Ever wonder why your teen takes a pass on your advice? Especially when you know “for a fact” that it’s really good?

Here are five reasons why teenagers might look elsewhere for solutions or support, or nowhere at all. It can explain those times when they stick with a bad decision even though they know it’s bad, or insist on being right even when it flies in the face of all reason. Are they being difficult or defiant? Probably not. Often they’re just trying to save face after having painted themselves in a corner, or trying to avoid the feeling that they are “losing” or “giving in.” I think if we as parents, teachers, and counselors made it easier for children and teenagers to change their minds or reverse course—for example by not using the situation to “make a point”—we’d see a lot more flexibility and better decision-making in the kids we love and care about.

Reason #1

Frankly, it’s embarrassing to change your behavior or point of view when everyone is watching and waiting for you to do it. Consider the kid whose parents have been trying for months to get him to change his approach to doing homework and studying for tests. If he continues to insist that his way of doing things is fine or that everyone is over-reacting, he’s stuck with the same old outcome—poor grades, angry parents. If, on the other hand, he does change his habits, it can feel to him as though he is admitting that his old ways — which for months he’d argued in defense of — were all wrong after all. 

Years ago I counseled parents whose son had been refusing to join the family for dinner. The boy couldn’t stand that his dad would always try to turn concessions on the part of the boy into his own personal triumph. I remember saying to the dad that I actually thought the boy would appear at the table if he were certain his father wouldn’t do a victory dance across the kitchen floor.

Issues between teenagers and adults having to do with who won and who lost, who is in control, and who has more power in relationships are pretty prominent. Most people think that it’s the adolescent who brings these issues to the relationship, but I believe adults contribute just as much. They are often just as vested in being right or in control as their young counterpart, and find it easy to dismiss problems as part of “adolescence.”

Reason #2

Many adolescents who are already in trouble of some kind are as unhappy and anxious about their situation as their parents are. However, some of them get stuck on that same track because they have convinced themselves that a suggestion made by a parent or teacher or counselor (even if it’s a suggestion they like) is a “contaminated” suggestion. Now they can’t follow it. If this happens in your household, try saying something like, Sometimes I think you actually like my ideas but feel like you can’t use them because I was the one who came up with it first. How come we both can’t like the same idea?

Reason #3

Some kids are so driven to be “right” they won’t give up a point they’ve been making even when they themselves have come to see it as crazy. At these times, not being wrong becomes more important than doing the smart thing. It’s a pride thing and we’ve all been there. Try to empathize with your teen at times like these, maybe tell him or her a story where you painted yourself in a corner and went down with the ship rather than recant and feel humiliated. Too often parents think it’s their success stories that inspire their kids. Not always.  It can be hard for kids to identify with those kinds of stories when they themselves are struggling, so they get defensive and dismissive. A better story is likely to be the one in which your vulnerability shows through, one in which your kid can see that you really do get it. He or she will appreciate that you’re not trying to cheerlead them through the predicament, or use the moment to point out their character flaws, which in turn, makes them worry a little less about being “wrong.”

Reason #4

Sometimes, solving a problem doesn’t count unless you’ve solved it on your own. This could explain times when your adolescent son or daughter rejects all your good ideas while searching unsuccessfully for an original. And if, eventually, he or she comes up with one but it’s not a real good one, you can at least appreciate what your kid’s thinking: Well, it may not be the best idea but at least it’s mine.

Reason #5

This fifth one has to do with avoiding the dreaded “I told you so.” Let’s say a girl has a boyfriend and the boyfriend’s a creep. Everyone tells her he’s a creep, but she thinks he’s terrific. Everyone starts telling her why he’s such a creep, and she tells them all the reasons why she’s lucky to have him. Somewhere along the line, the girl starts thinking, Gee, this guy really is kind of creepy—but she stays with him anyway, at least for a while longer. Why? Because she can’t stand the thought of all those fingers wagging in her face.

Appreciating what it means for some teenagers to change their behavior in response to adult directives or recommendations demonstrates a respect that can actually make it easier for them to choose the healthier, safer, or just plain better alternative. I think many adults overestimate the importance of “information” and advice in influencing change in kids and teens, and underestimate the role of the relationship in creating a context in which it feels safe to a young person for him or her to make changes or exit a situation. More often than we realize, the teenagers we are trying to help really do want our help. They just need to know they’re not going to pay a price for accepting it.

— Janet Sasson Edgette