Q: Our 18-year-old daughter is a month away from high school graduation and she is failing nearly every class! About six months ago, she took up with a group of young adults who are less than desirable, to say the least. Some of them are dropouts. I suspect drugs and alcohol. The more we tried to prevent her from running with this lowly bunch, the more rebellious she became. Finally, in desperation, we took her car and her smartphone away and told her she can’t have them back until she possesses a high school diploma. If she fails to graduate, she can go to summer school or get a GED from our community college. She says she’s not even going to go to school at all until we give her the car and phone back. And she adamantly refuses counseling. Help!
A: A principle that every parent needs to commit to memory: If a child does the wrong thing, and parents respond with a right and proper thing, the child may keep right on doing the wrong thing anyway. I call it the Jeremiah Principle because in the eponymous book of Scripture, the Lord of Israel laments that no matter what he does, his chosen people keep right on misbehaving. Fact or myth (I simply report, you decide), the story illustrates that proper consequences do not necessarily produce proper behavior.
In my view, you’ve done the right thing by stripping two of her most coveted privileges from her. In so doing, you’ve done your best to illustrate to her that freedom and personal responsibility are the yin and yang of life (my attempt to honor diversity). You can’t enjoy the former without the latter. And when I say, “you’ve done your best,” I mean there’s really nothing else you can do. I’m sure you already know that. You may simply be looking for a straw to grasp. You’ve no doubt tried grounding her, lecturing her — the usual approaches — and things have only gotten worse. So, stop trying to find the magic straw and stay the course.
Do not give her the car and phone back until she has possession of a high school diploma with her name on it. Do not waver. Do not cave in the face of her blatant attempt to blackmail you. Stop trying to talk reason into her thick little head. Just love her and know that loving a child often involves heartache and even heartbreak. Know also, however, that far more often than not, things eventually come around and the sun comes up again in the parent-child relationship. In the meantime, the two of you should focus on enjoying the later years of your lives together.
If your daughter doesn’t graduate with her class, so be it. You’ve done your job. It’s time for her to take over. Furthermore, she is letting you know that she is going to take over and there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, you can do about it. She is doing so in a self-defeating manner, but her self-righteousness blinds her to that, and there’s nothing but time and real life experience that’s going to instill that insight and understanding.
By the way, the next likely ploy on her part is to promise to go to counseling if you give her car and phone back. Don’t fall for that. She may be doing stupid things, but she’s still capable of being as clever as the proverbial fox.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.