Full Show Notes
Is your teenager mean to you? What can parents do with teens who bully them and treat them cruelly? And why do teenagers even treat their parents like this in the first place?
This week on the podcast, I talked with Sean Grover, the author of the award-winning book When Kids Call the Shots: How to Seize Control from Your Darling Bully and Enjoy Being a Parent Again. Sean is an expert in child bullying behaviors. He teaches workshops to parents around the country and works privately with families and teens to end this kind of unruly behavior.
Sean explained that, to teens, bullying is not about being mean. It’s about getting what they want.
He told me about a teen he worked with who was torturing his mom because she missed his piano recital. When Sean suggested the boy let his mom off the hook, he replied, “If I keep this up, I think I can get a new laptop.”
Yes, your teenager is bullying you in order to manipulate you and get what they want. Your teen has realized that he or she can get things out of you by making you feel bad about yourself.
Sean has mapped out the most common types of bullying that occur in families and he’s developed specific strategies for exactly how to get your teenager back under control. All of that (and much more) is covered in this episode.
Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen
1. When your teen is being defiant, channel it in a positive direction:
“Can you invent a better way of doing this? You seem to be really good at this kind of thing.”-Sean Grover
2. Affirm your teen for doing something new:(Members Only)
Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview
1. Recognize How the Misbehavior is Serving Your Teen:What are the main behaviors you want your teen to stop doing? There’s a reason these behaviors are so tough to stop: your teen is getting something they want out of them. Sean told me that even when teens are mean or “bully” their parents it’s because they see a way to get something they want by making you feel bad. One of his patients told Sean he was torturing his mom because he thought he could get a new laptop if he played his cards right. What does your teen expect the result of his behavior is going to be? How does that result benefit your teen?
2. Uncover Your Own Role In Your Teen’s Behavior:(Members Only)
3. Compliment Your Teen for Being Different:(Members Only)
4. Remember How You Were in High School:(Members Only)
Complete Interview Transcript
Andy: So I loved the book, and I think that a lot of parents come to us with problems. Defiance, and rebellion, and “Hey, wow, I’m hitting the teenage years, and all of a sudden I can’t control my kid anymore. What do I do?” And so you provide a really cool framework in here for how to identify what’s going on, because as you point out, it’s not always the same root of the problem.
Sean: That’s right.
Andy: And I think that’s really cool. So I’d love to talk about how you developed this method first of all, and where you came up with all this stuff. And then what inspired you to codify it all and write this book?
Sean: Okay well the book is built firmly on the foundation of all my parenting failures.
Andy: It’s a good place to start.
Sean: It’s a good place to start. As a therapist that works with children and teenagers, and I’ve done this over 20 years, my main difficulty with parenting books when I was struggling as a parent, is that I felt the books were written for someone else, so I would try to say things they had in the book. I would try to emulate the kind of dialogues and the recommendations, and it just didn’t fit.
Sean: And this very interesting wave, depression came over me that everyone knew how to do this better than me. The books were so clear and so full of success stories, and I would try the same thing and just fail brutally, over and over and over again. I think this is when my children were smaller, around five years old. They’re teenagers now. But it was a real eye-opening experience for me, because I had been this parenting expert. I had spent a lot of time speaking to large groups of parents, and writing articles for parents, and doing my best to inspire parents, but when I became a parent, I slipped down this dark, dark hole. I just didn’t know what to do.
Sean: So at some point, I began to recognize that this had more to do with my history. It had to do with how I was parented. It had to do with my experiences. And that was the key. If I could get a grasp on that, I could make different choices. And I realized the books really didn’t take into account this is how you were parented, the choices your parents made, your relationship with your spouse. They gave you these checklists and solutions, but there was a real emotional component that I was struggling with, that I felt wasn’t being addressed.
Sean: So, when I started to work on this book, after several nervous breakdowns as a parent, I began to really see that without understanding myself better, there was no way I can understand my children, or make choices that were in their interests, because I was flying in the dark.
Andy: I see. So, okay yeah, because you tell the story in here about your daughter and how you kind of losing it a little bit, and then there’s a really cool thing that happens, which is you decide to start eating breakfast with her a few times a week.
Sean: That’s right. That’s the pancake solution.
Andy: The pancake solution. So why did the pancake solution work? And can you explain what it is?
Sean: Well, I went to see a therapist. Therapy has this very strong component of mentorship, so therapists have supervisors, and then supervisors have supervisors, and therapists have therapists, and their therapists have therapists, so we tend to turn to each other when we’re in a bind. I had gone to see one of the elder, most respected therapists, and paid a ton of money for one session, and he basically told me to stop talking, and start listening.
Sean: “Take your daughter out to breakfast once a week, maybe twice, and put all your energy into listening. You’re not going to give advice. You’re not going to tell stories about yourself. You’re not going to be funny. You’re just going to be present with her and responsive.”
Sean: When I walked out of his office, I thought that’s just [crosstalk 00:04:11]-
Andy: What a scam.
Sean: How could that possibly-
Andy: I just paid 500 bucks for that?
Sean: Right. Right. I was like, “Got to go cancel that check.” But I’m a good soldier and he’s a smart guy, so I said I’d do this.
Andy: Give it a shot.
Sean: But the interesting part is the minute I told my daughter that Saturday mornings I was going to go to breakfast with her, she got so excited, it was shocking to me. She got her favorite doll. She told her mom, “I’m going to breakfast with daddy,” and she did a little dance. And then it started to happen. She started talking more and more and more. She started telling me about things at school and about her friends, and I sat on every impulse to interrupt her, to correct her, to maybe be a little critical, or give some un-requested advice. And it really, that was a turning point for our relationship. My daughter’s 18 years old, and I think those breakfasts established a foundation for our communication that still stands strong today.
Andy: So do you still have the weekly Saturday breakfasts as part of your routine?
Sean: Not necessarily, but we do have our nights out, or we do make time to get together, and I try to give myself those same orders. I can be really stubborn. I like to talk, but it’s not so helpful. Teenagers are a lot like two year olds. They don’t really want to hear what you got to say. Listening was far more effective than any other intervention I had.
Andy: And why do you think that was? What was it that you were able to do on those Saturday mornings that you were not able to do other times?
Sean: Well parenting is really like a chaotic crisis. There’s always something that needs to be done. Someone got sick, or the dog needs to be walked, or something was spilled, and laundry has got to be put in the dryer. So in the chaos of our daily lives I really wasn’t giving my full attention to my daughter.
Sean: I wasn’t really stopping everything and reminding myself what really matters. Because if your relationship with your kid is in good shape, everything flows from that. If your relationship with your child is in bad shape, everything flows from that. So I really discovered that that was really the key to the beginning of a different way of parenting for me.
Andy: That’s so interesting.
Andy: So chapter five of your book is about your parenting style. It helps readers to figure out if they are falling into one of these three parenting styles that actually promote bullying behavior. It’s like if you recognize one of these three things in yourself, then correcting this might make this defined behavior from your teenager evaporate, or dissipate a little bit.
Andy: You have three of them in here, it’s the guilty parent, the anxious parent, and the fix-everything parent. And I just thought that you were so enlightening to read. And I wonder if we could talk a little bit about the three different ones, and which one were you that the breakfasts fixed? Or were you not one of these?
Sean: Oh, I was every one of them.
Andy: You were a combination?
Sean: Oh yes. It’d be much easier if everyone fit into one category, but I find that we have dominant features. We lean towards one, but really people are much more complicated. But I definitely felt I had every bit of the anxious parent, the guilty parent, and the fix-everything parent in me.
Andy: So it’s not that you’re going to read this and say, “Oh, I need to figure out which one I am”? It’s that you are going to figure out which ones are stronger in you, or if one is stronger than you, and then this is going to help you to put together a plan to fix it? Or what should your goal be in reading about these three archetypes?
Sean: Well, I ask a lot of questions for each sub-type. If you tend to blame yourself for your kid’s problem? Do you beat yourself up when you make a parenting mistake? Are you negatively comparing yourself with other parents? Those are the qualities of the guilty parent. All these parents are great parents. They’re dedicated. They’re loving. They’re hardworking.
Andy: They’re trying so hard.
Sean: They’re trying so hard, they really want to do this right. “Please let me get this right.” Many times they want to undo their own childhood. Maybe they had a tyrant parent, or maybe had a parent that didn’t listen well, or a parent that really frightened them. So they determine when they were younger, “I’m never going to be like that.” But as a result, they wind up doing too much, and being more of a friend than a parent. And children without strong leadership, really begin to come apart.
Sean: They need a strong parent to lead them. So the parents trying to please them too much, or rewarding them too much, or tending to their own guilty feelings, or their own anxiety, or their own need to have everything perfectly in place, a child’s going to get very angry about that.
Andy: And then there’s also an element that you point out where the child picks up on the fact that you’re feeling guilty, and they realize that if they push that button a little bit, then it will help them to get what they want.
Andy: I think a lot of parenting is that whatever behaviors we inadvertently reward our kids for, they’re going to continue to do. And so this book really struck me as that principle in action, where it’s like kids are just little experimenters, I think, and they just try stuff. And when they find something that works, they keep doing it. It’s not necessarily malicious, it’s that they made a comment one time that made you feel bad about yourself, and it worked, and they got what they wanted, and they maybe start to realize that, “Hey, there’s some guilt there in my parent, and if I push that button a little bit, it helps me.”
Sean: Oh absolutely. They can sense if a parent has, let’s say, if something’s gone wrong, especially if there’s a divorce or one of the siblings is sick, or there’s a financial hardship that’s affecting the whole family. They can see the parent really feeling bad about that. And they begin to sense, “Hey, I can use this to get what I want.”
Sean: My favorite story was a young man I worked with, who his mother was supposed to come, I think it was she was supposed to go to his recital and then she got the days mixed up. She missed the recital. So anyway, he saw this as a golden opportunity. He really saw how much could he milk this? I remember I was in therapy with him. He was in a session. And I said to him, “Derek, come on, your mother, it’s the first time she’s ever missed anything. Go easy on her.” And he said, “No, no way.” And I said “Why not?” And he said, “Well, I think if I can keep this up, I’ll get a new laptop.” So he knew, he knew how to manipulate the situation.
Andy: Isn’t that interesting.
Andy: How can you tell if you’re doing the guilty parent thing?
Sean: The guilty parent, there’s this feeling of shame. There’s this feeling of disappointment that you’ve let your kid down. There’s this feeling that you’re not doing enough, that should be doing more. There’s this feeling parents want to do workshops will stand up and be embarrassed that maybe their kids share a bedroom. And is that going to doom them? They have all these feelings of dread, like “I’ve really screwed this up.”
Andy: Or inadequacy or something. Yeah interesting.
Sean: But if we really look at that attitude, that pre-dates parenthood. That goes back to somehow in their past, where they felt they weren’t enough, or they had failed in some way. And they’re just carrying that into their role as a parent. It really has nothing to do with their child. And I’ve said to parents in workshops, “I’ve seen kids who had entire floors of a house to themselves, who had unlimited resources that were absolute monsters. And I’ve seen kids who share bedrooms with three or four siblings who were doing great in school and got scholarships and really amazing children.”
Sean: So it’s really the quality of the parenting, not the bank account that determines the quality of the child. And understanding our own attitudes and our own life tendencies. If a guilty parent bends towards depression, a guilty parent may bend towards self attack. A guilty parent may surrender their leadership to other people very quickly. They may not get treated very well by their friends. This is more of a character logical trait. And that for me, in writing the book, was really what I was shooting for. To get a greater level of self-understanding leads to a greater ability to parent effectively.
Andy: Yeah, and so you write that the idea is to figure out the real source of the guilt, and identify maybe something in your past, or how your parents might have contributed to these feelings. And then how do you break the cycle?
Sean: Well once you identify where your vulnerable spots are, and once you get to work on them. In the book I mentioned I have people journaling, I had them writing down realizations they have during the day. I have them writing about what their parents did right. What their parents did wrong. What they’re trying to do better. I really want to bring a mindfulness and an awareness to their parenting choices, rather than just saying, “Hey, don’t do that. Do this.”
Sean: For me that wasn’t so helpful. So once they realize, and I’ll say to parents, “We’ll set up structures around bedtime, and chores, and things like that.” But the amazing thing the guilty parent may look at structures as punishment.
Andy: Oh, I’m sorry we have to do this to you. Like you’re imposing it, you’re imposing it on them you mean?
Sean: They feel bad. They feel that, “Yeah I’m forcing you to do this. I don’t want to do it.”
Andy: They feel guilty about imposing structure.
Sean: Right, right, but parents always find when they tighten up and start to hold the boundary, their kid’s anxiety goes down. There may be a little bump in disruptive behavior, but very quickly that starts to go down, because kids without structure, limits and boundaries, get very very anxious, and have trouble containing themselves. So when a parent steps in and provides those. Pushes aside their guilty feelings and overcomes them, knowing that this is in the better interest of my child, the child actually gets better.
Sean: I’ve worked with parents where I’ve never seen their children, and they’ve gotten better as quick, or quicker than the kids I’ve seen in therapy, where the parents just drop off the kid. I call it dry-cleaning therapy. They say “Straighten them out and send them back to me.”
Andy: Fix them for me.
Andy: So, okay. The second one that you talk about is the anxious parent, and it’s similar, but it’s different than the guilty parent. It’s more about anxiety. Panic during conflicts. Dread of rejection from your kid. Clinging to your child for discomfort. And would you rather be a friend than a parent to your kid? So what distinguishes the anxious parenting type from the guilty? And what would you do differently?
Sean: Well the anxious parents sees disaster around every corner. Is always full of cautionary tales. Has a history of anxiety, and it worry, worry, worry.
Andy: Okay so the guilty parent is like, “I feel bad about things that I did before.” And the anxious parent is like, “I’m worried about things that might happen in the future.” Is that the difference?
Sean: Yeah, well the world is full of danger. My mother was, when I was younger, was an anxious parent. Oh my gosh, to this day, she will tell you horrifying tales. You drive past the train track and it’s like, “Wow, look at the train.” And she’s like “Three kids were killed last week.” And then she’s just full of warnings. So as a child, there’s two reactions could happen. The child follows the parent and develops a lot of anxiety, because anxiety is contagious. It just jumps from person to person. Or the child, all this anxiety is overwhelming them and it’s irritating them. And they feel that “You don’t believe in me. You don’t think I’m capable. You think I’m going to go out and do these dumb things.”
Sean: And so they start to push back against it. And then you get this bickering between the parent and the child, where the parent is trying to convince the child that the world is a dangerous place and they have to be super careful. And the child is getting robbed of all the joys of exploring and discovering.
Andy: Yeah I think there’s this really pernicious effect where, and you write about this, where the confidence of the kid can be really damaged, because it feels like “Mom doesn’t trust me.” If mom is always so worried that something can go wrong or it’s not going to go well, it’s like, “Well then don’t you think that I can handle it all myself, if something doesn’t go well? Don’t you trust that you I’m prepared?”
Andy: One of the things that you had later in the book that I thought was cool, is you talk about transitions, and how sometimes for your kids’ sake, it helps to help them develop a plan when transitions are coming up, and coming up with things that might go wrong, and then having them brainstorm possible solutions to that. And you write about it in terms of making the kid’s anxiety better.
Andy: But I also was wondering if as a parent doing something like that with your kid might also help alleviate your anxiety? Or make you able to trust them more if you’ve gone through some of these hypothetical situations, and feel like they can handle it?
Sean: I’m a big believer in family meetings, where things are hashed out.
Andy: Let’s think about this. What might you do if this kind of thing happened? Or how would you start that?
Sean: That’s really we’re consulting with our kids at that point. You always want to approach problems as a family. You don’t want to make the problem the kid’s problem. Like “You have this problem, and we’re going to talk about your problem.” No, no, no. There’s a family. We have a culture as a family, as a family, we’re moving through things together. So if someone’s moved and they’re changed homes and they’re changing schools, then we may express that we’re also worried about our new job, or the new neighborhood. What can we do for ourselves that would help? What do you think?
Sean: So you collaborate with the child, so the child begins to come up with solutions. Every time a child comes up with solutions, they strengthen their sense of self. Every time you give them a solution, you increase dependency. They don’t want to be dependent on you. It increases resistance and then aggression comes out. So you engaging a child in problem solving is a wonderful gift to them. And also the child can get to see that they can affect change in the family. A little child can make a choice that affects everyone.
Andy: Ah, “Hey, that’s a good idea. Let’s implement that.” Yeah that’s so good for self-esteem and self-efficacy, and it just helps develop those metacognitive skills. Then when your kid gets into these situations, he’s prepared.
Andy: Sean I feel like we could just talk for hours about this. I mean, there’s so much great stuff in this book. It’s jam packed. And I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of it. I hope that people will pick up a copy, especially if you have a teenager and they’re struggling with a little bit of defiance. And the strategies in this book are deeper than a lot of the stuff I see in typical parenting books where it’s just like, “Oh hey say this.” Or “Do this.”
Andy: This book is really about getting deep and thinking about yourself as a parent, and how you want to be. And maybe what has happened in your past that has led you to be parenting the way you are today, and how you can push past that to become a stronger parent for yourself, and for your teenager.
Sean: Well Andy, thank you so much for having me on the show and I’m just always thrilled and delighted when I get these calls. I think parenting is finally getting the respect and the attention that it deserves. So these kinds of podcasts, or talking about parenting, and digging deep into the parenting experiences, this is really how we change the world. These are the people we’re sending out into the world. So I really admire you for taking the time and dedicating so much of your energy to what I feel is probably one of them important roles we have today, which is being someone’s parent.
Andy: Well the respect is mutual. Thank you so much for all your work and for writing this incredible book.
About Sean Grover
A psychotherapist, author, and public speaker, Sean has more than 20 years experience working with adults and children. A skilled and inspiring speaker, he leads hundreds of therapy groups in his practice, in addition to monthly workshops in clinics, medical centers, youth organizations, and schools.
Sean started his clinical career as a school social worker in some of the most notorious and gang-ridden areas of New York City. For his innovative youth programs, Sean was honored with two awards from the New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.
Grover has served as an adolescent expert witness for the New York State Supreme Court and as a board member of Creative Alternatives of New York at Mt. Sinai Hospital, a program that brings drama therapies to a wide range of inpatient and outpatient populations. He has also served as a Program Coordinator for Brooklyn Psychiatric Centers and a Clinical Supervisor at the Harlem Education Arts Fund, and has been a member of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s task force on youth violence.
His new parenting book, When Kids Call the Shots: How to Seize Control from Your Darling Bully and Enjoy Being a Parent Again, received a starred review for best new non-fiction from Publishers Weekly. Grover has also been a guest on THE TODAY SHOW.