I often get asked about how to deal with teens who refuse to cooperate. It seems that the impact of COVID has escalated awareness of how often teenagers refuse to cooperate. Whether it’s homework, chores, or shutting off the phone to enjoy some family time, a challenging teen often pushes our buttons.

When teenagers push back, what do we tend to do? We react! We yell. We tend to start using language intended to gain control. Our loud voice starts directing and demanding compliance.

Usually, this makes things worse. Many teens will start to resist more fiercely, and our efforts at control become futile. Even if this is not the case, such escalated communication with our children is stripping away self-esteem and teaching fear-based motivational strategies. It’s a lose-lose if we can’t find a more practical approach. The good news is that you can do better with a bit of effort.

The Secret: Fix The Problem Before It Happens

It’s tough to fix the car spinning out of control while driving at excessive speeds on a snowy road. Much wiser to anticipate the potential problem and drive appropriately. It’s equally tougher to fix an exhausted body hiking the mountain after eating too many pizzas all year. And indeed, it’s equally as challenging to fix an empty bank account after you have spent all the money on short-term pleasures. 

Yes, these are all obvious and perhaps silly examples. But what can we learn from these? In our human interaction with our children, these examples point to inadequate preparation or forethought. 

If we expect to control our children with our voices, we are in trouble. We will inevitably find frustration when they fail to respond the way we want. Then, with our frustration escalating out of control when they resist or do not listen, we will discover that this approach is futile. We are NOW dealing with the inevitable consequence of the lack of preparation and a poor understanding of how we can shape behavior patterns. 

In my work with families, I see this problem arise frequently. There are little structure and no system in place for the kids. As behavior turns ugly, parents escalate their efforts at controlling their kids. They want to fix the moment without preparing, resulting in the proverbial “too little too late” approach. 

Structure Is Your Salvation. Use It Wisely.

It is well-documented that children across all age ranges produce better outcomes when there is more structure in their life. The more children are raised in an environment where there is little to no structure, the greater likelihood of teenage struggles, delinquency, and low motivation and performance.

Do children, particularly teens, fight for ‘freedom’ and the absence of structure? Of course, they do. But this doesn’t mean it is right for them. Many of us fight for habits that undermine both happiness and success in life. Teens wired to do this!

Structure means that there is a relatively consistent method of getting things done at home, where leverage is used to ensure that responsibilities are enforced and limits are honored. 

Those daily routines imply that kids are not only going to bed and getting up at a similar time throughout the year but that they take care of responsibilities around the house daily and help out with basic chores. This is required before they are allowed to have playtime. 

This simple notion of kids doing their homework and a few chores before they can access the goodies is fundamental to promoting responsible kids and productive lives. This ensures that you don’t have to direct, prompt, yell, or otherwise control their behavior. Instead, your focus is upon control what your teens care about: phone, computer, TV, video games, sports, or friends. This is it…you don’t have to control your kids…if you control access to these highly desired goodies. 

Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending upon your view of things, most of what you need to control is found in a little box less than three by six inches: their phones. If you are not controlling the phone, you will likely struggle with control of other habits and responsibilities. Not always, but this is often the case.

This is the fundamental key to cooperation. The consistent structure includes both the daily or weekly routine and in your use of leverage within that routine, to ensure that the work is done before getting the goodies. This eliminates your constant reminding, yelling, and controlling words (which become remarkably useless as a behavior management tool as years go by).

Abandon repeating yourself over and over. Also, abandon the idea that your teenagers just don’t listen and that it’s just the age. Yes, many parents struggle. Why? Because most give up because the controlling strategies do not work. Instead, step into your power by controlling the controllable. These are anything your children or teens care about. 

So, control what you can control. Do this well. And get structure in place today, using predictable leverage to get more cooperation. Stop talking and yelling. Use many fewer words for behavior management. Give up control of your children. 

Instead, control the environment. Do it consistently, and use leverage daily to get the habit of responsible action in place. Your life will be more comfortable, and your kids will show a growing sense of responsibility.