I’m like a toddler. I have tantrums like a toddler; I swing from ecstatically excited to belligerently uncooperative depending on how the mood takes me. The crux of it is that just like a toddler I haven’t learned self-control. Yes I might be more complex than a toddler in many ways, but hold onto this base fact, it can offer many clues on how you should deal with me.
Just when solving a seemingly intractable problem, a scientist returns to base principles and works on from there, so too should anyone working with a teen like me. And what is the first thing that any toddler ‘manual’ will tell you in dealing with an erratic tot? Boundaries, strong and true, consistent and unshakeable.
Yes I will probably hurl myself at a lot of your boundaries like a battering ram at the castle gates or I will nonchalantly try to breach them by pretending to be an uncaring passer-by who then quietly trys to dig a hole under the surrounding walls. I do not like boundaries, and particularly the ones that I think are stupid, which pretty much means all of them. I’ve got on just fine ignoring boundaries so far, so why should I start paying attention to them now?
Well I’ll tell you why. I need boundaries to know that you care. If there aren’t any consistent boundaries, I know you don’t give a shit. People in my life have never really enforced any boundaries consistently, so I knew that they didn’t care. I just did what the hell I wanted. It was a buzz, but it didn’t give me what I really needed or wanted- a sense of security, a sense of knowing what to expect, a sense of consistent care. Sometimes they’d be all police-enforcer and they’d go mental, next time they wouldn’t really take any notice. So all in all the impression that I got was that they were unpredictable and that they only cared about my behaviour when it was bothering them, not because my behaviour needed to be changed for my benefit. Basically, as I said, they didn’t really care for me.
So the strength and consistency of your boundaries shows me the strength and consistency of your care for me. If you spell out clear boundaries and expectations to me and enforce them consistently, I will eventually warm to you because I will feel secure. This won’t be an easy path, let me warn you. I will fight against any boundaries- that’s what I’ve always done and while it usually gets me my own way in the short term it doesn’t give me what I really need. It will take me a while to work this out and I will throw myself at the boundaries you set, I will try and break them down. Or I will try and undermine them by subtly digging under them. But by you standing strong and not giving in I will come to realise that you care- the conclusion I never got to with anyone else who put up half-baked crappy boundaries that fell with the slightest push.
So really instead of boundary enforcement being a stick matter, it becomes a carrot one. As soon as I feel positive emotions I desperately need and desire then hell, I will start to pay attention! I will have security and a sense of control because I will know what to expect if I mess up. I will at least subconsciously feel that in some way you care, and oh how I crave that.
If you don’t enforce your boundaries consistently it won’t be just be me that takes the mick out of them, you will be just as bad. So if you have a boundary I need to know what the consequence will be if I don’t adhere to it. Actions have consequences- another lesson for toddlers that I need to learn too. You don’t need to be overly dramatic in your enforcing, that just turns me right off. I’m used to people doing that and it will only make me angry and make things twenty times worse. Just cool and calmly explain to me when I’ve overstepped the line, why you have to enforce the boundary, remind me of the consequence if previously explained to me and make it clear that this is how it will be. Make it clear that you hope it won’t happen again. This shows me you see a future in our relationship and that my one screw up doesn’t mean it is all ruined. Afterall, just like a toddler it will probably take a little while for me to learn.
I really can’t argue with you when you’ve been mega-clear and mega-calm. Even if I do erupt at the time, I will calm down and will eventually accept that you are being fair and just, and heck, I need some of that. I will come to respect your boundaries and you.
Whatever you do, don’t be overly punitive in how you deal with me. If the consequence does not match up to the action then I will just view the whole thing as unfair and will stick my fingers up at it, no matter what the consequences might be. You see, you can’t socially ostracise someone into behaving when they are already socially ostracised. It’s like threatening to chop a snake’s hands off for stealing. It just makes no sense.
Fair enough, you might work in a system, like the youth justice system that has legal boundaries and court imposed consequences. You must impose the boundaries of our supervision sessions even if you think that the consequence of breaching me from my court order may be over-the-top. You can use your influence though, and if you think that there is a fair and just method of dealing with me then scoot yourself down to court and tell them so, or put it in your court report. At least I will then know that you wanted what was fair for me, even if what the court imposes is not. This way by enforcing the boundary you’ll teach me how in society that you have to respect the law and abide by the decisions of the courts whether you agree with them or not, and at the same time show me that even though I’ve stuffed up, that our working relationship hasn’t been flushed down the pan. The fact that you have tried to use your influence in helping the courts come to a fair decision about the consequences of my actions shows that you care.
This is all I want in the world. To know that someone actually cares what happens to me. And the best way I know to test how much you care, is to test your boundaries. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t bother to enforce the boundaries consistently. If you didn’t care then you wouldn’t go to the effort of thinking of suitable consequences for breaching those boundaries.
Once I know you care, then I will begin to tow the line with your boundaries. I will learn the self-control needed for me to get positive attention for living within the boundaries rather than getting the negative attention for living outside the boundaries. This is one of the biggest life lessons you can teach me and will really help me get on with the world and its systems and restrictions rather than constantly trying to blow them up with my volatile behaviour. I’m really quite simple and straightforward in many ways. If I can see the benefit of doing something, then I will.
So just like a toddler you can mould my behaviour with the food I really want and need- in my case the carrot of care. Try feeding me some, I promise I will ask for more.