When teenagers do stupid things? Don’t panic!
People assume that because I advise parents on parenting, I must be a fantastic parent myself – which I’m not. I’m just like you. I get some things right, I get some things wrong. I have inspirational days and some real howlers. I’m always trying to do my best but only sometimes succeeding.
And nor do I have perfect children. My teenagers are just like everyone else’s (and uncomfortably similar to me as a teenager!). They face the same challenges and struggle with the same demons. They have fallen at some hurdles, and risen to others. And they don’t like to listen to their mother.
Like most parents, I judge myself harshly when my not-perfect teens don’t listen to their not-perfect mother and do not-perfect things. But then I heap on an extra spoonful of guilt because I am a parenting coach and somehow that means I ought to get everything right…
One of the problems with modern parenting is that we tend to believe that good kid = good parent and that bad kid = bad parent. I’ve lost track of the number of times I have read the words “I blame the parents” in comments about teenage antisocial behaviour on social media. But bad kid = bad parent is a simplification beyond the point of usefulness. Worse, when it comes to teenagers, it’s potentially harmful.
Because bad kid = bad parent is the kind of thinking that makes parents of teenagers panic. And when we panic, we usually overreact. And we forget that teenagers have a tendency to make big stupid mistakes even when they’ve had good parenting.
Be honest. Forget being a parent for a moment and think about yourself as a teenager. What did you get up to? You certainly broke rules. And told some lies. And you probably did some really suspect things. Things that were foolish or dangerous or unkind or even illegal. Maybe your parents found out and there was an almighty row? Or perhaps you got away with it? But despite those youthful misjudgments, if you are reading this now, it’s odds on that you grew up to become a functioning member of society with an adult sense of responsibility and your own family.
Yet, as parents, when our own teenagers do stupid things it can feel utterly overwhelming. There is so much at stake. Exam grades, college places, future careers. And the risks are so high and so life changing – teenage pregnancy, STIs, traffic accidents, addictions, knife crime, criminal records… it’s hard to keep a sense of perspective. After working our hearts out for 13+ years to put them on the right path, seeing them get it wrong despite our gargantuan efforts makes the strongest of us question how we could have got our parenting so wrong.
Yet taking risks and making mistakes is the bread and butter of being a teenager. If we are lucky, parents remain blissfully unaware and no-one gets hurt. But if you have more than one child, there’s a good chance that at some point one of them will get caught doing something that shocks you. Something that goes against your values, breaches your trust and makes you wonder who they are and how they could have been so stupid. Something stupid or deceitful or morally wrong, or that puts them at risk or causes harm to someone. Something that shakes your faith in them.
If you subscribe to the blame-the-parents bad kid = bad parent philosophy in these big moments, you will be in a harrowing place. Your instinct will be to come down on them like a ton of bricks. To use punishment to show them just how wrong they have been (and to reassert yourself as a competent parent). And to hurl recriminations and insults to communicate your outrage and sense of betrayal. You will parent from a place of hurt and anger that will damage the relationship between you and your teenager at the time when they most need you to see the best in them.
Teenagers do dumb things because they are still finding out who they are and how the world works. And if, in their big learning moments, we label them as ‘bad’ and call them stupid then, with nothing left to lose, there is a chance they will believe us. And ‘bad’ is what they will choose to become. Whereas if we accept that everyone makes mistakes and believe that our teenager has the potential to move past this moment, to repair and to regain our trust, then we offer them a route towards a different person they might become.
What teenagers really need from parents in their big mistake moments is for us to keep faith and hold hope. Not to write them off or to turn everything into a drama about ourselves and our own sense of shame and disappointment. But to hold on to the belief that they are and will be a person who can make better decisions. And to communicate that belief in them so that they can believe in it too, so that they can find the learning, make amends and grow.
Teens who make mistakes are still learning (they are not ‘bad’ kids). Parents who get it wrong are just trying to do our best imperfectly (we are not ‘bad’ parents). A little less blame would go a long way.