The other day I found the following post on Yahoo Questions:

My 13yo firmly believes he is under absolutely no obligation to do anything my wife or I say, and refuses to do anything he doesn’t feel like doing. Suggestions? We live in Washington State, USA.

Frustrated Washington Dad, this one’s for you and the millions of others with similar problems.

I currently have a 13 year old, two 15 year olds, and a 17, 18 and 19 year old.

How do I do it? Duck and cover. Keep my head down, don’t ask any questions and have an unlimited data plan. I kid.

Through sheer dumb luck, I have some teens who are turning out amazingly well.

Have you noticed, though, that our modern culture seems tailor made to produce shallow, self-centered teens, saturated with entitlement issues? Their entire world held aloft by the three pillars of “peers,” “pleasure,” and “privilege,” having some time ago kicked “parents” aside?

Have you ever watched a Disney Channel show? Sure, it’s good clean fun, but every teen is lavishly accessorized, with goofy, bumbling parents who seem to exist only to carry in trays of sandwiches, support their teens’ Claire’s habit, and spout tired aphorisms like “just believe in yourself.”

What are reasonable, middle-class parents of teens to do?

This is the quote that has recently bubbled up in my memory, asking to be heard and re examined:

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for

the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

– Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., born in 1809 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was a brilliant doctor and polymath who was well known for his lectures at Harvard.

I believe his piece of wisdom can be applied to any area of life – even teenagers.

Washington Dad, there is a simplicity on this side of the complex struggles with your teen, and there is a simplicity on the far side.

What does this side look like? Simple: power struggles. Snap judgments. Assumptions. Eye rolls. Angry reactions. Shouting matches. Shaming. Misunderstandings. Hasty punishments that breed resentment. And (more on this later), the seemingly ever-present dichotomy between toughness and kindness – in other words, we flip flop between the two because they seem to be the only two directions available to us. I call this array of issues simplicity because they are what come easiest, but, speaking from experience, this “simplicity” is harder than a multivariable differential equation to live with.

There is a much milder equation that will point us to our sought after “other side of complexity”: Feeling understood = “psychological air”= connection. It’s that simple.

If your child feels genuinely understood by you, with a sure sense that you know where he’s coming from, he’s one step closer to playing ball.

But that simplicity’s on the other side of a dark and winding road marred by wounded pride, goading impatience, and the painful death of the ego. The complexity you have to slog through, my friend, is thick indeed. But marvelously worth it.

This is not to say that you have to accept all of your child’s irksome flaws. But you must look at him, with everything he’s about, and all that he struggles with, take it in, and even with everything inside you screaming to criticize, honestly utter, many times over, “It makes sense to me, given everything you’re telling me, that you would be feeling that way.” Simple. But not easy.

And, believe it or not, that opens the golden door to better days ahead.

Research “mindfulness”. It will help. Stephen R. Covey also wrote quite extensively on the power of feeling understood.

Remember the dichotomy I mentioned earlier? The way we “simply” alternate between “tough” and “kind”?

On the other side of the complexity you’ll battle in learning to understand him, another “simplicity” (which I also heard taught by Stephen Covey) will begin to emerge from the fog:

You have a third alternative that is both tougher and kinder.

You are kinder and more generous emotionally and tougher in your follow through on agreed upon consequences.

Keeping in mind that without “psychological air,” no program of discipline will be effective beyond a surface level, you can keep the following “simple” formula in mind: positive behavior=getting what he wants, negative behavior=not getting what he wants. If your teen already has too much to care, you may have to begin by cutting some privileges back and making them subject to earning. Systematically and consistently implemented, together with regular “psychological air,” it works.

As the purpose of this post is to offer a framework, and because it’s best for you to design your program specifically for your teen and ideally with his input, I won’t explain exactly what your program may look like.

It could take the form of a “token economy,” in which your teen can earn some kind of family currency to “spend” on the things he desires. It could also take the form of a “win-win agreement” or contract you sit down with him to draft together. The more input you get from him, the easier your prospects of success. But it’s best if it’s down in writing, mutually acknowledged, and not subject to parental moods and whims. It requires incredible fortitude. But again. Worth it.

You can google “token economy,” and “win-win agreement”, for ideas. But give it deep consideration, think with your heart, and remember our “simple” equations.

The struggle is real, the struggle is complex, and the struggle is infinitely worth it. I wish you all the best.

Author’s bio:

Five and a half years ago, as a therapist intern and single mother of two, Summer Cox met the man of her dreams: a widower with 6 kids. Together they had three more. Summer has a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy, training as a Waldorf Teacher, and a passion for sharing the “wisdom of the ages” with people of all ages. Learn more about her writing by visiting her at


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