Exploring Influence Versus Control with Adolescents

Adolescence is a difficult and often maddening transition. We all know the familiar struggles that consume their existence: The desire to fit in, to figure out who they are, to make sense of the world around them with the fresh perspective of a burgeoning adult. The teen years represent an enormous period of learning that can only be done a day at a time. We’re often reminded of the extent of the challenges by depictions of teen angst in movies and TV. Pop culture tends to portray these years through the lens of the young. Far less attention is paid to the enormous learning curve facing the parents.

A major theme seen in the relational patterns of families with adolescents is the struggle of parents to reorient their approach with a rebellious kiddo in a way that maintains a good relationship while still achieving the goal of raising a healthy and independent teen. In trying to walk this fine line they find themselves caught in the difficult position of needing to meet adolescent’s natural need for space and structure simultaneously. The parents struggle to adjust to the demands of their new role just as the adolescent is struggling to meet the demands of his.

The failure of parents to adjust to this new paradigm, and the strife it causes between parent and child, was a pattern I saw many times during my experience working as a therapist for the Snohomish County Juvenile Justice System’s counseling program for troubled adolescents and their families.

As a result of not shifting their approach, the parents often run headlong into brick walls of resistance when they employ their tried and tested techniques of control that once worked just a few short years ago. Understandably frustrated, parents sometimes double down on the old ways or, on the other side of the continuum, abdicate their role altogether. Both strategies are bound to fail and will only complicate an already difficult situation. A key fact to keep in mind is that the adolescent is not asking to be controlled or left completely to their own devices (even though they might claim to). They’re asking to be led the right way.

It’s when parents are at this point that I introduce the concept of Influence versus Control, probably the most important concept dealing with an adolescent.

Nature has wired the brain in such a way as to ensure that the adolescent will not respond to assertions of parental control in the same way they did at, say, age ten. Their instincts are telling them to push back; it’s just part of the individuation process. But after so long of being able to control a child with one set of actions, parents find it very difficult to relinquish that control or adopt a different approach. It’s a natural human instinct on the part of the parent to want to prepare and protect the child, but it’s imperative to find an alternate path to the same end; a way that does not drive the adolescent away but motivates them to want to do the right thing.

This is the parents’ opportunity to prove how canny they can be. The key here is finding the “currency” the adolescent will respond to, i.e. a reasonable, relatively harmless incentive that can motivate him to do what you need them to do (going to school, staying out of trouble, doing chores). Find out what their currency is, be it extra time out with friends, a bit more video game time, etc. Use it. This is far preferable to the exertion of control in the form of threats and punishment.

A written agreement can be a great tool to achieve this. Sit down with a blank piece of paper and negotiate in good faith. As with all negotiation, it is imperative that the other side feels that they have a voice and a stake in the process. It is also important for the other side to feel as though they’re getting the better end of the bargain. Negotiate with freedoms or incentives you are willing to give away.

Once reasonable terms are agreed and written out, post it somewhere visible, such as on the refrigerator door. Keep your end of the bargain as long as they keep theirs. Accountability and predictability are required.

Letting go of control is hard for all of us. So is changing our approach to just about anything. But sometimes it’s necessary to achieve a larger goal. Shifting from paradigms from control to influence is one of these necessities. But it can pay dividends in the form of a more tranquil home and a more positive relationship between parent and adolescent.

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James Ullrich, M.A. LMHCA