need to feel uncomfortable in order to learn.
In those times we need to be confident in our decisions.
In those times we need to make decisions based on our values and standards.
In those times we need to act in love not anger.
In those times we need to not just consequence, but teach.
In those times we need to be patient and gentle for the lesson to stick.
“In my world there are no bad kids, just impressionable, conflicted young people wrestling with emotion & impulses trying to communicate their feelings & needs the only way they know how.” - Janet Lansbury
Especially when parenting tweens & teens you will not be able to just spit out consequences and have them be followed to the tee. And really, do you want to? Do you want to create young adults that follow everything ordered to them by authority? Or do you want to develop critical thinkers, capable of rational thought and strategy. So it is essential that we teach our children conflict resolution skills, how to respond when they disagree with authority, when to follow and when to challenge. If you haven't already looked over my blog on Collaborative Problem Solving I would really encourage you to take a look at it now as you think through boundaries and consequences in your home. It might be helpful as you think through how to create appropriate consequences.
So, if you come to the moment when you think the best course of action is a consequence, I will give you some of my quick tips:
Do not double up on consequences. Did they already receive a natural consequence? Did they already receive a punishment from school? If they have already been made to feel uncomfortable for their actions, let that be enough. (Also, one less battle for you).
Choose your battles. Pick two or three really troubling behaviours in your home and focus consequences around those. Ignore the rest. Otherwise it will be a constant war and you won't be able to keep up with all the punishments you are handing out.
Never deliver a consequence in anger. If you are upset, let the child know you will inform them of the consequence the next day. Don't wait more than 24hrs, but take some time to calm down so that the consequence is appropriate.
Keep your consequences short. You may disagree, but our consequences are never longer than a week in duration. Most often it will be one or two days. Teens have trouble imagining the future, so punishments longer than a week actually have the opposite effect and cause them to feel hopeless and less motivated for change. You want to figure out the amount of time that will make them feel uncomfortable but not crushed.
As much as possible, and this may require some creativity, tie the consequence to the behaviour. If the issue had to do with curfew, keep them home for awhile, if the issue had to do with the car, they lose the car, if the issue had to do with damaging a relationship - have them perform an action to repair the relationship.
Keep the consequences under your control. As I mentioned in the book, grounding did not work for some of our kids as they are bigger than me and would just walk out the door. Don't make them take out the garbage, because if they refuse, now I'm hauling out the garbage myself grumbling about how they don't listen to me. But there are plenty of consequences within my control. For example, I can withhold money and rides, I can say no friends allowed over, I can delay back to school shopping, I can decrease the budget for spring clothes shopping, I can turn off phones, I can change the wifi code, I can take the door off their bedroom, I can call 911, I can stop buying their favourite junk foods, I can not let them have the keys to my car, and I can take away the cords to the video gaming system. You get the picture.
Finally... Continue to express love to your child throughout good and rough seasons so they will continue to see you as a source of steadfast support. Know their Love Language and show it to them, even when you are at odds with one another. Send the message that you are disappointed in their actions, but will love them forever.
If this has brought up some more thoughts for you and you would like to talk through these issues together in a coaching session. Please email me and we can set one up within the next day or two. We can discuss any personalized tweeks you would like to make to your current parenting strategy or, we can even brainstorm together to come up with an individual behaviour contract that will work for your child. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. A great read on this topic is Boundaries by Dr Henry Cloud & Dr John Townsend. It was recently updated to include information regarding social media. If you are struggling with when to say yes and how to say no, consider this book.
2. Interested in more information regarding the teenage brain? Another book I would recommend regarding how to parent teens is The Teenage Brain by Dr Frances Jensen. In this book, a neurologist offers a look at the brains of teenagers, dispelling myths and offering practical advice for teens, parents and teachers. It was very helpful for me in learning what is realistic to expect from my teens and what I need to let go of. If you don't have time for a book, check out this article from Raising Children or this one from the Washington Post.
3. Want some good quick tips for parenting teens? Check out this 4 minute YouTube video from Family Lives