How to Influence Your Teen

By Timothy L. Sanford, MA, LPC
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Focus on the Family
These two examples show how an influencing parent should respond to a teen.

Dance Three: the TOSS and FOLD

This time the teen is once again a TOSSer, declining to take responsibility for what he can control.

But the parent is a FOLDer. She doesn’t take responsibility for things she can’t control. She says, “What’s yours is yours.”

toss and fold grid

TIM: “That’s so stupid! I can’t believe I flunked the written part of the driver’s test. Man, I can ace the driving part! Mom, why didn’t you make me study that stupid manual more?”

(I’m still TOSSing.)

MOM: “Honey, I’m so sorry you didn’t pass your test. Come here. I’ll make you your favorite brownies.”

(Did you notice the new pronoun? “You didn’t pass your test.” It’s subtle, but makes all the difference.)

MOM: “I’m sorry you flunked your driving test. What do you think you need to do to ace it next time you take it? I saw a sample test on the Internet last week. If you want the Web site, just let me know. Maybe it will help you get ready to take it again soon.”

(Mom’s hands are FOLDed. She’s not accepting responsibility, not GRABing for control. She’s sympathetic, but not taking the blame.)

TIM: “It’s not my fault. You didn’t make me study!”

MOM: “No, Tim. It’s not my fault. I passed my driver’s test a long time ago. This is your license to earn, not mine.”

TIM: “Don’t you want me to get my driver’s license? You don’t care about me, do you?”

(Yes, the FOLD style can be misinterpreted as “I don’t care.” But Mom is simply refusing to engage in a power struggle. She’s making sure I keep my own control by not GRABing for it, and letting me HOLD the consequences of my own foolish choice.)

MOM: “Tim, Dad and I do care about you. This is something that’s not ours to be responsible for. Whether you pass your driver’s test is up to you. You may want to plan to study so you’ll be ready for it next time.”

(Mom’s not trying to fix it because it’s not hers to fix. She’s trying to influence me by giving me good advice about studying more.)

When you’re caught up in this dance with your teenager, hold your ground! You’re doing it right! Yes, there’s tension — but that’s not your fault. The tension comes from the TOSSer’s use of an unhealthy style of interacting, and you’re not letting him get away with it.

Sure, this dance can be tiring. But if you keep holding your ground, one of two things will happen:

1. The tension will continue. That’s a bummer, but don’t cave in.

2. Your teenager will eventually move up the grid, start being a HOLDer, and take responsibility for what he can control. Good for you! You may even have influenced him to choose smart.

If you give in and GRAB just to relieve the tension, you’ve gone back to the TOSS and GRAB dance. Don’t do that. Hang in there.

Dance Four: the HOLD and FOLD

In this case the teen is a HOLDer. He takes responsibility for what he can control. That’s a good thing.

The parent is a FOLDer. She doesn’t take responsibility for what she can’t control. That’s a good thing, too.

hold and fold grid

TIM: “That’s so dumb! I can’t believe I flunked the written part of my driver’s test. Man, I can ace the driving part! I guess I didn’t study enough.”

(I’m owning the problem.)

MOM: “Honey, I’m so sorry you didn’t pass your test. Come here. I’ll make you your favorite brownies. What do you think you need to do to pass it next time? I did notice a sample test on the Internet last week. If you want the Web site, just let me know. Maybe that will help you get ready to take it again soon.”

(Mom’s FOLDing, letting me be. She’s not taking it upon herself to ensure that I pass next time. She’s trying to influence me, but not control.)

TIM: “Thanks, Mom. Let me know when the brownies are ready. I’m going to look for my manual. Any idea where it is?”

(I’m not trying to TOSS. Even if I don’t do it very well, I want Mom to let me HOLD what I can control.)

MOM: “No, I don’t know where your manual is. Did you look behind your desk? Things tend to fall behind there, you know.”

(Mom is letting me live with the consequences of my behavior. She offers a good suggestion — to influence me, not to control the outcome.)

TIM: “I don’t think it’s back there, but I’ll start there. If I don’t find it, I guess I’ll have to get another manual from the DMV office. This is so stupid.”

MOM: “I hope you find it, honey.”

In this dance, there’s no battle or tension. The teen takes responsibility for his actions, and the parent lets him keep it. It’s as simple as that.

That doesn’t mean there’s no impact on you — especially if you’re the one who ends up driving the teen back to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get another copy of the driver’s manual. But the license isn’t yours to get. You’re letting the teen experience the realities of life in attempting to get it.

If this dance unfolds in your home, you’re doing it correctly! Keep it up.

Yes, it’s a lot easier to FOLD when your teenager decides to HOLD. But you still get credit for FOLDing. If your teen tries to HOLD but isn’t doing a very good job of it, keep FOLDing. Come alongside him or her and model how to HOLD more wisely. That’s influence. Avoid the temptation to slide up the Control Grid and GRAB.

A Parent of Influence

So, is it control or influence to take away your 18-year-old’s car keys?

Assuming it’s not a situation in which your teen isn’t able to exercise control (he or she is drunk, for instance), it depends on whether you’re making a preemptive strike that eliminates your teen’s options. Are you GRABing his or her power to pick smart or stupid? Or are you influencing by letting him or her experience the “ouch” of a poor choice already made (FOLDing)?

While you’re at it, here are some other questions to ask yourself:

  • Which of the four dances is most common in your home?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 highest), what’s the tension level when you and your teenager “dance”?

If there’s tension in the relationship, chances are that someone isn’t using a healthy style of interacting. It’s either your teenager … or it’s you.

Be sure it’s not you. If it is, do what it takes to get yourself out of the GRAB or TOSS pattern. Talk with a friend, pastor or counselor if you need to.

If you’re HOLDing and FOLDing, stand your ground. Keep influencing, even when GRABing and TOSSing look easier. It’s the healthiest way to “lose control” of your teen.

Taken from Losing Control & Liking It, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2009, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

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About the Author

Timothy L. Sanford, MA, LPC

Tim Sanford is a licensed professional counselor who works in Focus on the Family’s counseling department and in his own private practice. He is also a pastor, a public speaker and the author of two books, Losing Control and Liking It and I Have to Be Perfect. Tim and his wife, Becky, have two grown daughters and reside in Colorado.

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