A Clinician’s View of the Laptop-Shooting Dad

Tommy Jordan shows our willingness to excoriate teens for bad behavior while absolving ourselves of parental responsibility for it

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By shooting his daughter’s laptop and posting the event on YouTube, Tommy Jordan has become a minor celebrity. His actions give catharsis to perennial adult frustration with teenagers. But watching the video I was struck not only by his own words but also those of his daughter (read aloud by Jordan) which, to me, reflected not moral high ground by either party but a cycle of mutual anger, frustration and failure to communicate. Given that, to my knowledge, his daughter has been given no platform to explain her grievances toward her father, it’s easy to view things through Jordan’s lenses when we hear only one side of the story. I am sure he has legitimate grievances against her (and probably she against him). However, was destroying her property and humiliating her publicly the best way to resolve this conflict?

(MORE: Susanna Schrobsdorff: The Lesson of the Laptop-Shooting Dad)

In my own work as a clinical psychologist, I have worked with many teens and their families. Although certainly some teens are fully responsible for their problems despite having model parents, and at other times the kids would be better off being raised by a pack of raccoons, in most cases both parties fueled rather than dealt responsibly with emerging problems. Rarely did I find either parents or teens who were entirely right, although each often thought they were. Teens ranting over chores and whatnot can often reflect deeper feelings of alienation or perceived uncaring on the part of parents. In many cases the bad behavior of teens, whether disrespect, apathy or conflict, often could be traced back to failures by parents to show respect or caring toward their children in earlier years. To be clear, this is not to absolve teens of responsibility for their actions, merely to point out that family conflicts are rarely so clear as to identify one party as good, the other bad. A study by Brian Barber in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that both negative parenting and adolescent personality problems contributed to conflicts within the family. Similar research by Bruce Simons-Morton and colleagues in the Journal of School Violence and Soh-Leong Lim and colleagues in Marriage & Family Review suggest that parental warmth and decreased overbearingness are related to less conflict and more positive teen outcomes across cultures. This is not to say that teens should never be disciplined, but that fostering bonding and trust between the parent and teen is a crucial element that shouldn’t be but often is neglected.

To put this in perspective, let us imagine that my wife and I were having difficulties in our marriage (we are not). One day I discover she has posted ranting complaints about my boorish behavior to her friends on Facebook, believing I will not see them. Do I have a right to feel hurt? Of course. Would shooting her laptop and releasing a publicly humiliating rant of my own against her on YouTube be likely to improve our marriage? No, I don’t think so. But perhaps Hannah Jordan will have a good sense of humor and take this all in stride.

(MORE: Ferguson: Eighth-Grader Killed By Police: What Went Wrong?)

I’m less disappointed in Tommy Jordan, though, than the widespread endorsement of his actions, which probably stems from the habit of disparaging teens, a perennial sport of older adults who enjoy the sanctimonious feel of being able to say, “When we were kids we behaved much better,” even when this is patently untrue. Modern youth, by almost any behavioral measure available, are the best behaved since the 1960s, far better behaved than their parents currently complaining about them. All the Internet backslapping and support for Jordan points to our general willingness to excoriate teens for their bad behavior while absolving ourselves of parental responsibility for it.

I have little doubt Jordan cares about his daughter; that much comes through in his video despite all else. But if this video is reflective of the general way he interacts with her, I see why she might be angry with him. Was her rant on Facebook immature? Sure, but she’s 15. What’s our excuse as parents?

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