Parenting a Bipolar Teenager

Hello Mark,

I have downloaded your book and looked over most of it and I'm seeing a lot of helpful strategies. My husband seems to want to close his eyes and the nightmare will go away. I want to deal with the problems head on. Our son will not comply with anything we tell him. I'm scared of his violent outbursts due to many holes in our walls and doors. We have dealt with the law, med. professionals, etc.. We have diagnosis of ADHD, ODD, and bi-polar. I currently am trying to place him in a medical residential center, but it is taking months. And I don't think that we have much time left.

He currently is in an outpatient behavioral health center. He won't take the meds. The psychotherapist said that he could use residential treatment. He talks about hating his life all the time. Drugs, alcohol, sex and wrong friends are his choices. He quit school at 16 and will be 17 on 9/3/09. He said he is leaving soon. He wants to be emancipated! He currently is working less than 30hrs at a fast food rest… never saving a dime.

He is in a GED program a few hours a week. I will not allow him to get a driver's license, due to his present problems. It is difficult to give you a summary of our Son's info. I could write a book on all that we have tried to help him with over the years. Maybe you could give us some advice on how to enforce rules and what are our options when he refuses to comply. The laws are on his side. We can't tell him to hit the road, because he is still legally our responsibility. Thank you for listening and looking forward to your reply.



Hi C.,

The bipolar issue is the most pressing one. CLICK HERE for more info.

Also click here for a PDF file that you should read.


Oppositional Defiant Disorder: How Parents Can Take Control

If your youngster is belligerent, mouthy and downright disobedient, it's time to take a closer look at the reasons why. All kids go through times when they just will not obey but the youngster with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is one who will never obey and one who will always push the family's boundaries.

The youngster with ODD is an instigator. He loves to poke and prod and do all the tiny things behind the scenes to get his siblings in trouble. He is the youngster that challenges everything you say. Most often this youngster will not have friends.

He may or may not have trouble in the classroom. Many kids with this disorder do fine in school but act out at home. This is generally thought to be because the youngster, understanding at an early age that his behavior is not socially acceptable, can hold it together during class hours but at some point, that youngster will need release. At home, he feels safe and knows he is loved. There is no longer any need for him to hold it all in. When your youngster arrives home from school, he will often scream the entire way from the bus to the house. Once inside, the meltdown escalates until you as a parent find yourself wishing he were still at school.

Thus begins the cycle that every parent of ODD kids can relate to. You feel you are to blame. You doubt your parenting. You feel guilty for wishing the youngster had somewhere else to go. You find yourself depleted, angry and unable to cope.

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

Following are a few things you can do to cut down on the meltdowns and take control again:

1. Establish a secure and supportive environment. A youngster with ODD needs to have security. He needs to know that mom and dad will always be there for him. He needs to know that no matter how uncontrollable he becomes, you will still love him.

2. Create a schedule and stick with it. Kids need a schedule. This is especially true of the youngster with ODD. He needs to know what comes next in his day. The surest way to a meltdown and uncontrollable behavior is the lack of a schedule. These kids want to know that everything follows a certain order. You may want to give your youngster his own calendar so he can track his own appointments. Use a schedule for chores and schoolwork. Your ODD youngster craves organization.

3. Set up clear and concise boundaries. Your youngster must know what will happen if he pulls his sister's hair, or breaks all the toys in his bedroom in a fit of rage. Determine the behaviors that cause the most strife in your household and write them down. Choose three or four of them to work on. Sit down with your youngster and have him help you draw up a plan. The plan should state the unwanted behavior and then the consequence of engaging in that behavior:

o Biting: 10-minute time-out.
o Breaking toys: Favorite toy gets taken away for three days.
o Kicking: 10-minute time-out.
o Temper tantrum: Half hour in bedroom to get control of himself.
4. Be consistent. You will need to mete out the exact same discipline every time your youngster breaks the rule. If you carry through one time and you don't the next, the youngster will feel that he is in control. The most important thing to a youngster with ODD is to control those around him. If you let him have control, you will have lost any chance of him obeying you. Consistency is key!

5. Never shout or get angry with your youngster. A youngster with ODD literally shuts down when being yelled at. He cannot hear you. This phenomenon is discussed at length in The Explosive Child. Keep your voice gentle but firm, soft but authoritative.

Remember that ODD is a disorder. Your youngster may want to obey and he may try very hard to obey, but he just can't summon up that sort of self-control. You can help him control his behavior by controlling his environment. Your youngster is not out to get you or to make your life miserable. When you can see ODD as a disorder rather than blatant defiance, it may be easier to put the tools in place that will help your youngster and your family live in harmony.

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

Disrespect, breaking curfew, grades slipping...

Before my daughter started hanging around with 2 particular girls in her 2nd year of high school, our relationship was OK. Slowly things got bad to worse. Disrespect, breaking curfew, grades slipping …the whole gamut. Now she is out of high school and luckily will be starting college in the fall. Using the OPS program has helped and I wish I would have known about it 2 years ago.

Thank you for your e-mail and encouragement...

Hello Mark,

Thank you for your e-mail and encouragement.

I am going through all the weekly sessions very carefully, reading everything, watching everything and implementing it as guided. We are now in week 2 and I would like only to say how I am getting on with the situations with the help of the programme.

Literally, I would say that I feel like learning how to play a piano. I have the notes in front of me, I have my teacher and now it is just up to me how I am going to perform. What I have figured out for myself is that:

-I need to know my notes very well, read again and again and try to get to the very inside of the 'music';

-I need to shape myself in a way which is going to help me to touch the keyboard with the right intensity-not too strong, not too quick, but just right, allowing me to live with the music and to feel it....

If I miss something, music sounds false. That is what happened one day when I forgot to praise my child for his good behaviour at school, but I did not forget to put restrictions on him because he did not obey and took a pound from my purse in front of me when I told him that I was not going to give him pocket money for that day for another reason. After school that day we had supper together (that happened rarely before) and he helped me cook and prepare table, but immediately afterwards decided to try his old tricks again. As I was sitting on the sofa he made a stick of a cardboard and started tapping it on my head saying 'Why are you like that? Stop listening to that people that telling you to behave in this way. I want you to get back to what you were...I do not want any changes...'I felt really upset but I did not show it. I calmly said that what he was doing was unacceptable and that we needed to sit and talk more about that. He continued for a while and then eventually we sat and talked again. I realise that my son was scared of the measures that I implemented. I explained that everything I did was to help him.

On the following day he got up and said to me 'I am normal again... 'but did not get any pocket money that morning because of his behaviour and did accept my decision without any problems. Then later on that day when I read and watched everything in the program again, I realised that I did not react to my son's good behaviour at school at all and I remembered how proud he was to show me his school report...

That day I got a phone call from my son's school to tell me how good had his behaviour been lately...I did not have anything else to do but I bought his favourite tart for dessert and we had a good evening including that he also helped with cooking and tidied his wardrobe. I did not forget to tell him that I loved him...

This is one more opportunity also to thank you again, Mark.

Kind Regards,


My Out-of-Control Teen

Another "Parenting" Success Story


Thanks so much for this wonderful program. It took me longer to complete than 4 weeks, but I kept at it.

I realized today that my son's addiction to online games is under control, he's turned to his X box games and I haven't been requiring him to earn this reward. I took the controller today. We still have alot of work to do, and but he's really come around. He has really been working hard and helping me outside.

My 14 yr old daughter fixed our riding lawn mower last night by herself! She put the belt back on, and fixed the deck so its level. She asked me to come outside - but I explained I had dinner on the stove and couldn't leave it. She remained calm and fixed it and mowed the front yard. I praised her and told her how great that was and that I couldn't do it on my own. I asked her to show me how she did it.

We're making progress.


Online Parent Support

A Success Story

Hello Mark,

You cannot imagine what a relief your e-mail has been to me. Thank you for your time, understanding and support.

Unfortunately, I could not reply immediately as 'my monster' took the cable and battery of my laptop on Sunday.

Here is just a quick update of my ’weekend drama', but also I would like proudly to say 'I made it!’ thanks to you.

My son went out again with his rebellion school friend at 11.30pm. I stayed calm. He came back 2 hours later and went to bed. I left everything for the morning.

In the morning I was determined not to leave him to sleep till lunch time as it had happened before. I called him and told him that if he did not get up in 10 min, was not going to have his pocket money on Monday. I did not believe it would work. He had never got up before after being called just once. I used to be coming back for 5, and 5 and 5 more min...But soon after that, I heard the door of the bathroom opening and my son already....dressed.

Next success for the day- he helped with lunch and set the table. I cannot remember how long for it had not been done. Than we had 1 hour lunch, including a conversation mostly about mobile phones-what kind of them was 'the best one’. I was asking questions about them (what could I do, if that was the main topic of interest of my son...) It looked like one of the happiest lunches in my life...

But what happened next...As soon as we put the dishes away, ’my monster' decided to try to go back on the track again...'Where is my TV remote control? I want it back!’I stayed calm, 'You will get it on Tuesday. I will not repeat again. I will not argue.’ Then in front of my eyes the cables of my laptop were taken, my purse was taken, as well as my mobile and home phone. The outside handle of my son's door was taken off so that I could not enter his room and all my important possessions were hidden. If it was only some months ago, I was going to be very upset and crying and trying to get everything back. I did not react at all-nothing happened...I went to my bedroom and started reading newspaper.

There were a couple of long, long hours...Then the door of my bedroom opened carefully. I was pretending to sleep...I had to be checked (Why there was not reaction? Strange...Boring...What happened to my mom....) Then half an hour later, the door opened again-I was reading a book, did not react again...I started feeling how embarrassed my son was...

Then supper time came. It appeared that there was nothing prepared. My sweet monster came to me with the words 'I am hungry', expecting that I was going to jump and make supper in a I used to do...But this time I did not. I said 'My purse is with you; I do not have money and therefore cannot get what we need for supper. You better give my possessions back otherwise the consequences are also to be that I am not going to collect your mobile phone from school on Monday.'

My son was also 'adamant' 'I will give you your things back, if you give me my TV remote back.' I thought myself, 'At this point I used to give up ...and.... created my monster.’ But I did not this time. I stayed calm and insisted that the remote was going to be given back on Tuesday. Then I was told 'Stop playing this game with me...I am playing it at school, why at home again...You did not make it yourself...Who gave you the idea? You are not such a creature...Stop doing that to me....'

And I replied 'I do not play games. I have never played games .I am only helping you. I only want you to believe yourself again. When did you lose your confidence?'The answer was straightforward '3 months ago.'3 months ago my son was moved from one tutor group to another as 'the leader' of the disruptive children in his previous tutor group. I still cannot figure out if this was the right decision, as I sometimes think that this made the thinks worse and increased my son's anxiety. I do not know...

That night we did not get to a solution my possessions to be given back, but I felt that I won, for the first time in many, many years. And I was right.

In the morning I was given everything back and promised the door handle to be put back again. The remote control is still with me... back to my son tomorrow, as was once said, without any changes and maybe this time.

Perhaps it is too early to celebrate. I definitely know it is. I will face many, many other difficulties and challenges for sure, but I am determined to succeed, to get everything to the very end, to be consistent. It does not matter what it would cost me.

I have already lost too much with my child. I know, it is not going to be easy, especially as I am on my own now. My husband has gone to work 250 miles away, on the south coast, as his previous company closed. I have got his support, but he is not at home every day. My job also is very demanding-I work in Emergency Department now and I created a ....demanding child...I am happy that I started all this during my week off, otherwise I do not know how I would cope with everything...But I am determined to do it. And thank you for giving me the opportunity to do something really precious for my child (the only one).

God bless you and what you do.

Kind Regards


My Out-of-Control Child: Help for Parents

Dealing With Your Out-of-Control Teenage Daughter

 Here are some quick tips for all you parents with an out-of-control teenage daughter...

• Ask yourself, “What have I done to contribute to the rift between us?” Think about when the trouble began. How old was she and what was going on in your family life? I have counseled hundreds of father/mothers and daughters whose relationships were badly damaged and getting worse. For healing to begin, it was important for the father/mother to understand what part she had in fueling the fires of defiance. If you’re willing to take an honest look at yourself, you will find some answers.

• Avoid Blame. While some people claim that when a daughter is rebellious her father/mother is to blame, this usually is not true. Blaming the daughter for the difficulties does nothing to fix the problem either. There are many circumstances that contribute to the predicament.

• Be Willing to Negotiate. The “fix my daughter” approach won’t work. Both father/mother and daughter have to be willing to negotiate and find solutions they can both live with. There are times when there’s nothing you can do to get your daughter to cooperate except wait until she’s ready. If your daughter obstinately refuses to work with you, realize that you can’t control her behavior, but you can control your own.

• Distinguish between Healthy and Unhealthy Rebellion. Rebellion takes many forms, from harmless talking back to defiant acts of drug and alcohol abuse or sexual activity. As a father/mother, you have to determine which acts fall under the healthy category and which cross the line into unsafe territory. Talking back is a clue that your daughter is in the throes of her first teenage rebellion. It signals that, while she’s not yet articulate enough to express herself effectively, she’s struggling to find ways to assert her autonomy.

• Try Everything. Father/mothers often feel that they have tried everything. They are convinced that nothing will work. These negative stances won’t get you out of the rut. Even though you’ve tried everything you can think of, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a solution. Often we are so close to our own problems that we can’t find the obvious answers. But if you’re willing to stay open and seek help, the answers will come. Get outside opinions, but be sure they apply to your situation. Listen to your daughter and your own intuition and you may be surprised with the solutions you’ll discover.

• Uncover the Roots of the Problem. Out-of control behavior is a symptom of deeper problems. Consider how the two of you got to this point. Take a guess at the reasons your daughter is acting out. By identifying the reasons for your daughter’s undesirable behavior, you’ll be more apt to find the keys to correcting it. If you treat just the symptoms, the underlying trouble will still be there and will erupt again.

Daughter Wants To Live With Father

Dear Mark...I need some advice...My 14 yr old daughter has been at her dad's all summer. In talking to her she says she does not want to come home and wants to stay with her dad. She says she likes it there, no one is bitching at her all the time and that if we make her come home she will make our lives a living hell. How do you respond to that? ~ J.


I get this question a lot...

I always recommend that the former parent [you] allow the child to stay with the other parent [dad]. However, what usually happens is the dad eventually experiences the same parent-child conflict that the mother did, resulting in his request [or demand] that the child move back to mom's.

Bottom line: The more you convey that you "need" her to live with you - the more she will feel a sense of what I call "retaliation gratification" [i.e., a feeling of exacting revenge against "the bitch"]. 
So, you should "act as if" you are comfortable with her staying a dad's. This is a paradoxical intervention. The more she feels you are "o.k." with her living at dad's - the more she will begin to miss living with you [although she will never acknowledge this].

Say, "I love you and will miss you - and you are always welcome to come home. Good luck at your dad's." And check-in with her every week or two [i.e., call or email]. If you force her to return - then you will have successfully engaged in a power struggle that you will not win.

Warning: Be prepared for her eventual return [behavior contract in hand] - but do not allow yourself to sink into a depression if she does not return.

Mark Hutten, M.A.

Communicating Effectively with Teenagers

Are you finding raising adolescents to be difficult? If so, you are not alone. Raising adolescents in a successful way requires good communication skills. Moms & dads do not automatically posses the skills necessary to communicate with their adolescents in an effective way. Communication skills like any other kind of skill must be learned. The following tips can help you reach your adolescent and make the difficult job of raising adolescents that much easier.

Possessing a loving, evolving, healthy relationship with an adolescent means getting to know him or her as a person; this is especially important when we consider that a primary task of successfully navigating through adolescence is identity formation. Moms & dads, and anyone who works with troubled adolescents, will need to focus on taking intentional steps towards forming a meaningful relationship with the adolescent. A primary mechanism of discerning, learning, and understanding the personality characteristics and identity of a problem child is through effective communication. Effective communication incorporates a variety of skills some of which include attending behaviors, reflective listening, open and closed questions, and observation.

Attending Behaviors—

Attending behaviors, including eye contact, vocal qualities, verbal tracking, and body language, can communicate to adolescents that you truly want to hear and understand what he or she is saying. For a troubled adolescent, it may also communicate that you care and want to connect on a personal and emotional level. Although there are cultural differences in the effective use of attending, generally direct eye contact is considered a sign that the individual being spoken to is fully present and listening. Breaks in eye contact may inform the listener in determining topics that could be uncomfortable or distressing. Vocal qualities, on the part of either the speaker or the listener, such as changes in pitch, volume, and rate of speech, can communicate care, understanding, or a lack thereof.

Verbal tracking is another attending behavior that may assist the adult in receiving the entire content or emotion that is being communicated to the adolescent. If the adolescent tends to shift topics, you, the adult, may want to pull the conversation back to a specific “track” to obtain the full narrative of a situation or concern. In addition, body language, rather than verbal exchange, is a primary means of communicating with adolescents. A person may move towards another when interested and away when uninterested or uncomfortable. To facilitate open communication with an adolescent, body language must remain authentic, relaxed, open, respectful, and convey care and a sense of attentive presence.

Reflective Listening—

Reflective listening, such as through the use of paraphrasing, encouragers (e.g., nodding your head, saying uh-uh, repeating the last word of an adolescent’s sentence in the form of a question to encourage additional elaboration), or restating what you hear in your own words to confirm that you accurately understand the adolescent’s narrative or concern, demonstrates that you empathize and are interested. When a teen feels heard, he or she is more likely to remain open and develop trust with another. Attempt to reflect back to the adolescent not just the content, but also the feelings underneath the content. This aids the adolescent in identifying and labeling feelings, thereby increasing insight and understanding of self.

Open and Closed Questions—

Through the use of open and closed questions, you may assist an adolescent in exploring ideas and experiences from a variety of angles. This also helps in developing insight and self-awareness. Asking questions such as, “What else?”, “What happened before you felt afraid or acted out in anger?”, “Was there something different going on that made you react differently?”, “Could you give me a specific example?” facilitate understanding. Closed questions may be effective in obtaining specific information and generally begin with is, are, or do. Open questions encourage additional dialogue and generally begin with what, how, why, or could. However, when communicating with an adolescent, be particularly careful with the use of questions that begin with “Why?” The use of “why” questions may create a sense of feeling attacked or judged and may place the adolescent on his or her defensive. In addition, it is often a reality that the adolescent may be unclear as to the why of a feeling or reaction. Through open questions, we can assist him or her in increased understanding of who he or she is becoming as a person; it may also inform the adolescent on what could be driving his or her behaviors and emotions.


Above all, observe the reactions of the adolescent and yourself when communicating. Are your responses, body language, questions, and/or tone of voice encouraging additional sharing or resulting in the adolescent withdrawing from the exchange? What signals is the adolescent providing through body language, rate of speech, and pitch? By utilizing attending behaviors, reflective listening, open and closed questions, and observation skills, we can increase our accessibility and approachability with the adolescents we care for and work with. This improves the ability to maintain an authentic connection and provides a firm foundation for a healthy and evolving relationship. It also models effective communication skills that the adolescent may carry for the rest of his or her life.

In summary, raising adolescents takes effort in communication. If you want to communicate with your adolescent successfully, treat them as the real people they are. Get to know them through these communication techniques. Show them you are interested in them and what they are saying by using the attending behaviors outlined above. Confirm to them that you do understand what they are saying through reflective listening techniques. Use open and closed questions to help get to the root of the problems being discussed. Finally, always tailor your communication style by careful observation of your adolescent's reactions. You want to engage your adolescent in the open exchange of thoughts and feelings. By using these communication techniques, you can become more effective at raising adolescents.

JOIN Online Parent Support

My 16 year old son never wants to go to get his haircut...

-->Mark, I have watched the on-line course and have been following all of your instructions. My 16 year old son never wants to go to get his haircut. I usually let it go, but has been months since the last time it was cut and at that time it wasn’t cut short because he was having a fit about it. Today I told him (with my poker face) that I was taking him to get his hair cut and he said no he wasn’t. I told him that if he chose to ignored my request, that he would choose the consequence of grounding and losing his cell phone for 24 hours. He refused to give me the cell phone. I told him that he was still grounded and that the 24 hours didn’t start until he gave me the phone. He said he wasn’t giving me the phone and then said that he was going out to his friend’s house because he has all summer to be grounded. I told him if he refused to ignore my request for the 24 hour grounding and no cell phone that he would choose to be grounded for 3 days without anything. He walked out the door. My in-laws pay for his cell phone. I called them and told them to cancel the service for the time being. My question is, was that a good thing to do, or should I have waited until he comes home tonight (if he comes home) and let him give me the phone? He is very dependent on that phone to keep in contact with all his friends.
Thanks for all your help up to this point.

Hi V.,

Re: My question is, was that a good thing to do, or should I have waited until he comes home tonight (if he comes home) and let him give me the phone?

I think you handled this situation just fine, however...

Some parent-child issues fall into the "pick-your-battles-carefully" category. Those would include:
  • piercings
  • clothes
  • haircuts
  • messy rooms
  • etc.
I'm guessing you have bigger fish to fry than worrying about haircuts (although I'm sure the issue is an important one for you). Many unwanted behaviors, including some that disturb parents, tend to drop out on their own, especially if you don't overreact to them and reinforce them with a great deal of excited attention.

I'm not saying that you absolutely should not fight this haircut battle -- but you may want to consider saving your strength for the more important issues.

Also, please refer to the following post in the Q & A blog on When to Ignore Child Behavior.


When to Ignore Your Child's "Bad Behavior"

"Ignoring" behavior is an over-rated parenting strategy -- however, in some cases, it is the best strategy. Thanks to more than 50 years of research, we know how to change kid’s behavior. In brief, you identify the problem-behavior, define its positive opposite (the desirable behavior you want to replace it with), and then make sure that your youngster engages in a lot of reinforced practice of the new behavior until it replaces the unwanted one. 
Reinforced practice means that you pay as much attention as possible to the positive opposite so that your youngster falls into a pattern: Do the right behavior, get a reward (praise or a token); do the behavior, get a reward. 
Real life is never as mechanically predictable as that formula makes it sound, and many other factors will bear on your success—including your relationship with your youngster, what behaviors you model in your home, and what influences your youngster is exposed to in other relationships—but, still, we know that reinforced practice usually works. If you handle the details properly, in most cases a relatively brief period of intense attention to the problem, lasting perhaps a few weeks, should be enough to work a permanent change in behavior.

So, yes, you can change your youngster's conduct, but that doesn't mean you always should. When faced with a problem-behavior, first ask yourself, Can I let this go? Sometimes the answer is Hell, no! If your kid likes to spend hours at his window in full-body camo and a Sad Clown mask, tracking the neighbors in the sights of his BB gun, you'll probably want to put a stop to that right now. But a lot of behaviors fall into the lesser category of annoying but not necessarily worth addressing. Ask yourself if changing a behavior will really make a worthwhile difference in your youngster's life and your own.

Many problem-behaviors, including some that disturb moms & dads, tend to drop out on their own, especially if you don't overreact to them and reinforce them with a great deal of excited attention. Take thumb sucking, which is quite common up to age 5. At that point it drops off sharply and continues to decline. Unless the dentist tells you that you need to do something about it right now, you can probably let thumb sucking go. 
The same principle applies for most stuttering. Approximately 5 percent of all kids stutter, usually at some point between ages 2 and 5. Moms & dads get understandably nervous when their kids stutter, but the vast majority of these kids (approximately 80 percent) stop stuttering on their own by age 6. If stuttering persists past that point or lasts for a period extending more than six months, then it's time to do something about it.

There are a lot more behaviors, running the range from annoying to unacceptable, in this category. Approximately 60 percent of 4- and 5-year-old males can't sit still as long as adults want them to, and approximately 50 percent of 4- and 5-year-old males and females whine to the extent that their moms & dads consider it a significant problem. Both fidgeting and whining tend to decrease on their own with age, especially if you don't reinforce these annoying behaviors by showing your youngster that they're a surefire way to get your (exasperated) attention. 
Thirty to 40 percent of 10- and 11-year-old males and females lie in a way that their moms & dads identify as a significant problem, but this age seems to be the peak, and the rate of problem lying tends to plummet thereafter and cease to be an issue. By adolescence, more than 50 percent of males and 20 percent to 35 percent of females have engaged in one delinquent behavior—typically theft or vandalism. For most kids, it does not turn into a continuing problem.

Now, we're not saying that you should ignore lying or stealing or some other potentially serious misbehavior just because it will probably drop out on its own in good time. There's an important distinction to be made here between managing behavior and other parental motives and duties. Moms & dads punish for several reasons—to teach right and wrong, to satisfy the demands of justice, to establish their authority—that have little to do with changing behavior. 
You can't just let vandalism go without consequences, and it's reasonable to refuse to put up with even a lesser offense such as undue whining, but don't confuse punishing misbehavior with taking effective steps to eliminate it. Punishment on its own (that is, not supplemented by reinforced practice of the positive opposite) has been proven again and again to be a fairly weak method for changing behavior. The misbehaviors in question, minor or serious, are more likely to drop out on their own than they are to be eliminated through punishment.

Especially as your youngster gets older, more independent, and more capable of holding her own in a household struggle over behavior, you will need to practice parenting triage—asking, Is it worth drawing the line here? Be especially wary of slippery slopes, falling dominoes, and other common but not necessarily relevant rationales for intervening in your youngster's behavior.

Consider, for example, an adolescent's fantastically messy room, a typical flash point for household conflicts about things that really matter to kids and moms & dads, like autonomy and respect and the rights of the individual in relation to the family. Messiness is a habit, a set of behaviors, so it would not be difficult to define a positive opposite of mess-making, set up a system of rewards for cleaning up, and replace a bad habit with a better one. 
But let's first ask a basic question: Why focus on the messiness of your youngster's room? There may be good reasons to. It may be that your youngster never has presentable clothes to wear because they pile up dirty on her floor. Or her room could present a real sanitation problem, if there are dirty dishes or discarded food in there. Maybe there aren't enough clean forks in the house because they're all on her floor, in empty TV dinner trays.

These are significant matters that would need to be addressed right away, but what if the problem is not presentable clothing or sanitation or the household fork supply but just sloppiness? You could fix it, probably, but is it really that big a deal?

When you ask yourself, Why focus on it?, you may decide that it's not worth addressing the problem. Or asking Why focus on it? may help you to narrow down the problem to those elements that really do need to be addressed. Some aspects of a sloppy room may really be nonnegotiable: candles and incense near flammable material or rotting food or some other potential biohazard. 
If the mess is dangerous, if there are consequences for other people in the household, then it's certainly worth addressing. And, guided by your own answer to Why focus on it?, be prepared to trade an inessential for an essential. Let her keep her clothes on the floor if she does her own laundry and cleans up food mess as soon as she makes it.

Moms & dads frequently respond to Why focus on it? by expressing a worry that if they let their youngster be sloppy in her room she will be sloppy everywhere: in her personal appearance, in her schoolwork, in her career. They have fantasies about her getting fired in middle age for having a messy office. But when it comes to messiness, the slippery-slope argument is a fallacy. Having a messy room is an identifiable stage that tends to appear in adolescence and then go away. After the messy interlude of the preteen and teen years, most people return to or rise to some basic standard of neatness—a standard very likely resembling the one you have modeled in your own housekeeping.

So if your adolescent youngster keeps herself reasonably clean and presentable, and if the problem's not so severe that it's causing other problems, consider letting slide the messiness of her room as a stage she's going through. Yes, every mom or dad will always have a story of an adult who's a genuine slob to back up the claim that not everybody recovers from adolescent messiness, but those cases are exceptions. Really, how many adults do you know who have rooms like your kid's? Not many. They grew out of it. So why move heaven and earth—and increase the amount of conflict in the house, and use up energy and goodwill perhaps better reserved for more significant matters—to correct a problem that will almost certainly self-correct?

Of course, moms & dads can have their own real reasons to object to even a little messiness in a youngster's room. It could be that you're a very tidy person, and you just can't abide it. That's a legitimate complaint, but recognize that it's not about any abnormal behavior on the part of your youngster. Be straight about it with her. Tell her that you can't live with such a mess in the house, and that, together, you're going to have to compromise on some middle ground between your standard (no mess ever, anywhere) and hers (let the clothes fall where they may). 
As you work out the compromise, consider that, especially if the rest of your house is neat, your youngster's messy room is an expression of autonomy and independence, normal for her stage of development. And try to remember that clutter, however much it offends you, may not belong in the same category of urgency as things that can lead to permanent consequences—like those candles right under the curtains.

What if you just ignore a problem-behavior but don't reinforce its positive opposite? Extinction—eliminating an unwanted behavior just by ignoring it—does have the virtue of not reinforcing the problem-behavior by attending to it, but it's not a very effective way to change behavior. The research shows that extinction on its own is likely to fail. And even if extinction works in the long run, the problem-behavior you're ignoring often gets worse before it starts its slow decline, so you'll need to be disciplined and patient.

When the problem-behavior does get worse before it begins to go away—a recognized effect called "extinction burst"—moms & dads often become prematurely convinced that ignoring has failed and switch over to attending to the behavior again, explaining why it's bad, punishing it, yelling, and so on. 
This attention to the extinction burst unwittingly makes the behavior worse in two ways. First, the mom or dad attended to a more extreme example of the behavior than usual—so, for instance, if you're trying to eliminate tantrums, you've now reinforced tantrums that register on the Richter scale. Second, the mom or dad attended to the behavior after a period of ignoring it, which is called intermittent reinforcement and helps to maintain it. Yes, you can get back on track, but you have now made your task more difficult, and ignoring is more likely than ever to fail.

Let's say you have exercised yogic self-discipline and have successfully ignored an annoying behavior to the point that it begins to go away. As you continue to ignore the behavior and it declines (very slowly), one final nasty surprise lies in wait: Just when you think success is assured, the behavior may return out of the blue, almost as bad as ever. 
This temporary return, a predictable late spike, makes most moms & dads who get this far decide that they have failed and go back to attending to the behavior, returning them to square one. But the final spontaneous return of the behavior, a last gasp before it disappears for good, would be short-lived if you could tie yourself to the mast and ignore it. In some especially frustrating cases, a forewarned mom or dad does find the strength to ignore even this last onslaught, only to be undermined by a grandparent, spouse, or someone else in the house who feeds the futility by declaring defeat and jumping in to attend to the behavior.
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One day you wake up and find that life has changed forever. Instead of greeting you with a hug, your little boy rolls his eyes when you say "good morning" and shouts, "You're ruining my life!" You may think you've stepped into the Twilight Zone, but you've actually been thrust into your son's teen years.

During adolescence, teens start to break away from parents and become "their own person." Some talk back, ignore rules and slack off at school. Others may sneak out or break curfew. Still others experiment with alcohol, tobacco or drugs. So how can you tell the difference between normal teen rebellion versus dangerous behavior? And what's the best way for a parent to respond?

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Many families of defiant children live in a home that has become a battleground. In the beginning, the daily struggles can be expected. After all, we knew that problems would occur. Initially, stress can be so subtle that we lose sight of a war, which others do not realize is occurring. We honestly believe that we can work through the problems.

Outbursts, rages, and strife become a way of life (an emotionally unhealthy way of life). We set aside our own needs and focus on the needs of our children. But what does it cost us?

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The standard disciplinary techniques that are recommended for “typical” teenagers do not take into account the many issues facing teens with serious behavioral problems. Disrespect, anger, violent rages, self-injury, running away from home, school failure, hanging-out with the wrong crowd, drug abuse, theft, and legal problems are just some of the behaviors that parents of defiant teens will have to learn to control.

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Daughter seems to cry all the time...

Our nearly 4-year-old daughter seems to cry all the time. Recently she wept because we were late picking her up and she thought we weren't coming. Once a classmate told her "You are late," so she cried. I used to get annoyed with her crying and would yell, but then I learned that encouragement and patience helped much more. However, with a full-time job I lose patience with her sometimes. We really want her to be more confident, but have no idea of how to do this. Please help. -- C.J.


First have your doctor examine her to be sure there is nothing physical that is creating her anxiety. It never hurts to be sure that nothing physical is wrong. Many young kids have ear problems that do not actually hurt, but that irritate and stress them out. These ear problems also can affect hearing, which of course affects her language and her understanding of things being said around her. DO check her hearing. Then work on her self-esteem.

Self-esteem and self-confidence is based on two important things:

• Feeling lovable for just being one's self
• Feeling competent or capable.

Moms & dads need to nurture BOTH of these things to improve self-esteem.

For example, you can nurture independence by letting her make simple choices of what to wear (of three things you lay out) or what cereal to get at the store (of three choices). These small things will help her fee capable.

If you are patient and let her dress and undress herself, and if you ask her to help out with simple chores like setting or clearing the table or sorting the clean socks, she will feel valued and competent.

Praise her for just trying to do her best at school, but don't set expectations that are too stressful.

Be sure your praise is meaningful and descriptive. Don't say "good job" repeatedly. Instead tell how you liked something she did or said, and why. For example, "I really liked the way you got dressed and were ready on time. That helps me out a lot when I am busy. Thanks." Or "I liked the way you used those colors in your painting and how you experimented with the paintbrush." Descriptive praise is much more meaningful than "That's really nice."

To nurture the youngster's feelings of being lovable, use descriptive praise that tells her you love her as she is, as a person. You can mention her sensitivity or her ability to be observant, or her sense of humor, or her great hugs. These are things that are part of her personality, and not based on achievements. Feeling lovable for "just being me" is just as important as feeling capable.

Last, talk to her teachers at the school to ask them for help in this effort and for any insight they can provide.

Ask them to bolster her confidence. Tell them exactly what you'll be doing at home to accomplish this, and ask them to do the same.

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Daughter Refuses To Work

Hi Mark,

My 16 year old has an opportunity to work as a hostess at the restaurant I work at. They would hire her just because she is my daughter. Here's the problem, she doesn't want it. Her ugly self is out in full force over it. I am 99% sure that the reason she is creating such a fuss is because she is terrified. She cried for hours before her interview. Her self confidence is really, really low. Her dad and I know she can do the job and would do well at it, because when she puts her mind to something she does great. It's just getting her past her fears. My question is... do we force her to go to the second interview? We pretty much forced her into the first one. I have already told her that if she wants a cell phone she has to have a job to pay for it. We also created a contract for getting her driver’s license. I have attached the contract. We have not signed it yet, but knows most of what is on it.

Thanks in advance for your advice!




Hi A.,

No. I would definitely not force her -- BUT stick to your stipulation that she must get a job so she can pay for her own cell phone. Let her take "all the time she needs" to decide when/where she wants to work (a paradoxical intervention). The more responsibility you take for her employment, the less responsibility she will take (that's why you're in the rut you're in now; her work is more important to you than it is to her).


My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

Your insight into teenagers is amazing...

I have purchased your e-book and cd’s.... just wanted to say how amazing you work is proving to be. I work in psychiatry but have struggled to discipline my son and to understand his behaviour. I have put in to practice the first week session and already it is working. Your insight into teenagers is amazing.... it was like you had written it all for my son and I. Thank you, a thousand times, thank you. I’ll keep you informed of J__’s progress, my 16 year old out of control teenager!


My Out-of-Control Teen

How do I get my over-achieving daughter to slow down?

"I have taken the quiz and surprisingly found that I was a severely over indulgent parent. This angers me because I didn't think...