One of the things you more than likely have to deal with in fatherhood is teenagers making bad decisions. I remember a particularly intense season of life with my firstborn. He was making some decisions that were very difficult for my wife and me, and we spent many nights crying, arguing— with each other and him—and generally fretting over his future. Today, four or five years later, he’s an incredible young man with a bright future. We’re really proud of him.
We continued to parent teens as our girls grew up and had their own experiences. Over the years, they’ve made many bad decisions, too. And while my wife and I certainly haven’t handled this perfectly, we’ve experienced teenagers making bad decisions quite often, and we’ve learned some things along the way. Here are 5 things to remember when your teen makes bad decisions.
1. Not all decisions reflect your parenting.
One of the biggest challenges with teenagers making bad decisions is that we often take it personally. When our kids do something foolish, we see it as a reflection of our parenting and assume it means we haven’t parented well. So our response is coming from a place of hurt or perhaps defensiveness, which makes it difficult for us to actually see the situation objectively and respond with a cool head. It’s important to remember that while your parenting matters, he’s also his own person. And he will sometimes make bad decisions—not because of your parenting, but in spite of it.Discipline that is rooted in your own bruised ego may be effective in stopping the behavior, but it won’t help your teen grow into a healthy, mature adult.
2. His brain isn’t fully formed yet.
There’s a reason people aren’t allowed to get tattoos or vote until they’re 18 or drink until they’re 21. Their brains are still developing. In fact, the rational part of a person’s brain won’t be fully developed until around age 25. The University of Rochester Medical School says, “Good judgment isn’t something (teens) can excel in, at least not yet.” Parents of teenagers making bad decisions need to remember that it’s not a character flaw but a developmental reality.
3. Effective discipline must be rooted in love.
If you remember the second point, hopefully the third point will come a little easier. Of course you need to discipline your teen when she makes bad decisions (assuming these are bad in a way that doesn’t include sufficient natural consequences), but your discipline needs to be rooted in love for it to be effective. By effective, I mean formative. Discipline that is rooted in your own bruised ego may be effective in stopping the behavior, but it won’t help your teen grow into a healthy, mature adult. To do that, she needs loving guidance.
4. Being a teen is hard.
I know you were a teen once, and I’m sure that was tough. But keep in mind, you didn’t have social media, a global pandemic that shut your world down for a year and a half, the type of political upheaval we’ve seen, racial tensions, global warming. Sure there were some tough things when you were a teen, but you also didn’t hear about it constantly through social media. Study after study shows record levels of anxiety and depression among teenagers today. Have some grace for your teen. It isn’t easy.
5. This isn’t about you.
Sometimes we work out our own stuff on our teenagers in ways that are unhealthy. Your teenager’s behavior is not fundamentally about you. It’s about him or her. If your response is about your reputation or your rules or the respect owed to you, then basically you’re going to teach your teen how to placate you until she leaves the house. But what will guide her then? This is about your teen’s development. Teenagers making bad decisions need parents who are primarily concerned that they learn and grow from this season, regardless of how the parents are feeling about it.
Sound off: What other advice would you give parents of teenagers making bad decisions?
Huddle up with your teen and ask, “When I think you’ve made a bad decision, what is a helpful way for me to respond?”