by James Lehman, MSW
Q: Why do parents tend to dismiss inappropriate behavior as "a phase?"
James: When a child is between 18 months and two years old, they'll start to walk away and say "no" to their parent. The child is practicing a new skill. Parents call it a phase because eventually, the "no" goes away and the child starts to operate within the guidelines of the family. When parents see things they can't explain, they call it a phase. Parents are very prepared to tolerate phases. But they're not prepared to tolerate inappropriate behavior. So they label it a "phase" because that makes it easier for them to accept it.
Parents tolerate phases in adolescents in order to accommodate their kids. The sort of phase we're talking about starts at around age twelve. There's more testing of authority and testing of limits. You hear, "I just wanna talk to my friends." "I just wanna stay in my room." Kids spend more time instant messaging and wanting a cell phone. Parents see this correctly as a phase. And at first, they accommodate this. Most parents who are secure about their parenting will understand this and accept it. We see enough of this in our culture-on TV and in magazines-for parents to understand that this is something adolescents and pre-adolescents go through.
What tends to happen, though, is that some kids start to violate family norms, and parents tend to deny that this is separate from the phase. Saying "This isn't fair," and stomping off to your room a couple of times is a phase. Calling your mother filthy names is not. Saying "I only wanna talk to my friends about this. They're they only ones who understand," is a phase. Getting high on drugs or alcohol is not.
Q: If the behavior is inappropriate, does it matter whether or not it's a phase?
James: No, it doesn't. I think the most important thing parents need to know about phases is it's important to the child as well as the parent to maintain appropriate standards and boundaries through the phase. So, we set up situations where the child can act out the need for independence or act out the challenge of authority without being destructive, abusive to others or self-abusive. So parents can say, "If you don't like what's going on, feel free to go to your room. Feel free to say what you don't like." Parents should even accommodate this by giving kids time to say it. I think one of the most effective techniques is to tell your kids that at 7 pm, we'll sit down and talk about the things you think aren't fair. And then we'll go from there. Because then when the kid starts to escalate, you can say, "Save it for seven o'clock." That way, you have a problem-solving time set aside.
But if the kid starts to call his mother and father all these disrespectful names or call his sister or brother foul, sexual names, I think that's not a phase. That's abusive behavior. And it needs to be stopped.
The task of adolescence is individuation. And sometimes adolescents are so uncomfortable with this task that they'll use hostility and abuse to accomplish that. Parents have to maintain the standards during those times. There's no excuse for abuse. That's not a phase. Deal with it as a violation of family rules. Not as a moral issue, not as something to panic about. It's a violation of family rules, and this is how we have to deal with it. Parents should have clear sets of consequences for this so they can manage it.
Q: How do you know when to address a certain behavior, instead of hoping the child grows out of it?
James: If it's hurting the person who's doing it or hurting other family members, people in society, teachers and other students in school, it needs to be addressed. Adolescence is a phase where you start out as a dependent child. It's called the "latency age, "and you end up as an adult, usually in college. Adolescence doesn't end with adolescence. That phase of development lasts into the early twenties, and there are different earmarks for the different parts of that phase. For instance: "I can only talk about this with my friends." "I wanna look hot." "I've gotta look cool." And then you'll see a slow shift to the next phase where they want to date and be popular. Then you'll see a slow shift to the next phase where they individuate themselves from other teenagers. So, at age twelve, it's me and all teens. At age seventeen, it's me and my group.
During this period, it's important for parents to understand that if kids gravitate toward a negative subculture, there's a problem there. In other words, if kids start hanging out with kids who get high all the time, they're getting high, and they'll lie to you about it. But worse than that, they're seeking a subculture that doesn't expect anything else out of them, except that they get high. If you hang out with people who play soccer, they expect you to practice. They expect you to stay healthy. They expect you to show up for games. They expect you to be a team player. There's a cluster of expectations that kids in other groups have. If you're part of the chess team, there's an expectation cluster. If you're part of the honor society, there's an expectation cluster. If you're part of a church group, there's an expectation cluster. When kids gravitate toward groups that don't have any other expectations for them, except that they're juvenile delinquents or they shoplift or they get high, parents should take alarm at that.
Q: So, if you've got a situation that is violating family norms, what's the best way to address it with your child?
James: If you want to talk to kids about these things, I think first you want to choose a time when things are going well. Not when they're going badly. And you want to choose a neutral setting. It shouldn't be at the dinner table. It shouldn't be in the kid's room. It shouldn't be in your bedroom. Pick some place quiet in the living room, where there aren't other kids around. Begin by telling your kids what you see. Not what you think or what you feel. What you see. "I see your grades going down. I found cigarette rolling papers in your room. I see that you're not hanging out with the kids who play soccer anymore, and you used to love soccer. And I'm wondering what's going on. What do you see?" And ask the kid what they see. That should start a discussion, and it should be an interview format, in which the parent is conducting an interview, not a sharing conversation like they would with one of their friends. This isn't, "I feel, you feel." This should be an interview: "This is what I see going on. What's up?"
The kid may turn away. The kid may say, "None of your business." The kid may run a lot of excuses. But the parent has to calmly keep the focus on what they're seeing and what they want to change. And how they can be helpful. Again, the kid may not change, but the parent has planted the seed and met their obligation. And they can have those conversations once or twice a week.
Your kids are going to accept a much wider range of differences than you will as a parent. For a lot of those, you just have to have it established with your kids that these are the rules, and whoever your friends are, this is how you have to behave, and this is what's appropriate in our home. "You can have friends with nose rings and eye rings, but you're not going to have any of those. And as long as we don't have to fight about that, there's no problem."
Is It A Phase? reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit www.EmpoweringParents.com
Author: James Lehman is a behavioral therapist and the creator of The Total Transformation® Program for parents. He has worked with troubled children and teens for three decades. James holds a Masters Degree in Social Work from Boston University.
Reviewed by athealth on February 5, 2014.