It is the parent’s job to get along with the teen, not the teen’s job to get along with the parent

Posted Sunday, October 4th, 2020 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Child Custody, Not South Carolina Specific, Of Interest to Family Court Litigants, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys, Of Interest to General Public

I handle my share of custody disputes in which a teenager is miserable at my client’s home and my client attempts to explain or justify that teenager’s misery as simply the consequence of parenting decisions the teenager doesn’t like. Such clients (almost always fathers) frequently model the authoritarian[1] style of parenting while the other parent models a permissive[2] parenting style. Such clients anticipate my encouraging their “tough love” decision making. I don’t.

A couple of caveats. I’ve yet to encounter a case in which the cause of the teenager’s misery is my client’s refusal to allow them to engage in extremely dangerous behavior. Given a situation in which the misery is due to my client refusing to procure heroin for the teen to inject, I would certainly not encourage my client to satisfy that teen’s desire (although I would encourage that client to determine why that teen believes opiate use is the best solution to his or her misery). Further, this blog isn’t addressing the occasional teenager unhappiness with my client’s parenting decisions. While parents need to be cautious in how harshly they set limits for their teenagers, some limit setting is appropriate.

However when the teenager is miserable because an authoritarian parent’s parenting style is unduly impinging on the teenager’s sense of autonomy, it is the parent who must change, not the teenager. Authoritarian parenting styles may be tolerated by younger children simply because younger children lack the autonomy to resist. Teenagers resist. Sometimes they resist with acts of open defiance. Sometimes they resist through acts of self harm. However such resistance will rarely remain hidden for long. When this resistance emerges, the other parent will take notice and file to modify custody.

The strategy of justifying the child’s misery as a consequence of one’s “tough love,” in contrast to the allegedly lax parenting of the other parent, may prevail if the other parent is truly lax to the extent that the teenager is in danger in the other parent’s home. More typically that strategy fails spectacularly as the family court judge encounters a miserable teen and an inflexible parent and concludes the solution to the teen’s misery is to spend less time with that parent. No family court judge I know is going to wait for that teen to attempt suicide before remedying this situation.

When a teenager is miserable in one parent’s home, but not the other parent’s home, it is not the time to justify that teenager’s misery. It is the time to fix it. Often that entails developing a different (preferably a authoritative)[3] parenting style–hard to do if the authoritarian style is all one knows or is all one had modeled as a child. Not all teens rebel against the authoritarian parenting style but when they do, it is the parent, not the teenager, who needs to change. Failing to change almost always results in the loss of custody.

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[1]Authoritarian parenting is a parenting style characterized by high demands and low responsiveness. Parents with an authoritarian style have very high expectations of their children, yet provide very little in the way of feedback and nurturing. Mistakes tend to be punished harshly.

[2]Permissive parenting is a type of parenting style characterized by low demands with high responsiveness. Permissive parents tend to be very loving, yet provide few guidelines and rules. These parents do not expect mature behavior from their children and often seem more like a friend than a parental figure.

[3]The authoritative parenting style is an approach to child-rearing that combines warmth, sensitivity, and the setting of limits. Kids raised by authoritative parents are more likely to become independent, self-reliant, socially accepted, academically successful, and well-behaved.

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