The situation: Your 16-year-old son says he's going to David's house to work on a social studies project, but he'll be home by 11. An hour later David calls and asks to speak to him.
What to do: Once you've tracked him down, prepare your greeting. Not "I'll never trust you again" (too abstract) or "Where the hell have you been?" (too controlling). Instead, say calmly, "Why did you think you had to deceive me about your plans?" Have him restate your rules and the reasons for them. Then ground him for the weekend. Violation of a privilege means the loss of it. But realize that kids sometimes rebel this way because they truly are ready for more independence. It may be time to loosen house policies, on a case-by-case basis, after he has regained your trust by behaving responsibly.
How to cope: Your son sees this as one little lie; you envision him lying and cheating his way through life. Both of you are wrong. "Lying and deceiving is one of the ways adolescents experiment with gaining independence from their parents," says Sachs.
How to move on: Realize it could have been worse: If he were really incorrigible, he would have called David to work out the plan.Challenge #2: College
The situation: Your son, a junior in high school, tells you that he has no intention of going to college.
What to do: First, bite your tongue. This may not be as disastrous as it seems. Second, calm down and try to determine whether he really doesn't want to go to college or is just having a tough time facing this terrifying life transition. "It will be easier to help him once you sort out whether he means what he's saying," says Joshua Sparrow, MD, coauthor of Discipline: The Brazelton Way (Da Capo Press).
How to cope: Ask yourself whether you've been too pushy. "Often this is a reaction to pressure -- from parents and society -- to get into a name-brand school," says Mary Muscari, PhD, author of Let Kids Be Kids (University of Scranton Press). If your son is serious about skipping college, ask what alternatives he has in mind. Have the school guidance counselor talk to him about careers that don't require a degree. Another option: Suggest that he work for a year after high school before making this momentous decision.
How to move on: Accept the fact that despite society's messages, our degrees and careers don't define who we are. "There are many pathways to a productive adulthood," says Sachs.Challenge #3: Shoplifting
The situation: Your 13-year-old daughter was caught shoplifting.
What to do: When you get her home, have the first of what may be a series of conversations aimed at finding whether she was thrill-seeking, giving in to peer pressure, jonesing for a $200 pair of sneakers, or it was something more. Meanwhile, says Dr. Sparrow, "Don't protect her from the consequences of her actions." If the store is pressing charges, get a lawyer (she should contribute to the legal fees) to help you navigate the system but impose your own consequences as well. "Thirty hours of community service would be appropriate," suggests Heather Krell, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, Neuropsychiatric Institute, "perhaps at a homeless shelter, where your daughter can gain a sense of perspective about real needs." A pattern of shoplifting may be a mask for a deeper problem; ask your pediatrician for a referral to a therapist.
How to cope: "Let her know you'll be checking up -- for example, with random dumps of her backpack or handbag -- and accompany her on shopping trips for the next few months," says Dr. Krell.
How to move on: Step back and let your teen shoulder responsibility for her actions. She's learned the hard way that society has boundaries she can't cross.Challenge #4: Disrespect for Women
The situation: Driving your son and a friend to a dance, you overhear them laughing and talking about the "sluts" who might be there.
What to do: Don't overreact, but do nip the conversation in the bud by saying, "Hey guys, how about showing some respect? That's a derogatory term. Let's change the subject." As soon as you can, explain to your son the importance of having healthy attitudes toward women.
How to cope: Don't assume these comments reflect your son's deeply held beliefs about women. They're probably a misguided attempt to keep up with and impress his buddy.
How to move on: Look deeper, beyond your son's impulsive remarks, to his behavior. If he has friendships with girls, if he treats you and his sisters with respect, he's fine.