6 Ways to Empower, Not Enable, Teenagers

We’ve all been there before, with that one “problem child” who always seems to be in crisis mode. In fact, you’re more surprised if that kid isn’t in crisis. And just like a homing device, that teenager always seems to find the one adult who’ll bail him out. If that adult happens to be you, then guess what. You’re enabling behavior that is detrimental to him and those around him. I know that sounds harsh, but I think some teenagers have an uncanny ability to drain our energy, deplete our patience, and abuse our kindness.

Don’t get me wrong. I know we’re talking about our children, and they don’t do it intentionally. But they sure seem to do it repeatedly, causing us to take on their drama and even suffer the consequences of their choices. Is this you? Ask yourself these questions to find out.

Do you have a teenager who is repeatedly…

  • wearing you down with his or her burdens?
  • asking you to repair things in his or her life that you didn’t break?
  • taking advantage of your generosity?
  • making you feel guilty when you say, “No, I won’t help you this time?”

If you’re always bailing out a kid who does these things, you’re enabling your child. But you can empower him or her instead. Here are 6 simple ways.

1. Don’t help him until he does the last thing you told him to do.

Don’t offer to solve a teen’s current problem if he’s not willing to follow the advice you gave him about his last problem. To do so is to enable your kid. For example, when my son was a freshman in college, he asked me if he should take out a loan to pay for some additional expenses, and I advised against it. But he took out a loan anyway, went into debt, and then asked if I would cosign for him to get another loan to pay off the first debt. I think you can predict my answer.

2. Stop trying to push a rope.

In other words, you should spend most of this time talking to your teens about how to apply the solution, not convincing them about the solution itself. Any discussion beyond the application of the advice given is futile persuasion on your part. My teenage daughter once asked me to sit down and meet with a young man who wanted to date her. And after spending several hours with him, based on my experiences working with men, I told her I wouldn’t advise her to date him at this time. My daughter had me spend more time justifying my opinion rather than accepting my wise counsel and listening to the best way to let him down easy.

Just because you can rescue your teen doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

3. Determine if she’s really in need or if she just needs to act.

In other words, if your teen knows better but doesn’t do better, then it’s better for you to say, “You don’t need my intervention—you just need to do the right thing.” This can be called tough love. Just because you can rescue your teen doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Sometimes we have to allow our teens to live and suffer the consequences of their choices, even if hurts.

4. Let him know you’re just a sower, not a grower.

It’s OK to help your teenagers succeed, but you can’t allow them to suck you into planting, watering, and growing the entire tree. God is the grower, you’re just the sower. If you keep “growing” them, they’ll keep depending on you. A great example is helping your teen find employment or apply to colleges. As parents, it’s our job to provide them with everything they need to prepare them for the opportunity for employment or school (sowing), but it’s their job to plan their schedule, fulfill their responsibilities, and make sure they show up on time for work or class (watering). And if they do those things, God will be responsible for ultimately growing them.

5. Don’t do for teens what they can do for themselves.

I’m not going to say much here other than this: If God loves them and won’t do it for them, then why should you? Doing it for them is enabling behavior.

6. Only pull teens out of a hole if they agree to stop digging.

Common sense tells us that the first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. If your teens come to you for help but insist on digging themselves into a deeper hole, then you need to back off before they pull you into the hole with them.

So that’s it—six simple ways to empower instead of enable. I guarantee that if you do this, you’ll no longer allow yourself to be manipulated, stressed out, taken advantage of, or worn out by these strange creatures we call teenagers.

Sound off: What are some other ways we could eliminate enabling behavior with teenagers and empower them instead?

Huddle up with your kids and ask, “When you are making a decision about something important, what do you think you should do first?”