In 2003, as a single mom of six, my household was spiralling sickeningly out of control. My 16-year-old daughter was heavily involved in drugs and had left home. My 15-year-old son was in a CAS group home, and the younger ones were taking notes and robbing me blind.
Every other parent I knew was doing fine. They all had well-behaved kids who did their chores, were responsible and respectful, followed the house rules, attended school, did their homework, and didn’t smoke, drink or do drugs. What was wrong with me? What was I doing wrong?
I concluded that I was too permissive and became a tyrant. I made lists of house rules and tried (in vain) to enforce them. I reasoned with them. I lectured. I yelled. I threatened. I stomped my feet and broke things. I cried and screamed. I despaired and gave up. And the chaos escalated.
Everything I did seemed to make things worse. And what really stumped me was how I – a relatively intelligent and loving human being – could be such a hopeless failure when it came to restoring order in my home and raising my kids to be responsible and decent human beings.
I was frantic, desperate – and acutely embarrassed. I stopped having friends over, and I avoided conversations about my kids and my home life. What in the world could I say?!
A parade of agencies, psychologists, therapists, counsellors and social workers rolled up their sleeves and got to work, intent on figuring out what had gone wrong and how to fix it. I was hopeful. No solutions were forthcoming, but they were thorough in determining causes for all this chaos:
- It was my fault for being permissive and ineffective.
- It was my ex-husband’s fault for being angry and aggressive.
- It was the fault of genetics (both sides of the family had a history of alcoholism and drug abuse).
- It was the fault of “mental illness.”
How can teens be held accountable in the face of all that?!
In March 2003, CAS informed me that, because my son was turning 16 at the end of August, either he would return home in mid-July or he would become a ward of Children’s Aid. At the same time, I had reason to believe that my daughter would live out my worst nightmare and end up living on the street (which in fact she did). I was living in a pressure cooker.
Then I was introduced to a parent group based on Choice Theory by Dr. William Glasser. For the first time I felt hope and relief, and began to experience real, meaningful, lasting change in my home – and myself. And in July of that year, I brought my son and daughter home.
The results of this approach and the impact on my life prompted me to study Choice Theory and Reality Therapy and become faculty with the Glasser Institute. As well as facilitating parent groups, running workshops, and coaching, I worked with social service agencies and ran weekly teen discussion groups out of my home for two years.
Fifteen years later, all my “difficult teens” are happy and thriving. And as for our relationships, we all confide in each other, enjoy each other, and have become the kind of close-knit family that I thought only existed in books.
I’m excited to share with you what I’ve discovered on this journey, and welcome your questions and comments. It can get better. Don’t give up!
What I learned in the parent support group
In March of 2003, I discovered a parent group that saved my sanity. The group was based on Choice Theory by William Glasser, and what I learned there changed not only how I parented, but positively impacted all my other relationships.
I joined the group with the hope of learning how to change my kids. Instead, I learned how to change myself – and that changed everything!
The first thing I learned was that the only behaviour I could control was my own. This flew in the face of the common-sense mantra, “You have to get them under control!” It took me longer to appreciate the corollary: the only person who could control my behaviour was me. This meant I could no longer blame my kids for my ineffective behaviour.
The focus then moved from how I could make them do what they didn’t want to do, to figuring out what I wanted and what I could do to get it. Being a much more creative approach, it opened the door to endless possibilities.
Take the kitchen, for example. Six kids can generate a whole lot of dishes in one day, and I seemed to be the only one who cared if the kitchen was clean. I was willing to do dishes, but not every dish in the house. So I left out one mug, glass, bowl, plate, and cutlery for each person. Then I cleared space in my linen cupboard and locked up the rest. I could at least control how many dishes I’d have to wash each day.
Next, I learned that the solution is never in the problem. The solution is always in the relationship. Step 1: Stop criticizing, blaming, complaining, nagging, threatening, punishing, and bribing. This included lecturing and giving advice. Step 2: Replace those with supporting, encouraging, trusting, listening, respecting, accepting, and negotiating differences.
This doesn’t mean you should support your teen in making ineffective decisions. It means that you should be their safe haven, the one they can always turn to, the one who will listen without criticizing or judging them, the one who says, “This is tough, and I know you can handle it.”
Some parents have argued that this is a “permissive” approach. Not so. Controlling our kids (or anyone else) is a myth. But when the relationship is strong and satisfying to both, we have tremendous influence, and that has a much more positive and lasting effect. Whatever behaviour we’re expecting from them, they won’t know what it looks like until they see us do it.
I stopped siding with authorities, family, and friends against my children. Instead, I stood by them as they learned to navigate these systems. I thanked teachers for their efforts on my children’s behalf and advised them that, since education was my children’s responsibility, the school should deal with them directly.
I learned that a boundary is a rule you make for yourself, not for someone else. “I’ll wash whatever’s in the hamper.” “Once I’m in my pyjamas, I’m not going out again.”
I also learned why threats, punishment, and rewards don’t work; how to get out of the middle; how to help my kids make better decisions; why parents don’t have to be on the same page; how to get respect; and why house rules don’t work – and what does.
Lots more to come. Send questions! You’re welcome to remain anonymous.
If you’d like to know more about Choice Theory, email me at email@example.com and I’ll send you a PDF of the 31-page booklet Who’s Driving YOUR Car? and the handout Six Things: How to create healthy boundaries. And, as always, I welcome your questions and comments!