Dear Dr. Copitch

Over the last 6 months my 16 year old daughter has started to come and go as she pleases. Most of the time she tells her father and me that she is going out and will be back by curfew. She doesn’t even ask.

When we try to talk to her about getting permission to go out she just yells at us and says we have to stop treating her like a little kid.

It scares me that she won’t tell us where she is going.

Angry and Scared Mom, Palo Cedro, Ca.

Dear Angry and Scared,

I would be angry and scared too! A 16 year old, boy or girl, who has total freedom tends to find lots of trouble. I am also sure that the disrespectful “yelling" at you and her dad is a giant warning flag of problems to come.

Teens need clear limits

In my opinion, teens need clear limits to help them grow up into responsible adults. This being said, your daughter is fighting these limits by yelling at you folks, thereby distracting you both from discussing these limits. She sounds like a bright girl.

I recommend that you and Dad implement what I call the 4 W’s and 1 H of parenting. As you read over this I predict you will be thinking, “That sounds great, but she won’t do it.” I’m going to ask you to hold that thought for a few minutes so I can explain the 4 W’s and 1 H of parenting, then I will talk to you about to how get this change into your family rule book.

The 4 W’s and 1 H of parenting

The 4 W’s and 1 H are a bunch of questions that a teen asks to get permission to do stuff. It is the kid's responsibility to get you to say "yes" by answering these questions so well that you would feel like a heel if you said "no". Note, I am not talking about badgering you into saying "yes", I’m talking about asking for permission to do something that you are interested in supporting.

This is a very mature way of dealing with getting permission. Working adults have to do this all the time, for example, to work out vacation time. Adults can’t just announce that they are taking time off from work, they have to follow a protocol to use their vacation time. Thus, we are teaching our teens a responsible, adult way to get their needs met.

The teen has to present the 4 W’s and 1 H in a way that they can get the answer they want. This skill, along with their reputation as an honest person, (assuming they have such a reputation) will help them get their needs met.

The 4 W’s and 1 H are:

Who

Who are you going to be with? Who are the adults that are supervising?

What

What is the activity? Relationships are built through activity. We do things with others to build our friendships. Thus, “hanging out at the mall” is not an activity. Be specific about what the activity is and list all the activities planned. Statements like, “I’m going to Mary’s then we may go to Bob’s, and if we hear about a party out at Sam’s, we may go to that,” are not plans.

When

When does the activity take place? Give start and stop times along with travel time.

Where

Where does the activity take place? The specific location such as Bob’s house or Movies 10. Parents need to have the address and contact information of the adults responsible for the "where".

How

How are you getting to and from the activity? Are you asking your parents for a ride? Asking to barrow the car? The how needs to be specific. “I think Mary will come and get me,” is not specific. “Mary has permission to borrow her mom’s car and she is planning to pick me up at 7:30 Friday night. Mary’s mom is named Molly Flynn and her cell phone number is 555-1234," is what you need to hear to be able to say, "Yes".

Answer these question so that your parents feel safe with your request… Build trust to make it so they “can” say yes.

Parents need to clearly explain

Parents need to clearly explain that the 4 W’s and 1 H are a test of their child’s honesty. Parents should check up on the 4 W’s and 1 H to prove to themselves that their son or daughter is telling the truth.

When I bring this up in therapy sessions, teens regularly say, “They should just believe me,” to which I comfortably disagree.

“I advise everyone to trust behaviors not words,” I explain. “Words are easy, behaviors are the true test of one’s character. One’s character is exposed over time with thousands of examples of behavior. Please don’t trust others simply by their words, judge them on their behaviors.”

A common question parents ask, “But how do we get our kids to do this?”

A great and important question.

The simple answer is you exhibit the honest behaviors you expect from others. I’m not kidding here. You teach your children by example.

The bigger and more complicated answer is you set up a must rule. Thus your homework assignment is to learn how to do this by reading my article: Family Rules - The difference between a house and a home.

I hope that once you've read this article and set up must rules as a family, you will no longer be, Angry and Scared Mom, but instead, Confident and Proud Mom.