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How to Pick Your Parenting Battles: The Prioritizing Principle


As a parent, you have probably often heard the phrase "pick your battles carefully." Of course, this means that some battles should be fought, and some should be left alone. In other words, the really important matters need to be addressed (e.g., drug use), whereas some smaller issues can simply be ignored (e.g., sibling rivalry). However, there is one crucial component to "picking battles carefully," and that is prioritizing.

While it is important to pick your battles carefully, it's even more important to pick them one at a time. Too often, parents attempt to address multiple behavioral issues at once. For example:

Your teenage son comes home and tells you that he has been suspended from school for two days because he cussed-out his teacher (problem #1). So you wisely state that he will be "grounded" for those two days as well. Upon hearing this, your son becomes belligerent and calls you a "bitch" (problem #2). Your reaction to that is to add another consequence, specifically no television or computer privileges for these two days. This angers your son even more, so he stomps-off to his bedroom and slams his bedroom door so hard that the clock hanging on the wall crashes to the floor and breaks (problem #3). The next day, you discover that your son left the house while you were at work when he was supposed to be grounded (problem #4). So, when you get home, you tell him that he is now grounded for the rest of the week. He gets even angrier… and on it goes!

So, in this scenario, the first problem (a two-day suspension from school) resulted in four additional problems. Now let's replay this scenario and employ the "prioritizing principle":

Your son tells you that he has been suspended from school for two days. Since you don't want him to be running all over town during that time, you state that he will be grounded during the suspension. This angers him and he calls you a bad name. Being aware of the prioritizing principle, you calmly state, "Using that language is not acceptable. I understand that you're upset about being suspended and grounded for two days, but you surely don't expect a two-day vacation with a free pass to do whatever you want. I could ground you for a week - since you called me a name like that - but I'm willing to overlook it for now since we have this other issue to deal with."

In this way, the problems are less likely to pile-up. Now, here are the exact steps involved in the "prioritizing principle":

Let's assume that your teenage daughter has five behavioral issues that you want to address:
  1. spending too much time texting her girlfriends instead of doing homework,
  2. not cleaning her room,
  3. chronically coming home about 30 minutes after curfew,
  4. dating a much older boy that you do not approve of,
  5. and constantly arguing with you about why she should be able to get her lip pierced.

Rather than fighting all these battles at once, you are going to pick the most urgent issue, and then break that issue down into even smaller sub-steps.

So, step one is to identify the current “most problematic” issue. The big question to ask yourself in order to identify this issue is, "Of the five problems I am currently having with my daughter, which one puts her safety at risk the most?" Some parents might say that curfew violation is a big safety issue. Others might believe that dating an older boy who may not be a good influence is the larger issue. But the point here is this: of the two top issues to address, your job is to only address one! So, let's say that you view curfew violation and dating an older boy as equally problematic. In keeping with the prioritizing principle, you choose to deal with the dating issue.

In step two, you have an agenda: to get your daughter to stop seeing her boyfriend. But you're going to break this down into small, manageable sub-steps. For example:
  • Sub-step one might be to have a heart-to-heart talk with your daughter regarding your concerns about her older boyfriend. After you've spoken, you allow your daughter to speak her mind. Then let it rest. Don't fall into an argument. Both of you have said your piece – that's enough for now.
  • Sub-step two might be to make contact with the parents of your daughter's boyfriend. Get to know them. See what they're like.
  • Sub-step three might be to invite this boyfriend over to the house so you can get to know him.
  • Sub-step four could include your evaluation of the boyfriend and his parents (now that you have met them) to see if this boy is, indeed, a bad influence. If not, you might consider allowing your daughter to see him – but only on certain occasions, in certain places, and at certain times. If the boyfriend or his parents do seem to be a poor influence, then you can create another sub-step. Perhaps this new sub-step would include a new house rule (e.g., "No boyfriends 18 years of age or older") and a consequence for violating the rule (e.g., "If you choose to see this young man, you also choose the consequence, which is grounding with no privileges – the duration yet to be determined").

So in the example above, you picked just ONE battle, but you also picked just ONE intervention at a time while dealing with it.

In summary, take time to understand the complexities of adolescence. This will help you empathize with your teenager when parent-child conflict arises. Remember that constant changes, pressure to conform, worries about the future, and personal insecurities produce an enormous amount of anxiety. The teenage years are some of the most trying years to manage, and the battles at home are usually a direct reflection of your teenager's emotional state. Thus, don’t forget to use the prioritizing principle when attempting to resolve behavioral issues. Prioritize the issues that are the most important to address. Both mother and father should discuss which issues are non-negotiable, then communicate these expectations to their teenager. Keep in mind that these issues will differ for every family. Although teenagers will still push the boundaries, pre-emptive communication and use of the prioritizing principle will help defuse battles more quickly – and will also keep problems from piling up.

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