One day I was pulling out of the driveway at work to drive home, when I noticed a rather large grasshopper on my windshield. While I was still driving slowly, this grasshopper had an opportunity to let go before it became more dangerous for it to do so. However, the grasshopper didn’t ‘know’ that. He simply knew he wanted to stay on the windshield. It is possible he ‘knew’ that something was wrong, and the wind was picking up, i.e. the force trying to remove him from the windshield. So he did what came naturally, he clung even harder. He had no way of knowing I was going to get on the highway soon, and it was going to get a lot worse. The longer he held on, the worse he made it for himself, and the worse the repercussions would be when he finally was forced off (I can only assume that it is a bad thing to be a grasshopper coming off a windshield at 50 mph).

But this grasshopper kept holding on against the ever-increasing force of the wind. The faster I went, the stronger the force of the wind pushing him off, the more he held on. One could argue that if he managed to hold on against the force of the wind through the whole trip, either I would “give in” out of pity and slow down, or he would “get what he wanted,” i.e. stay on the windshield. I did wonder, now that he had seen what it was like to hold on, if I slowed down, even stopped and gave him the opportunity to let go safely, without repercussion, would he do so, or would he still hold on?

I was struck by this strong image. It seemed the perfect metaphor for a stubborn teenager. When a teen decides he wants something his way, there is often an opportunity that he does not take to let go of that desire and do what his parents want him to do. Often, he likely does not sense what holding on will bring. The harder he is pushed to let go of what he wants, the worse the repercussions for holding on, the more he tightens his grip. He may hope that his parents will give in, out of pity for his position, or resignation that he is not going to give in, or because they have had enough of the battle, or because they fear how far he will go. I sometimes wonder if the teen doesn’t get what he wants, but the parents take off the pressure to “give in,” and do not pursue the discussion to try to ‘teach him a lesson,’ would the teen drop the issue?

One example that illustrates this point is a younger teenage boy I worked with, Max. Max had a tendency to get really worked up when he did not get his way. He would start to raise his voice, and sometimes even swear at his parents. However, his parents had very different ways of responding.

Max’s dad was outraged by his son’s disrespect. He would not tolerate being talked to in such a manner. He would demand that Max apologize and comply with whatever limit was being argued about immediately. When Max was disrespectful in return, his father would begin to yell, which prompted Max to yell back, and things would quickly escalate from there. I cannot argue with Max’s father’s point. Max was being disrespectful, and should not be talking to his father that way. However, as a means of resolving the situation, his ‘force of will’ method did not seem to be working very well. All it did was cause Max to escalate. His father was not teaching him a way to act differently. In fact, he was modeling the exact behavior that he was trying to stop. His point that Max’s behavior was unacceptable was definitely valid, but his method was not serving that point.

Max’s mother took a different approach. She realized that Max was upset, and trying to force him to back down or apologize was only going to enflame things. She was able to avoid reacting to his words or taking them personally. She knew that his anger was not really about her, and saw it as an indication that he was too upset to be reasoned with. Essentially, when he was that upset, she knew that she could not ‘reach’ the part of him that was going to see how he was acting and apologize or back down.

She also recognized that there is no time limit. So rather than force him to back down and apologize or agree to the limit being argued about, she would separate from him. Usually she would send him to his room, but not as a form of punishment. She’d tell him that he was clearly upset, and that he needed time on his own to settle down. Max would go to his room, stew for a while, and eventually calm down. When he came down, he would apologize for his words on his own and then do what he was told. By not forcing him, his mom taught him some important skills on how to de-escalate from a conflict.

Eventually, Max began recognizing this himself. When he grew frustrated, he would be the one to say that he needed a break and would ask to go be by himself until he was calm enough to have the conversation. Unfortunately, this was still difficult for his father, who wanted a more immediate appropriate response from Max.

I empathized with Max’s father. It is not easy to tolerate that kind of behavior from your son. It feels like he is ‘getting away’ with it, or you are not doing your job as a parent. But history showed that Max needed time and space in order to gain the perspective on his actions that his father desired. His mother had learned that Max would accept the limits and apologize for his reaction much easier if she backed off and did not try and force him there, but did not let him out of his responsibility either.


Comments are closed.