Tantrum conundrum
May 18, 2011 2:25 PM   Subscribe

How would you handle this? 16 year old boy breaks his Mom's cell phone in anger. Mom believes taking his phone away deprives him of the support of his friends, and has restricted most everything else, but not the phone. Eye for an eye or eye for an ear? It's a bit more complicated, though, so more inside...

Here's some mitigating factors:
*Teen bought phone with Xmas money but Mom pays for his monthly use- she acknowledges sometimes he doesn't deserve it but he does do some chores.
*Both teen and Mom were exposed to horrific domestic abuse until he was 3, and he has been receiving mental health services since he was 5. He has all the traits of Borderline Personality Disorder, with occasional psychotic episodes.
*Because his emotional intelligence is significantly below average, he's had difficulty maintaining age appropriate relationships with peers. He has poor boundaries which have resulted in social marginalization (also, while quite intelligent, is not getting much out of going to school and despite desire to go to college, has poor school attendance).
*It's just the two of them in the household. She has physical limitations which requires regular assistance from him, but he rarely goes above taking out the trash and basic picking up. She usually completes all household tasks but it takes her much longer and results in significant pain.
*He will go into violent rages which mimic those of the biological father though he has been out of their lives for 13 years. Obviously, 0-3 is a very critical "imprinting" time in a person's life.
*His trauma has never been addressed clinically, and he has several med changes a year.
*He and Mom live below poverty level.

Most importantly, I recognize that in the big picture, the phone issue is really small potatoes compared with the challenges against them both. However, I feel that every opportunity we have to normalize consequences and not to excuse behaviors can have a lasting impact on his development. Aside from his obvious need areas, he can be incredibly compassionate, mature, creative and wise. Mom has reason to be afraid that these traits are being overshadowed by his acting out.

Oh, and my role in this? Technically, I'm his Godfather. He looks up to me as his Dad, and his mother and I have been working together as a coparenting team. Sometimes we might not see eye to eye, and come from quite different worlds, but we try hard to be consistent even though my role is rather limited in scope. I'm asking here because I'm actually a mental health professional but can't be objective in this situation (obviously). I do have lots of experience in situations like these but being in the middle of it emotionally makes this very different for me, and the child will criticize my attempts at helping stabilize things by saying that I have my "work hat" on, which is true. But the way I see it, if I were a mechanic riding in a friend's car and I heard a problem noise, I'd have to say something. It's not easily divested from. I don't have children of my own, and have been in his life since he was almost 11. I give Mom my input but I respect her natural role in decision making. This is a situation where we aren't agreeing in the consequence but do agree that our time to be effective is running out.

Thanks in advance!

(tl;dr Teen with behavioral and emotional problems broke his Mom's cell phone in anger. Because Mom thinks he is socially isolated, she won't take his phone away from him and imposes other restrictions. Is that giving in to him or just her being compassionate to a facet of his dysfunction?)

Throwaway: teenproblems.mefi@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Have restrictions worked in the past in modifying his behavior?
posted by facetious at 2:29 PM on May 18, 2011

I would take a step back and remember the lesson that is intended to be imparted. The message needs to be:

If you act out in anger or are destructive, you will lose control of the situation - there will be consequences that you will not like and you must learn to control your impulses in order to remain in control of your life to the best of your ability.

You should not let him manipulate his way out of the consequences but you should impart a consequence that will be both an actual consequence and yet is not actually harmful or emotionally damaging.

For what it's worth, I do not think that "an eye for an eye" is a good rule to live by for people with a tendency toward violent rage. Well, for anybody really, but ESPECIALLY not for people with rage issues.
posted by pazazygeek at 2:35 PM on May 18, 2011 [9 favorites]

What does he think an appropriate consequence would be?
posted by bq at 2:38 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

All emotional/behavioral past issues aside, the consequences for a behavior don't necessarily have to be in the same "currency" to be effective.

I can remember getting in trouble as a teen for going places in my car I wasn't allowed, but because the car was a critical piece to the bigger picture (we lived in the country and I drove my brother and myself to school and work), the punishment was never to take away the car. But it was always something that was enough to make me think twice about disobeying my parents again.

IMHO, the son should have to raise the money to replace mom's cell phone on top of whatever else mom has imposed, but not sure why taking his cell phone away would make a difference. Having (or not having) a cell phone can also be a matter of safety for many teens.
posted by moojoose at 2:38 PM on May 18, 2011

If it were a family without all those difficulties, I would suggest that teen's own phone is irrelevant, teen should labour to pay for a replacement for the property he destroyed, because those are the rules he's going to have to play by in wider society. and so those are rules he should be learning. Teen should have choice in the matter (eg he might chose to give mom his own phone while he obtains a replacement), but still must fulfil the obligation.

Maybe he should be getting an after-school job anyway? Financial dependence on mom for everything is going to cause resentment.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:40 PM on May 18, 2011 [12 favorites]

If he was able to pay for his own phone, he should be able to pay for a phone that he broke. If he broke a stranger's phone, he'd have to pay to replace the stranger's phone. Restrictions don't drive the message home. Being expected to take responsibility for your actions does.

One of the most valuable lessons my parents instilled in me was that you should respect your property and the property of others, because in the "real" world, you don't get them for free. Which is why I'm still driving the (used) car I bought myself when I was 16. And probably why my younger cousin, who was given a new car at 16, is on her third new, gifted car.
posted by phunniemee at 3:01 PM on May 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

He's being punished for his transgression. He has had restrictions placed on him that do not normally apply, presumably finds those restrictions undesirable, and presumably understands that he is currently subject to those restrictions due to his transgression.

As long as the restrictions are suitable in terms of their severity (neither too light nor too harsh) for the transgression, it seems to me that it is a fitting, just, and hopefully effective punishment. There is no need for the punishment to have some sort of particular correspondence to the transgression, beyond its severity.

Your proposal strikes me not so much as "an eye for an eye" as "a blue, left, farsighted eye for a blue, left, farsighted eye."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:09 PM on May 18, 2011

Wait. He broke *her* phone? He's buying her a new one.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 3:13 PM on May 18, 2011 [11 favorites]

This article is the best advice I've ever seen for behavior modification. It's clear, scientifically based, and my family physician hands out copies of it at his office. An emotionally immature 16-year-old could certainly benefit from these techniques.

The main point is that the only effective behavior modification is positive reinforcement of the desired behavior. You have to read it. An exerpt:

"These discipline programs are grounded in classical behavioral psychology—the positive reinforcement taught in Psych 101. Researchers have run randomized controlled trials on all the nuances of typical parent-child interactions and thus can say just how long a timeout should last to be effective or how to praise a 13-year-old so that he beams when he takes out the trash. Who knew that effectively praising a child in order to motivate her has three essential steps? They are: 1) Praise effusively, with the enthusiasm of a Powerball winner. 2) Say exactly what the child did right. 3) Finish with a touch or hug."
posted by huckit at 3:14 PM on May 18, 2011 [8 favorites]

IMO taking away a phone he bought himself isn't an appropriate punishment.

Making him pay for his mom's new phone makes more sense to me. If he can't get a job (too young, mom needs him at home, etc.) then he can do household chores (with set fees: $5 a week for taking out the trash, $1 every time he does the dishes) until he's worked it off.
posted by TooFewShoes at 3:15 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

On preview:

If the mom can't afford to replace her phone right away I think it does make sense for the son to loan mom his phone until hers is replaced. Just taking his phone away as a punishment doesn't have much logic in my mind.
posted by TooFewShoes at 3:18 PM on May 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

I feel that every opportunity we have to normalize consequences and not to excuse behaviors can have a lasting impact on his development.
Book recommendation. The usual consequences may not be appropriate with kids like this.
posted by Wordwoman at 3:41 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a big fan of Love and Logic myself, and have seen it work wonders.
posted by moonbird at 7:14 PM on May 18, 2011

Does mom have a landline? Does kid have access to email? Go ahead and take away the privilege for a set period of time.
posted by brujita at 9:32 PM on May 18, 2011

Plus his friends can try being last century and write letters if they want to be in touch.
posted by brujita at 9:33 PM on May 18, 2011

Mother should get the teen's phone. Teen should get the cheapest phone with a paygo plan, like a crappy $15 phone with a 5 dollar a month plan from Virgin Mobile or Tracfone. He gets back his phone when he has saved enough money to buy mother a new phone.

Counseling for the boy in anger management before he does something that really screws up his life..
posted by fifilaru at 11:55 PM on May 18, 2011

I'm with pazazygeek here. You really need to think twice before going out of your way to teach this kid that justice means like-for-like retribution. It sounds like his situation sucks, but also like the BPD behaviours are part of a strategy to protect himself. Under those circumstances, it's really important that alongside learning the importance of consideration for others and a sense of responsibility, he also learns that mercy and forgiveness are things he can expect from the world.
posted by Acheman at 4:02 AM on May 20, 2011

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