Strategies to engage with teenagers, teaching them there’s a bigger world outside of themselves.

Given 963 million people go to bed hungry every night and 150 million children under the age of 14 are engaged in child labour worldwide, we can safely say that the lives of most teens in the Western world aren’t that bad. 

“Try convincing my daughter of that!” one mum recently said to me. “She hasn’t stopped making demands since she woke up this morning!!” 

Parents regularly speak to me about their teenager’s shocking sense of entitlement. On a bad day, they feel like they exist simply to meet their teenager’s every desire and whim, which is not a cool job description for any parent. Things don’t look much better on a good day, when they are frustrated by their teen’s general disregard for time, money and things. 

Research tells us that the number of teenagers refusing to help around the house has almost tripled in just over a decade, from 5.6 per cent in 1992 to 15.8 per cent in 2006. On the other hand, the amount of time eight to 18-year-olds spend watching TV, playing video games or surfing the internet is at an all-time high of around 7.5 hours a day. That is 53 hours a week—more than a full-time job since there are no breaks for weekends! 

Before we get up in arms about this generation however, I’d like to stop for a minute and see the world through their eyes. Teenagers today are a generation who aspire to the good life, as shown to them in their daily “news feeds”. But ordinary can never measure up to the highlight reel of happy faces and special places they see on their social media pages. I honestly think our kids are asking themselves, Why can’t my life look like theirs? What is wrong with my family? Shouldn’t my life be better than it is? 

I believe that this perceived perfection is coming at a cost to our kids who are becoming restless, ungrateful, disappointed, anxious and unable to handle their everyday real lives. That is why we have to work really hard at bringing young people back to basics; where they learn that hard work meets outcomes, money doesn’t grow on trees and we all live on an equal playing field. My hope is that these three strategies will help you do just that.

1. Make room for life lessons 

Small incidental lessons like the one I am about to share with you are powerful ways of teaching teens respect. Any instances where you are in the “driver’s seat” are moments you can use to your advantage. Here’s a great little example that shows how easy it is to teach your children that your time is valuable.

Daughter’s text: I forgot my PE uniform and I really, really need it before my class this afternoon or I’ll be in big trouble. Please, please bring it and meet me at the office at lunchtime. 

Mum’s text: What’s in it for me? You are interrupting my afternoon. 

Daughter’s text: ummmm . . . 

Mum’s text: I need the washing done tonight—three loads and hung out. 

Daughter’s text: OK I’ll do it tonight. 

Mum’s text: Deal. 

Mum then drove to the school and took the uniform to the office. Instead of feeling resentful for having to bring the uniform or feeling guilty because her kid was the one who forgot it, she proudly said to the school receptionist, “I’m getting the washing done tonight for bringing this up!” To which the receptionist replied, “Good on you. You wouldn’t believe how many mums run up here saying it is their fault that their kid forgot it!”

2. Let them say no 

Teens don’t like to hear the word No, so don’t say it. Put the ball in their court. Give them a set amount of money each week and expect them to manage their own purchases, including entertainment and takeaway food. This will force them to make conscious choices and set priorities. If they want takeaway on the way home from school, the answer is always, “Sure darling. Got your money?”

3. Outsource Them 

Part-time jobs are priceless! I can’t think of a better way to guide a young person than to teach them the value of hard work. If you prefer your teenager to earn money at home, but are tired of arguing about jobs, why not outsource them? Why not get them to do jobs for neighbours or other family members? They are more likely to work hard for someone they are less familiar with. 

It’s a challenge not to jump when teens demand their own way, but we have to remember that our responses will teach them how to treat us. I encourage parents to keep a lookout for everyday opportunities to challenge entitlement and reinforce respect and connection. We will notice they are all around us if we keep an eye out for them.                 

For more great parenting advice, check out Michelle’s new book, Parenting Teenage Girls in the Age of a New Normal (Ark House $24.99), now available at all good book stores.

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