4 Steps to Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle

Neil Brown is a psychotherapist and author of the book Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle. He joined me this week to share 4 steps to break out of the too-typical battle of wills parents have with their teenagers.

He shared an all too familiar example of parents of teenagers who fall short of their school and home responsibilities because of their obsession with video games. He recommends an intervention that starts with a talk that covers these four ideas:

  1. Be positive. Recognize the strongest character traits in your kids. When parents struggle to get their teenagers to cooperate and manage their responsibilities against teen resistance, parents become frustrated, often angry, and will lose sight of their teenager’s good qualities. They often use a tone that communicates a negative message to their teenager. By holding and communicating a positive vision of their teenager, in words and tone, parents take an important first step in ending that control battle.
  2. Make it clear there is a problem, and what that problem is. It’s a parent’s job to establish healthy standards and expectations. Control battles often muddy the waters of exactly what the standards and expectations are.
  3. Apologize for your role (the parents’ role) in the continued, unproductive battle of wills. Two things happen when parents apologize. It models taking responsibility and it keeps the teenager from becoming defensive.
  4. Establish that all future privileges (i.e., video games) will be earned based on accomplishing the more important priorities. That way parents move away from a model of punishment and consequences, which a teenager will fight against, and puts the teen in charge of earning their privileges. Parents can take the position of, “I’m on your side. I would love for you to have plenty of privileges and you’ll get them when you earn them. And you earn them by managing your responsibilities.”

Click the play button above to listen to our conversation where he explains the steps in more detail, as well as shares the story below from his book as an example of how to execute the plan. As usual, the devil is often in the details.

Excerpt from Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle:

Geoff (15) and his brother Will (13) enjoy playing video games and competing. Both boys are good students and play sports, but the video games have become an obsession. The only thing the boys seem to think about, talk about, or engage in are their games. They still do their schoolwork, although they rush through it to get to the games. They still go to sports practice, but they rarely talk about the team. On the weekends their friends come over and they have large-scale competitions, including overnight marathons.

Getting Geoff and Will to do any home responsibilities, including cleaning their messes in the kitchen, the game room, and the bedroom, has become a major effort. The parents get nods, but no follow through. They’re hearing this a lot: “We’re in the middle of an important game and will do it as soon as we get to the next level.”

As far as the parents can tell, neither kid has ever made it to
the next level!

So the parents have been frustrated for some time now but have been putting up with it for several reasons:

  • They’re glad their boys are getting along and share a common interest. This is way better than the fighting they used to do!
  • They always wanted their house to be the house that all the kids come to. They don’t want to ruin that.
  • They’re glad their sons aren’t out using drugs or alcohol.

Geoff and Will are basically good kids, so why start a huge battle? They almost always have friends over, and the parents don’t want to make a scene in front of the other kids. Their parents have tried being nice, but that has accomplished nothing. Now it’s to the point where there is a battle almost every night and weekend. “Clean this up!” “Put that away!” “Stop the games and do your work!” “Stop the games and go to bed!” Each request elicits the same response: a passive “I will,” followed by no action, which is lately followed by ”Right now!” After spending an enormous amount of energy, the parents get about half of what they asked for, and then the boys are back to their games.

Breaking point
After what seemed like weeks or months of this, Mom got totally fed up and told her sons: “No more video games for a week.”

What happened? Both boys hung out at their friend’s house and played their games there. The restrictions made no difference, and three days later their father let them start playing at home again in exchange for some minor cleanups. This didn’t go over well with Mom. When Mom got upset with Dad for “giving in,” he said, “Well it wasn’t working anyway, so I decided to try something different. At least this achieved something.”

Three days later, things were back to the same unpleasant normal, except Mom was still angry with Dad, and Dad thought Mom was being unreasonable and should be more supportive of him and the kids.

It was at this point that I received a call from Mom, asking for a consultation. She explained that she and her husband were struggling with their boys, and now with each other, and needed to get on the same page.
During our consultation, we established that the boys’ lack of accountability and responsiveness to their parents was indeed a problem and that a control battle with some momentum had developed. The boys were becoming less responsible, and this was affecting their school effort and performance. We acknowledged that both boys were essentially excellent young men with many strengths, but the current problems were overshadowing those strengths and were too unpleasant and destructive to be allowed to go on.

We also established that while both parents agreed there was a problem that needed to be solved regarding the boys, Mom and Dad had also become frustrated with one another because of their different styles of communication.  Mom has a tendency to become emotional and sharp when she is upset, whereas Dad tends to avoid intense emotion and conflict. We decided that a “control battle reversal plan” would be ideal because it encouraged a positive tone, which Dad liked, and put the burden of change on the kids, which they both liked, and this helped them feel better about one another, too.

Turning point
That night they sat the boys down and had the following discussion.
Dad: Look, boys. Mom and I aren’t happy with the amount of tension and arguing we’ve all been experiencing together. We’re not comfortable with your lack of cooperation and your priority of games over responsibilities.

Will: What’s the big deal? We get our work done!

Mom: Please let us continue. You’ll get a chance to speak. We know you’re great kids: bright, talented, athletic, handsome, and in many ways, thoughtful and responsible. And yes, most of the time you get your schoolwork done, but not up to the best of your ability. And family responsibilities and chores are another story.

Dad: You’re teenagers, so I guess a certain amount of ignoring your parents is to be expected. But things have gotten out of hand and there needs to be a serious adjustment here. Mom and I are feeling completely taken for granted, and every request and limit is an enormous battle. We don’t want to work that hard.

Mom: I feel like I owe you all an apology. I’ve been upset with you, so I’ve been angry and argumentative. That’s not how I want to be, and it’s not what you need.

Dad: I owe you all an apology as well.

Geoff: You don’t yell much, Dad. You’ve been pretty cool with us.

Dad: That may be true, but it’s also true that I haven’t been dealing with things. I think I’ve given you both the impression that I’m okay with your behavior, and I’m not. And you both deserve a father who will be straight with you. Your mom deserves that too.

Mom: So here is what we’ve concluded. Video gaming is fine with us. Having friends over is fine with us. Here’s what’s not fine with us: Not doing a thorough job on your homework. Not doing your chores. Saying “okay” when we ask you to do something and then just not doing it.

Will: We can’t help it. When you’re into a video game, nothing else exists. That’s what’s so cool about video games.

Mom: That explains a few things, but it’s not good enough. We need to be able to talk to you and know you are hearing us.

Dad: So before you go forward with any more gaming, before any friends come over again, and before you go out, there are several things that need to be addressed. First, Mom and I need to know that you understand and agree to uphold the priorities of schoolwork, home responsibilities, and being responsive when Mom or I ask for something. Next, we want a full cleaning of your bedrooms and bathroom. When that is done, Mom and I will review where you are in each of your classes and see where things need to be shored up.

Will: Okay. Geoff, let’s get this done fast so we can play this afternoon.

Mom: That’s not going to be possible, boys. First we need to know that you get what we’re saying. If you both show an excellent attitude and a full effort, Dad and I will consider offering you the privileges you want, but not until we’re confident that you have your priorities straight and you demonstrate that to us. Right now is your opportunity to earn them, and earning them is the only way you will get them.

The Outcome
Parents did get an immediate positive result, but things remained a bit cloudy for how to deal with each thing as it came up.  Mom, Dad, Will and Geoff all came in for some sessions together and we identified the control battle beast. What fed the beast was Mom getting upset, Dad soft peddling, and kids putting the burden of their responsibilities on their parents and prioritizing recreation for their responsibilities.  We had several sessions together where it became much easier for everyone to see clearly that if the boys wanted their privileges, they needed to earn them by taking their responsibilities seriously.

The boys were attuned to and responsive to parental requests and parents no longer looked for exactly the right formula for communicating with the boys. Mom was no longer shrill because she wasn’t trying to get them to do anything, that was their job. She was just informing them and letting go. Dad no longer felt like he needed to soften Mom or let the kids off the hook. Once they were starving the beast, teen development and parental sanity was back on track.

You can get a copy of the book at this link: Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle. And you can find out more about Neil Brown and his work at his website: neildbrown.com. He also has a podcast you can find on iTunes at this link: Healthy Family Connections podcast.

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Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a StoryParenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.

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