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Temporary Insanity-part 3

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Boys Town's Patrick D. Friman, Ph.D. discusses teens and their behavior. (Part Three)

It sounds like you're saying to lower your expectations to teenagers.

No, I didn't mean to say that.

Like they're not accountable because they're--

I didn't say that either. No, what I'm trying to get you away from is judging them morally, characterologically or psychopathologically. I'm trying to put it in developmental terms and I'll give you a sense of what I'm talking about. One of the things a toddler does really badly is walk. They make a lot of mistakes with their walking and then they fall and the earth punishes them for doing weird things with their walking. It doesn't mean the earth thinks they were immoral. It doesn't mean the earth will reduce its expectations. It is just the consequences for walking without balance. Pretty soon, as a result of the earth's feedback for walking without balance, the kind learns balance. You see what I'm saying? These kids are going to be behaving erratically like the little one is walking erratically. You are the earth so if they walk erratically and make mistakes they have to pay and you’re the one who decides how much. I recommend that it's dispassionate and it's not done in a sense of them being immoral, unethical, having a characterological defect or pathological. It’s just a development inadequacy. It's something they haven't learned how to do yet and you're helping them learn with consequences. I'd elevate your expectations not lower them and I'm definitely not saying let them off the hook. I specialize in coming up with inquisitional ways to punish teenagers.

I'd get paid to do that but I don't recommend being mad about it. Has anybody in here ever had a speeding ticket? For those of you that have a speeding ticket, when the officer gave you the ticket, did he scream at you? Did he yell at you? Did he threaten you? Did he get big and angry? Or did he just write down what you did, say what it was, check your plates, ask you to sign and he may have said goodbye. That's the whole interaction right? You think he lowered his expectations of your driving. When you drove away did you peel out? Spin gravel in the officer's face? I submit to you that this is what all of you did, you signaled to leave the shoulder.

You're communicating to the nice officer that a terrible mistake has been made. You're actually a great driver. You are still good so you would signal to leave a shoulder. Then you drive down the highway like you just got out of driving school with hands at ten and two, under the speed limit and you drive like that for days. Why? Because the officer gave you a ticket and that’s all. There was no emotion involved and the officer doesn't think badly of you. He's just giving you a consequence. I'm recommending that you keep the speed limit in your house exactly where you've got it and start giving tickets when it is exceeded and that is all. I'm not saying lower your standards, lower your expectations or let them off the hook. I'm just saying don't judge them as if they're defective human beings. They're just underdeveloped human beings and your job, our job, is to teach them what it takes to get where we want them to go. The feedback and the consequence is a big part of that.

Can you give us examples of some activities that are more or less healthy that satisfy the teenagers limbic system.

Obviously, sports are a good example of that. You probably aren't going to like this but video games too. They do satisfy that. I recognize that a lot of kids play video games at the expense of virtually everything else but that's kind of similar to the text messaging thing. I think everything should be limited. When you limit something you increase its value. A lot of people in this room are wearing diamond rings and a very easy way to make them almost worthless would be to get a truckload of diamonds in here and all of a sudden their value goes down. The reason diamonds are valuable is because there aren't very many of them and if you take the things that kids like to do and you limit how much they get to do it and their access to it, it's value goes way up and so too does it's limbic value. They like sports because there's a competitive edge in there and there's physicality. They like video games for reasons that we appreciate and for reasons that we don't appreciate but it's vigorous, emotional and a psychological activity for them and they enjoy it. Like I said I was raised in Montana so there was a lot of stuff in Montana that was limbic that isn't readily available in Nebraska as I can tell. I grew up on the Missouri river but it was blue and the fish that were in it were recognizable as fish. The river here is chocolate brown and what that comes out of it that purports to be a fish looks like something other worldly to me. Outdoorsy stuff like camping out or hunting if that fits your family sensibilities. If you don't fish and you have young kids I'd learn how to fish. Kids love fishing when they get what it's all about because there's something about that thing that's in the water on the other end of the line that just gets their heart beating and that's limbic.

When will things get better? We've got three teenagers right now.

Bad news.

Can I save an answer to that question for when I'm all done, and I promise you I'll come to it, OK? I don't know if you're going to like the answer because it's not going to be emotionally satisfying, but I'm gonna do what I can with it OK.

I guess I was going to go back to what you were just ....


No, consequences.


I guess we're just frustrated of.. you put them out there in... if you just keep doing it over and over and you say keep your self level.

I'm not asking you to do something you can't do.

My husband says I am but if you prove to somebody over and over and over that you can't be trusted, you can't be trusted and then I…

Lecturer: I'm going to change that. That's probably partly why you are angry because you got it in the category of trust. That's not where it belong. It's not an issue of trust. You told him either to do something or not to do something and he did it or didn't do it and that's what the deal is. He hasn't learned how to either do it or not do it yet. Maybe he's deficient in some skills that need to be assessed. I presume he either can or can't do it depending on what you want.  Keep it in that category and every time he does it or if he doesn't do it make him pay. If it looks like it's chronic elevate the cost. It's a cost based economic problem, not a morality trust based problem. If you get it out of that trust based category, I have a feeling it won't affect your emotions so much. Trust is a gift. You can either give it or not and I recommend you give it. Reliability is not a gift. Reliability is learned and he's unreliable in this area. You want to get him more reliable. You've got to true in the machine in order to do that you've got to work with the mechanism a little bit and be prepared for the repetition. This isn't easy.

I know.

Well, do you play golf?




What I'm getting at is that a lot of people in this room play golf and they've done a lot of repetition and they still look up. Golf is a relatively easy thing to learn compared to what you want your son to learn because he's in the presence of profound demands from the environment that he's in to either do or not do the thing and learning how to not do or do something when there's a demand to either do or not do it right in your face, that's really hard for humans. I'm not saying you can't. It's just that it's going to take time for him to learn it and your job in there is to make him pay when he doesn't do it.

How long?

That's somebody else's question. My brother-in-law was formally the Commanding General at Fort Knox. Now he's going to be the Commanding General at Fort Jackson and he and I married identical twin sisters. I've been hanging around with him since he was a Captain. He and his wife have relied tremendously on me to give them advice about their two boys because my brother-in-law is a general and has a lot of people in his army. There are two people in his life who are not in his army. I went to Fort Hood when he was a Colonel and we just walked over to the mess one day and his XO yelled out to about a 1000 soldiers "make a hole" and they divided like the red sea. Why? So Mike and I could walk through there and go to lunch. That's what his day world was like. Then he went home to his sons.

Lecturer: They weren't in his army. They are not even privates. One of them was an experimenter, what I call a two by four kid. Do you know what i mean by that? You got to whack him in the head with a two by four to get their attention. He was just like an easy going kid that was into having fun in all the wrong ways and it took a lot of repetition for him to make any kind of a connection because it was hard to make him uncomfortable. My brother-in-law, this big strong man, looks like a recruiter poster for a general. His erect postured, 6 foot 1, muscular, handsome, very strong, booming voice, grabs me by the arm and he's a full bird colonel and starts to cry and says "I wasn't ready for how many times I'd have to tell him the same thing."

I wanted to slap him, you know because his standard you know presumably was even narrower than your own. It's like he wanted it to happen very quickly. This repetition is a key to learning and most parents aren't prepared for how much of it is necessary to learn the kind of skill they want to see their kids exhibit almost automatically. It's another one of those messages from God about sex not supposed to be a fun thing. It’s part of the deal and it's the repetition for years.

The hard part is when you give the consequence and they step right on the consequence. You give another consequence and they step on that again. You get to the point where i can't give another consequence as there's nothing left to take away.

There's probably another way to do that consequence stuff.  You might consider giving us a call we do specialize in inquisitional consequences.

Believe me, you're not the only person in the room with that problem. That repetition problem is a big problem for everybody. All it means is that the payoff for him doing it is greater that the penalty that you're applying. There's something that he's getting out of it and I don't know what it is. If it's social, it's hard for you guys to come up with a social cost that is equal in magnitude to the social benefit that he's getting but it's not character. At least I don't like to think of it as character.

A couple of thoughts. First of all, there seems to be legacies in certain families on how mothers and fathers were raised as they were growing up and now. I'm sure there are married couples in here and maybe there are some single parents too. Kids are very good about playing one parent against the other. Also with the increase in divorce and alternative families there could be eight grandparents sometimes involved in raising kids too. How do you get people on the same page as far as parenting style? Especially for parents who are separated or there's a kid that's torn between two or three different households. How do you get everybody on the same page ?

Do you have a specific situation?


I just work with a lot of different people, I over hear these conversations. My wife and I are married. We raised four kids. Our eldest is 30 and our youngest is 23 but I'm just interested in your approach and how you...

It actually would be easier, since there's a theoretical dimension to that question, if it's more of a specific. I understand the importance of the question and we deal with it all the time. Not a day goes by where I don't have to address that but I'd like to keep it in a specific realm because I could ramble on for half an hour and eat up all our time just trying to address one question, if that's all right with you.

Lets just take a couple and they removed five things from the bedroom and the kid doesn't have anything else in the bedroom except his bed and one parent wants to give it all back They want to give it all back because it's not working and the other parent wants to kick the kid out of the house.

Actually we have that a lot. First of all, whatever parent discipline is right, because ... in the eyes of the kid, we want the kiddo ... lets use a military example. Whatever officer gave the order is right in the eyes of the soldier who got the order. In the eyes of the superior for the officer who gave the order there may be some conflict about the adequacy of that order but there is a chain of command and that chain of command has to be obeyed. I recommend that same thing happens in families. When somebody is on the line and they give a command that command has to be obeyed unless there's clear cut evidence that there's some kind of psychopathology involved with one of the parents. They're clearly psychologically deviant in some way which can happen. That's rare. But if a parent gives an order, and they're right in the eyes of the kid, then the parents need to work that out privately. In that scenario where one is being very harsh and the other one is being very lax usually they're balancing each other. The person that's being very strict thinks the kiddo needs somebody to be strict to toughen them up a little bit. The one who's being a little lax or little bit easier on the kiddo is looking over there thinking somebody needs to be nice to this kid because my spouse is being so mean. One ends up being stricter than they want to be and one ends up being looser or laxer than they want to be in the interest of the betterment of the kid and they may be unconscious about that happening. When I bring that to couples' attention, they almost always recognize that it's happening and sometimes that's all that's necessary for them to come closer to the middle. That and the message about the interest the kid has in dividing their authority to gain some kind of leverage with their own agenda. They'll work any crack in that relationship that they can find. It's in their best interest to do so because they're going to weaken the power structure in the family and gain freedom thereby. Sometimes just acquainting parents with that dynamic and then giving them a couple of tactics to stick with can be enough. There's a lot more to this obviously. You just got the question, you could design a graduate study course in order to answer. Thank you for the question though. I know i didn't answer it but I hope I touched on it a little bit.

One parent wants to let the kid have a cellphone at age five and the other one wants to wait till age nine.

I would work for some kind of negotiation.. I'm a big fan of negotiation, I have that up here to negotiate with kids and have parents negotiate with each other.

Can you talk for a minute about curfews? We have a son that came home maybe a couple of minutes after curfew. Do you think we should be strict or do we say okay you're two minutes late

Who's driving?

He is.

Sorry, I'd be strict. If he's riding, I'd be a little generous because he can't control the driving but he is the driver. That means he has to be the one to tell people in the car that they've got to go home so he can go home because of his curfew. That will cost him a little bit socially but those few minutes they aren't going to cost him that much. He may be just testing or he might be a little too unconscious about your limit but that's an inch and an inch can ultimately lead to a mile. If he's driving I'd tell him that if he can't get home on time may be somebody else can drive.

If he has a cell phone and we all have cell phones synced to the same time, he'll come up with an excuse like the car's clock is different.


Set up a separate program for the most creative reason for coming home late and give him a little reward for that but also punish the lateness.

What do you think is an appropriate punishment? Make their next curfew at night earlier or ground him? What do you typically see?

To start off with you just need a consequence that costs him. Then you keep working it until you see some effect on his behavior. One way to do it would be to take the minutes that he's late and subtract them from the next curfew. You might put a magnifier in there times 10 or times 5 and it's up to him. If he keeps going he might work his way all the way back to "You're not going out tonight because your curfew is, now…look at the time, you have to get home"

Do you recommend putting a lot of stuff in writing because I don't know how many times he claims we've never told him rules that we've had forever. "Well, you never told me that."

What do you want? Do you want him to pay attention to what you say? Then make what you say matter. If you want to have what you say not matter so much then write it down and then the paper counts. I mean if that's what it's going to take. I like to magnify my own and the authority of the people that work for me and the parents I work with to the extent I've got to rely on something other than me. I diminish my authority. My voice is where I want my authority to reside if at all possible. If I can't get it there then I'm going to put it in writing. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just the diminishment of your authority. You follow what I'm saying? If you really want him to pay attention to what you say, just telling him basically is not enough to remember it. If you told him that if he just cleans his room you'll give him 50,000 dollars, he'd tune right in and remember that until that room got spic and span.

This is the last question.

My son has discovered this video game that you play via the internet. He has virtually hijacked the modem. He holds it hostage in his room and he's like "Excuse me, how can you do that? If I was to come to your room and get your 360 Xbox and take it up to my room, all hell would break loose. So how could you just go up there and take her things." While he was asleep I had to disconnect it and hide it. So he calls me on the car phone "Mom, where's the modem?" I say, "You have to do something. You've got to wash the dishes or you've got to brush your teeth or you've got to come out of that room." I said, "You've got to come out of that room." I said, "And when she comes home it better be done.” He didn't wash the dishes but he did clean up the kitchen and he brushed his teeth. Are they trying to drive their parent's crazy? When I looked into his room, I saw him going like this. I saw motions like this and I was thinking that thing has taken his mind. It has taken his mind because it has him traveling through a tunnel and it's blocking everything out. What is really going on here?

It is what you see. I'm calling teenagers temporarily insane human beings and their insanity takes all different forms, one of which is that video form insanity. That isn't going to last but while it's happening it'll look insane to us. Remember, I was talking about us being rational. You're judging his behavior from a rational perspective not an emotional perspective. He's getting big kicks out of whatever he's doing with that video game. He's loving it so much that he's willing to violate major household rules and all the things you taught him about sharing and ownership and property rights. He's throwing them off the window just to get access to more videoing. He's just temporarily nuts but I like what you did. Make him earn it back and make him do the things that you want to see him do more of that he is doing less of because he plays so much video stuff to get it back. It sounds like you're on top of that to me.

Thank you. We're at the end of our evening. Obviously, we could spend more time doing this. Let me go back to number 10. This may not be a satisfying answer but it's the answer I have. I mentioned that I wasn't a parent so there's a lot of really profound experience that I'll never have that you guys have a lot of. One that comes to mind that I would love to have and never will is that moment where you're running behind the bike and you're holding on to the back and you don't want to let go and, I presume, they don't want you to let go. Everything is safe while that's happening but at some moment, you do have to let go and the instant that you let go what you brought into the world is faith. You have faith that that boy or girl is going to ride on and that's a very powerful moment. There's a lot of that in parent-child relationships. What I'm recommending with number 10 is that when you're in the presence of an insane human being called a teenager and they're at their absolute worst…maybe they're screaming in your face…what I am asking you for is a moment of faith right there that this will not last. That this is a developmental phase that has a longer tail than you really want it to have but the tail is a finite link not an infinite link. It will end. It'll come out on the other side and what will be over there is a rational human being. One that you'll be proud to have been part of as they grew up in your home and upset that they did the things that they did while you were raising them but have faith that there's a limit to it. That's number 10. That's all I have to say. Thanks very much for coming.