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Communicating with Apathetic Teenagers

Dear Crucial Skills,

I just watched Joseph Grenny’s “How to Hold Those You Love Accountable” video and although I thought it was good, I would like to know how to deal with teenagers who don’t see things as clearly. Both kids in the example well up in tears and seem extremely mature in their response.

What happens when you take this same approach and they just roll their eyes, say they don’t want to talk about their feelings, and to just get on with it? What about when they’ve heard it all before from adults who really wanted to empathize and they simply like doing drugs or throwing parties? They see the benefit (popularity, hot girls, easy rush, etc.) and wish the old folks would just stop nagging. They’re right and you are wrong. What do you do then?

Giving Up

Dear Giving Up,

With your permission I will speak very personally. You are asking a question that strikes at the heart of what parenting has meant to me. My opinions about your situation have been informed by twenty-seven years of learning to have intimate relationships with imperfect people. People like me.

For those who haven’t seen the video, I shared a story of a young man at an alternative high school who was addicted to drugs and was caught using them in school. I also described how one of my teenage children threw a massive party at our home while my wife and I were away. The point I wanted to illustrate is, if we try to address accountability with those we love in the absence of emotional connection, we often provoke defensiveness. However, if we pay the price to connect emotionally first, they are more likely to feel naturally accountable for the effect their actions have on others. True accountability is the fruit of emotional connection. Anything less is little more than compulsion.

Trust me, my life hasn’t been a series of photo ops. It’s been more valley than peak. I feel your pain when your best efforts seem to yield no influence. And I know the agony of watching those I love squander sacred potential. So, what do you do when, in spite of your best efforts to empathize, connect, listen, and validate others, the result is a shoulder shrug? Here are my beliefs about how to create healthy relationships with imperfect people.

1. I am responsible for influence, not results. The instant I measure my “success” by others’ choices, I am living a lie. The lie is that I can—or should—control others. I can’t. I shouldn’t. The very wish to do so is the root cause of every form of misery for myself and others. It leads to anger, despair, depression, compulsion, and pride. During our children’s infancy, we parents get seduced into the delusion that we can mold them as we please. The truth is, we are responsible to offer a worthy example, provide coaching, give support, and surrender the rest.

2. Everyone learns on their own schedule. Over the years I’ve created enormous stress for myself and family members, by unconsciously planning the lives of my children on a normative schedule. I had tacit expectations of where they should be by age eight, twelve, sixteen, eighteen, and so on. Mind you, I wasn’t aware I was doing this. It was more of an expectation I absorbed by comparing myself with “successful” parents around me. It wasn’t until one child after another deviated from that plan that I became aware I had it in the first place. It showed up in feelings of panic or discouragement. It showed up in behavior like bargaining, bribing, and criticizing. I have arrived at a very different place today. I feel an immense respect for the uniqueness of each of my children. I have enormous faith that they are learning creatures and that they each need to learn in their own way and on their own schedule. If you’ll allow a very personal aside, I also believe this learning schedule exceeds this life. I get to take part in that learning at times, but my role is much smaller than the illusory one I have so often coveted.

3. Influence can only be granted, not taken. My children grant it to me at their pleasure—and tend to do so only when they believe they can trust my intent. In the worst of cases, children surrender enormous influence because we’ve convinced them of their own incompetence. They adopt every habit and aspiration we advocate because they can hardly distinguish the boundaries of their own identity from ours. The other extreme happens when they resent your attempt to violate their agency so much that your attempts to control become the issue. You unintentionally impede their ability to learn from their mistakes because they are distracted by their resentment of your intrusions into their choices. Healthy influence happens when children are fundamentally convinced your only intent is to help them accomplish their own worthy goals, not to impose your own. This redefines parenting as a process of enabling their discovery of their own uniqueness, worth, and mission. And it gives you a small but privileged view of that unfolding. At times they’ll make monumentally stupid decisions (as did you and I). With adult children, we slow their learning when we either fight these choices or rescue them from them. Instead, our role is to help them know we believe in them, and be ready to offer feedback and counsel when—and only when—they give us permission to do so.

I hope you don’t hear any of this as glib. I know the pain of parental disappointment—and even agony. I’ve come to understand, at times, that making the choice to love is making a choice to suffer. But that suffering need not turn to misery if I understand my role. When I do, I increase the likelihood of experiencing the surpassing joy that comes from being such an intimate part of another person’s life.

With love,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

12 thoughts on “Communicating with Apathetic Teenagers”

  1. Amber Crooks

    For all the parents that this article will impact, I would like to give a heart felt “Thank You”. This was an honest, open reply that wasn’t glib or fluff. I found great impact in the statement ” we are responsible to offer a worthy example, provide coaching, give support and surrender the rest.” At some point, all the training in the world will only get you so far. It is good to understand that the point is we try our best and we have not necessarily failed because it didn’t go the way we hoped.

    1. C

      I was affected by your statement: “The point is we try our best and we have not necessarily failed because it didn’t go the way we hoped.” It is just what I need to know.

  2. Martine Bolton

    Such wisdom, and so beautifully stated!

  3. Jo Spellman

    Thank you for who you are and all you do. I really needed this counsel to help address a long-time painful dynamic between especially my husband and oldest (and adult) daughter, but really as a means to help both of us better parent (love) all of our children. My heart is full of gratitude that this was in my inbox this morning.

  4. Sue

    Amber, I couldn’t agree more. The information included was well stated, and the advice candid and direct. The hardest part of being a parent is seeing your children experience the consequences of a poor choice and not stepping in to help. Knowing that to do so, would only enable them to repeat past behavior.
    A doctor once told me that if my daughter could make it to 25, she would mature into a fine person. I didn’t know what to expect at that point. He was right. It took her a bit longer than what society deems as “normal,” and it often wasn’t easy for her or I, but she has grown to be a compassionate, giving, wonderfully articulate, and talented woman.
    Thank you for this.

  5. Sara

    Phenomenal response. You’ve nailed it, Joseph. Parenting is indeed one of the most challenging callings in life, but what a joy and privilege it is! Thank you for providing this inspiring message patience, discipline, and most of all, love.

  6. John G.

    That is such profound, wise, and beautifully loving advice. I am especially keen to it now as my wife and I strive to find our role with our 20-year old son and the difficulties he is going through. I appreciate your advice, Joseph. Thank you…

  7. June Read (@ZuniRead)

    To reinforce the other comments – a really great article. While we parents strive to prepare our children for the pitfalls , we are all guilty of hovering and enabling. Trying to help. Have you ever considered that we humans are the only animals that spoil our offspring? Early accountability teaches them survival in a world overloaded with choice.

  8. Jlatiok

    Essentially comes down to 4 words ” Monkey see , Monkey Do”

  9. Stu Peterson

    Great insights. Able to absorb. Written to my level. Thanks.

  10. Juniper Who

    I felt this article was more about making the parent feel better about not being perfect and less about actual strategies in dealing with the teenager.

  11. Maggie

    This response was wisdom of the highest order. Well said and well lived. Thank you.

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