I frequently hear complaints from parents that their teenagers—or, more accurately, their adolescents—are irrational.

Kids say they want to get into a good college, for example, but then they miss school because they’ve stayed up half the night watching movies. Or they say they’d like to keep taking guitar lessons so that they might be able to join their friends’ rock band, but they refuse to practice on a regular schedule or to show up to their lessons.

The first thing to accept is that it is your adolescent’s developmental job to take the irrational position, the position that they know you’ll disagree with. Teens are driven to individuate, or to gain autonomy and independence by differentiating themselves from us, their loving parents. This is why they sometimes take positions we just know they couldn’t possibly really believe. (Except that they do really believe in their take on things, at least emotionally.)

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Once we understand that adolescents are highly likely to take seemingly irrational stances on things, there are strategies for us to influence our adolescent children without endangering their need to individuate. This post is based on a conversation that I had with Ron Dahl about raising teenagers, as well as some of Dahl’s written work.

I asked Dahl what he does with his children when he wants to influence them.

His answer? He uses techniques from a clinical method called “motivational interviewing.” Motivational interviewing has proven effective in motivating behavior change in teens in difficult arenas, like drug and alcohol abuse, disordered eating, and risky sexual behavior. Dahl’s advice was to learn to use it as a parent for the more mundane areas where we’d like to see growth in our children, so that if we need it for a bigger problem we know what we are doing. Here are five motivational interviewing techniques that decrease kids’ resistance to our influence:

(1) Express empathy. Kids and teens are much more likely to listen to us if they feel understood. Resist the urge to give advice or to “finger-wag”—two things that tend to create defensiveness and resistance to our great ideas. Instead, reflect back to adolescents their position on things.

(2) Ask open-ended questions to understand their position. We want to encourage our teens to share with us their innermost motivations. To do this, we can phrase our questions non-judgmentally in ways that will prompt the adolescent to elaborate. Even if we are giving kids a choice about what to talk about (“Do you want to talk about what it is like when you lose your temper at school, or do you want to talk about what makes it difficult for you to eat a healthy lunch?”) Dahl recommends that we always also throw in a super-open-ended question like, “...or maybe there is something else you would rather discuss? What do you think?”

(3) Reflect what they are saying, not what we wish they were saying. This can be a simple restatement:

Adolescent: You say that I have to do all these things to make the team, but I think I’ll make the team even if I don’t jump through those hoops.
Parent: You’re not sure all this work is necessary.

Or, you can reflect what they mean but use different words:

Adolescent: I’m not an alcoholic!
Parent: That label really doesn’t fit you.

Or, try reflecting what they are feeling:

Adolescent: I’m not an alcoholic!
Parent: It really makes you angry when you think you are being labeled in that way.

Finally, try amplifying or exaggerating—without sarcasm!—what they are saying if the adolescent clearly expresses some ambivalence about their resistance to your influence:

Adolescent: I’m really not sure that I need help or treatment to deal with this.
Parent: Your life is really fine right now, just the way it is.

(4) Show them their inconsistencies—gently. One thing that we can reflect back to our teens, using the above strategies, are their conflicting motivations—the inconsistencies between what they say their goals or beliefs are, and their current behavior.

What to say, then, to that teen who wants to join the garage band, but has not been practicing regularly or learning the music? First, ask her permission to tell her what you see.

If she says she’s willing to listen to your perspective, gently point out the discrepancy between what she says she wants and what she’s doing to make that happen in a non-judgemental, factual way: “You really want to join Jack’s band, but before they’ll let you audition, you need to learn all the songs on their playlist. You haven’t started learning those songs yet. It seems like the play is taking up a lot of the time that you might spend practicing, and that when you get home from play practice, you just want to chill out in your room instead of practicing more or starting your homework.”

(5) Support their autonomy and emphasize their personal choice and control. Teens are most likely to change when they recognize the problem themselves, and when they are optimistic about their ability to solve the problem. We can help by expressing our confidence in their abilities, and by emphasizing that we can’t change them—that the choice about whether or not to change is the adolescent’s alone. Dahl recommends saying something like this: “Whether or not you make any changes in your activities or your behavior is entirely up to you. I definitely would not want you to feel pressured to do anything against your will.”

All of these techniques take practice. (At least for me. The only thing that seems to come naturally to me is bossiness.)

Check out the next five tips in this follow up post, here.

I drew heavily on this chapter for this posting:
Gold, Melanie A. and Ronald E. Dahl, “Using Motivational Interviewing to Facilitate Healthier Sleep-Related Behaviors in Adolescents.” In Behavioral Treatments for Sleep Disorders. Edited by Michael Perlis, Mark Aolia, and Brett Kuhn, Amsterdam: Academic Press, 2011, Chapter 38, pp. 367-380.

© 2013 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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