Dear Dr. Norquist:
I’m not sure what’s reasonable to expect from my teenage son. I get upset with him for not being on top of things, not trying his best, not getting enough sleep, spending too much time on the computer and with computer games, doing his homework in front of the TV and being late to school. Is it unreasonable for me to expect that he is on time for school, that he try his best academically, and that he get himself to bed by 11pm so he can get a good nights sleep?
It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me so I get so frustrated when my son doesn’t do these things. Talking to him, whether kindly or angrily, doesn’t seem to work. I’d like him to be mature enough and responsible enough to do these things on his own. But it just isn’t happening. I am so frustrated with him. Do you think my expectations are reasonable? My son is 15.
Dr. Norquist responds:
No, I do not think your expectations are unreasonable. It is important that you hold these expectations for him. Our children need guidelines and expectations to aim towards, rebel against, and use to establish internal standards for themselves. They need structure and consistency in their lives, and part of this structure is our expectations, and the behavior necessary to meet these expectations. I do think it is important that our expectations are not beyond our children’s capabilities. The expectations have to be attainable, or our children can end up feeling not capable enough, not smart enough, or not worthy enough. Getting to school on time, and getting to bed on time are expectations that are reasonable and easy to define. Doing his best academically is an expectation that requires that you are clear on what his capabilities are. This may require consulting with his teachers and advisor, so that the expectations you set are consistent with his abilities.
If you want your son to change, you need to set up consequences for certain behaviors. As you have discovered, talking alone won’t do the trick. You can reward him for meeting these expectations, punish him for not meeting these expectations, or set up a combination of rewards and punishments. The rewards/punishments should be appropriate (not too extreme or too lax), and they need to be personalized with regard to what matters to your son. What is most important is that you follow through consistently with whatever rewards / punishments that you have set up. In your son’s case, for example, they could involve time spent on the computer or with computer games. There could also be a monetary fine imposed for late arrival at school.
As you know, the teenage years are characterized by tremendous changes. Confusion, inconsistencies, variable moods, and lack of sleep are hallmarks of this age. It is not reasonable to expect that a teenager function with the groundedness, commitment and consistency that one expects of an adult. These are the forming, developing, practicing for adulthood years. Make your expectations clear, set up positive and negative consequences for his behavior, and stick to these consequences consistently. Your son will not always get it right, but the guidelines that you set will pave the way for him to enter adulthood with values and behaviors that will serve him well in establishing himself as a mature and productive member of society.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.) Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanyacounseling.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2017 Chaitanya Counseling Services