Ages 15–18 | Parenting Tools | Behavior + Discipline | Ages 11–14

Teen Discipline: Don't Micromanage Your Teen

Why parents shouldn't micromanage teensThe first year of high school brought some changes for Lindsey Rogers -- a lot more homework, and a lot more conflict with her mom about how the homework was being done.

Lara Rogers was enforcing the rules that worked for middle school -- looking at assignments and insisting that homework be completed before TV or computer use. But the fighting escalated.

"Finally, Lindsey said, 'I'm getting mostly A's and a few B's. Why don't you just let me do it?'" Lara Rogers recalls.

Micromanaging teens can increase problems

When it comes to managing a teenager's life, how does a parent know when to step in and when to back off? It can be a complicated issue, psychologists say. Too little involvement can result in the surprise D on the report card, the missed soccer practice or a forgotten deadline. But micromanaging can cause push-back from a resentful teenager, resulting in more serious problems.

"It's a touchy little area," says Mercer Island parenting specialist Barbara Swenson. "Parents seem to think they have two options -- pull back or take over." Swenson suggests parents view themselves as consultants -- help create the right environment for homework, find the right notebook planner or set incremental deadlines for big projects. "If you swoop in and take over, that says to the kid, 'You're not capable of doing it yourself; I have to do it for you,'" she says.

"Forgetting" homework is not unusual for the adolescent. Young teens in particular are often coping with a brain development issue that makes sequential ordering a major challenge. This can be particularly true for boys, Swenson says. The developmental age of your teen is one of three important criteria parents should consider, according to author Laura Kastner, Ph.D. Parents also need to look at the temperament of their child.

"Some kids are pretty organized, doing a fairly good job of keeping their rooms clean, making good grades," Kastner says. "Some are over-organized perfectionists and you need to reel them in and make them go to sleep instead of staying up to do two more hours of homework. Others are distractible, disorganized and you haven't seen the floor of their room for two years. They have a research paper they haven't started and you find out it's due tomorrow."

Considering your own temperament

So, after you decide which kind of kid you have, you need to look at one more very important factor -- your own temperament, Kastner says. "Let's say you have a normal kid just going through adolescence and you have a very obsessive-compulsive parent. That's why you can't have one size fits all. How you frame up this issue is really way, way more complicated than it looks."

Lynn Tilger of Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood knows from experience how important temperament can be. Although she has consciously avoided pushing her kids too hard to be successful, "I fully admit that I like to be in control; I'm a manager," she says. Tilger also has to recognize the very real differences between her two children. Eighteen-year-old Lauren has always managed just fine, thank you, but 14-year-old Spencer "would forget his head if it wasn't attached."

Lauren has resented even the most well-meaning reminders since she was 13. With Spencer, Tilger makes sure she knows about his homework and his schedule. "He is easily distracted. He can sit down with his computer and not look up until an hour has gone by," she says.

If you've always managed your child's life, you can't just back off when he turns 16, says psychologist Benson Low of Elliott Bay Behavioral Healthcare. "The principle is to gauge where the kid is developmentally and help him bridge to the next thing. But you're always doing it in the context of everything you've done before."

In their book, 7 Things Your Teenager Won't Tell You, and How To Talk About Them Anyway, authors Jenifer Marshall Lippincott and Robin M. Deutsch, Ph.D. advise parents to recognize that the influence they once had on their child's decisions fundamentally changes with adolescence.

"One of our most natural parenting instincts is to tighten our hold on that which we feel slipping out of our control," the authors write. "The sooner we relinquish control over our adolescents as a parental right, the faster they will take command of their lives."

Elaine Bowers, a freelance writer, lives in Seattle with her husband and 14-year-old twin daughters.

Teen organization tips for parents
Trying to micromanage your teenager's life can be a no-win situation. Lippincott and Deutsch, authors of 7 Things Your Teenager Won't Tell You, urge parents to simplify their expectations into three "rules of play:"

1. Stay Safe
2. Show Respect
3. Keep in Touch

Parents need to recognize that they must rely on a teen's "inner voice" to tell him or her to call when there is a change of plans, to stand up to an injustice or to resist the temptation to do something dangerous. What happens in a teen's life - from violating curfew to doing homework to confronting drugs and alcohol - can fall under the above-mentioned three "rules of play."

Another view is expressed by authors Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D. and Gabor Mate`in their new book, Hold On to Your Kids - Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers. They advise parents not to mistake their teen's drive for independence for a growing dependence on his peers.

"We want our children to be self-directing, self motivated, self-orienting, self-reliant and self-assured," the authors write. "What to us looks like independence is really just dependence transferred."

The important thing is to hang in there and stay in your kids' lives, no matter how difficult they may make it, they say. "Actually, all parents are used, abused, taken for granted and taken advantage of. The reason it usually doesn't get to us is... the work of attachment."

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