Creating Rules and Limits for Kids Effectively

My wife and I were driving back from a meeting this morning and we saw two teenage boys riding their bikes with helmets on. The boys appeared to be around the same age as our 14-year-old who hasn’t worn a bike helmet for some time. This triggered a conversation about how we were going to reintroduce this matter, now that she has taken a new interest in riding her bicycle to her friend’s house. She’s one of those stubborn teens who focuses excessively on her appearance if she’s leaving the house. We remember her going through the tween years, refusing to wear a coat when it was cold or rainy because it wouldn’t look cool (glad that one is over). Now we’re going to have to tell her that she’ll have to wear a helmet when she rides her bike. We know that one’s not going to go over well!
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 52,000 bicyclists were injured in traffic accidents in 2010 and a huge percentage of that number reflects those who were not wearing helmets. Taking this into consideration, we decided we were not willing to accept the risk of injury to our teen so when we arrived home, we announced to her that a helmet would be necessary for all future rides. She of course threw a fit as we expected, and announced she would not be wearing a helmet. We allowed her to express her opinion and went about our day. We know that our lack of arguing with her may lead her to think that we’ll cave, but we won’t. In a few days, I’ll offer to take her to the store so she can pick out a better fitting helmet and again, I’ll be ready for her to object and refuse to go.
At this point, it’s either fight or flight for many of the parents that I have worked with over the years. They either allow their child’s anger and words to trigger their own anger and then a fight erupts, or they back off and allow the child to control the situation AND the relationship. Those who charge forward and fight with their child had parents who did the same to them when they were children. For them it became easy to just “replay the tapes” of their past and follow in their parent’s footsteps. Some have revealed to me that even though they knew it wasn’t healthy to battle their teen, they did it because they were afraid their own parents might reprimand them out for being a weak parent and not doing it the way they did it. These parents would end up repeating phrases that their own parents used, such as, “Don’t you dare speak to me that way, you will do what I tell you to do!” The problem with this is that it decays the parent / child relationship and may further push the child into a “fight or flight” mode.
The parents who take flight and surrender do it for one of several reasons. Some of these include; they don’t like conflict, they don’t know how to handle conflict, they fear their child will retaliate, or they fear their child won’t like them. Some parents are just too tired and stressed to work at it and take the path of least resistance. The children of these parents quickly learn to control the relationship. They learn that getting angry, loud, and even making threats will guarantee a win for them in most situations.
Both types of parents I described above are not bad parents and love their children dearly. I think they just don’t know how to be firm and kind in raising their children and need some training. I remember how easy it was to be weak or too firm in my earliest days as a dad. It’s what lead me to become a parent educator by the time my 2nd and 3rd child came along. I knew there was a better way to raising children and I had to learn how to do it.
The next time our 14-year-old asks to ride her bike to her friend’s house, we’ll gently remind her of the new rule and she’ll most likely respond by throwing a fit over it. My wife and I will remain calm and stand our ground, and based on past experiences with her, she will probably refuse to ride to her friend’s house all together before retreating to her room. A few hours will pass and then she’ll reemerge from her room, reluctantly asking that we take her to the store to buy a helmet. She’ll be grouchy for most of the day and we’ll read texts from her to her friends about how horrible and over protective we are (yes, we monitor her texts with her knowledge).
Creating rules and limits effectively requires a balance of unconditional love AND firmness, with plenty of room for our kids to object. We should also allow their objections to occasionally change our minds if appropriate. In each situation we should allow them to disagree, state their case, and then take their points into consideration before both parents emerge as a team to deliver the final verdict.

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