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Help Teens Learn from Their Mistakes

They're going to do dumb things. Don't respond in kind to turn a negative into a positive.

Teens make dumb moves all the time. Though parents should never let a child off the hook for bad mistakes, take care not to leap to harsh assumptions and treat them as if they’re one notch up from hardened criminals. The question isn’t “Did he think he was going to get away with this?” It’s “Did he think at all?

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For the petty pranks and rash actions of many teens, the problem lies in their brains, not their moral fiber. Typically, teens lack a full up-and-running “thinking brain” to guide them well in times of excitement. Even when there’s real cause for discouragement, parents need to hang in there with their teen to try to build an understanding of the impact of their actions.

Keep things calm, even if your teen isn't

Start by presenting what you know as calmly as you can. Avoid shaming, blaming, moral outrage and indignation. If you come out lecturing on a high horse, teens will feel accused and provoked — and are likely to fight back. Stay composed if they start to dig in and deny, so that you aren’t diverting attention to yourself or arousing them even more. This approach can help calm their brains enough to connect the dots and see where they went wrong.

The question isn’t “Did he think he was going to get away with this?
It’s “Did he think at all?

Don’t rush to discipline your teen

If a teen shows no sign of being remorseful and tries to minimize her actions, counterattack or divide parents, take a break. It’s your job to maintain control of the situation. Discipline can wait until everyone is calm and able to use their thinking brain. If your teen clams up, state your piece succinctly and pursue a “carrot and stick” approach.

The carrot-and-stick approach for teens

The word “discipline” derives from the Latin word discere, which means learning. The big goal is for teens to examine their own behavior in a thoughtful way and sort out how to do things differently next time. Tell your child outright, “Whatever we decide in terms of consequences, it will be better for you if we can see that you’re capable of learning from this disaster.” Base the leniency or severity of your discipline on their level of insight and ability to self-critique and make amends.

Debrief with your teen post-crisis

When the time is right, have a debriefing session. Ask neutral questions — “What happened?” “What threw you off course?” “Did you have any second thoughts?” “What would you do differently next time?” — and let your teen fill in the blanks. This is his opportunity to figure out how the situation unfolded step by step and determine how he might have self-corrected. Think about ways to increase his empathy for people he’s impacted. And since teens tend to clam up, encourage and build on even the smallest signs of remorse. Remember, a well-handled crisis can be a fantastic learning experience.

This article is excerpted from Kaster & Wyatt’s Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens & Teens (published by ParentMap, $19.95).

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