As a clinician in private practice, one of the phrases that I frequently hear myself saying to parents is “I can just about promise you they won’t be doing that at graduation.” This phrase typically shows up with a parent of a younger child, but sometimes with an early adolescent. But while the age of the child varies, the parental plea is the same, “Please stop my child from doing [fill in the blank with annoying/embarrassing behavior]!”
Momentary parental fears have replaced a longer, developmental view of your child’s behavior.
Children change and grow; behaviors come and go. There may be some things we can do to help a particular behavior exit the developmental stage; there is also a lot that we can do that will make a particular behavior stay around well past its time.
Although let me be clear that there are some exclusions to this developmental view: if your child is having hallucinations, suicidal thoughts, is using “heavy” drugs, or is very isolated from their peers, do take these seriously and seek assistance.
Otherwise, some behaviors are more annoying than dangerous, more frustrating than fear-inducing, and more embarrassing for the parent than it is for the child. In those situations, let’s take a collective deep breath.
Our reaction as parents matters.
When we encounter one of these behaviors, how we react to the behavior matters a great deal. For us to have a BIG reaction, e.g. with anger or shock or yelling, gives a great deal of power to the behavior. Your child may react with guilt and shame; the next step will be for them to hide the behavior, even to lie about it should they be caught again.
Remember that the larger our parental reaction, the more incentive there is for a child to lie.
So if you threaten to take away the console gaming system for a month if they “do that again”, rest assured, because the behavior was fun/rewarding, they will probably do it again. But it will be a while before you catch them. With such a high risk, they just get sneaky.
This is a feature, not a bug, of their developing brain.
The adolescent brain, in particular, is trying to expand its world. Therefore, that brain is overestimating reward and underestimating risk. Those risks are necessary for growth and learning.
But … this “over/under” brain can lead them to engage in some mildly dangerous activities too. These are the sorts of activities that cause parents to ask,
“Why did you do that? Didn’t you know that it was dangerous?”
Sheepishly they respond, “Uh … no?”
Your child really did not think about the (underestimated) consequences. Or if they did think about a possible outcome, the cheering/reward of their friends was overestimated and greatly outweighed any risk.
The reactions of their peers become more and more important.
While this “peer pressure” can be frustrating, it can also work to your advantage with behaviors that fall mostly into the embarrassing/annoying category: appearance and personal hygiene. It begins with what they want to wear (or not wear) and moves on to the parental nagging about teeth brushing, hair management, deodorant application, and basic bathing.
As someone who sees a fair amount of young teens in my office, it is not lost on me that “scent” comes with adole”scents”.
And even though graduation may be a bit closer for some of these kids than others, issues of appearance and hygiene are tremendously influenced by their peers, especially once a romantic interest enters the picture. Typically by the time they are close to graduation, they are spending more and more time in the bathroom getting ready for activities where they will see and be seen.
Remember that growth and change often take time.
All of this gets to a very basic point: our parental fear is that the way this child is right now is the way that they will always be. When our own parental anxiety shows up, then we have a difficult time imagining our children as functioning adults, with vehicles and jobs, apartments and relationships, and (gasp) children of their own!
The truth is that they are not ready … yet.
But they will be. Progress is not a straight line. Human beings develop into adults over a LONG period of time. So as parents it helps us to take a bit of a long view too.
Of course, there are times when it is helpful to check in with a professional.
Some behaviors are more trouble than others. It may be helpful to go over the behavior with a professional, someone who has the benefit of experience with many different children. We can all have a sort of myopia when it is only our own children we see.
The most important piece to remember is that behavior is developmental, changing over time. And the chances of them doing “that” as they walk across the stage at graduation from high school are pretty slim.