Dealing With Teens Who Make Bad Choices

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Most parents feel bad when their teenagers make bad choices that cause discomfort for themselves and those in their sphere of influence.

How can teenagers best learn how to make better life choices? How can parents best help in this process?

Choices and Consequences

An essential part of the learning process involves making mistakes and learning from the consequences. This process can be seen clearly when toddlers learn to walk.

They fall repeatedly until they learn to control their balance. The toddler’s brain needs to learn how to walk effectively on different terrains, at different speeds, and while focused on thoughts other than walking. Each time a toddler walks unsteadily or trips represents a learning moment.

Parents must remember that their teens learn similarly when they make wrong choices, even repeatedly. Each time they “mess up” represents a learning moment, such as how to take responsibility for their actions.

In time, the teens learn how to make better decisions regularly. Thus, it is helpful for parents to remain patient through this trial-and-error phase of growing up.

Parents who actively prevent teenagers from making wrong choices to keep their children completely safe can inadvertently hurt them in important ways.

First, they deprive their children of the opportunity to learn about decision-making and from their mistakes.

Second, they are sending an infantilizing message that they believe their children are incapable of taking care of themselves. It is not surprising that teens who take in such a message often lack self-confidence.

Finally, teens who do not learn to make and recover from mistakes at home often struggle mightily when they leave home as young adults.

Unless the teens’ choices are potentially life-threatening, I recommend that parents allow their teens the freedom to make their own choices, even when the choice appears to be wrong in the parents’ eyes. Such an approach enables the teens to feel more independent and respected and to learn from the consequences of their choices.

Listening to Each Other

A typical scenario when a teenager makes a wrong choice involves a parent immediately reprimanding the teenager. Often, such reprimands are voiced in anger and aggressively.

Such reactions by parents cause their teens to become defensive. The teenagers may lash out at their parents or themselves because they feel remorseful. Another unhelpful reaction is for teens to shut down because they become overwhelmed.

When teens shut down or focus on their anger or frustration, they do not take the opportunity to think and learn about the natural consequences of their poor choices or behavior. Thus, parents can best help their teens by remaining patient even in the face of egregious mistakes.

When teenagers appear to act irrationally, parents should allow them time and space to calm down. At that time, it is helpful to calmly engage them in a discussion regarding the thought process that led to their poor behavior. Sometimes, teenagers will explain that they did not fully think out what would occur due to their choice.

In such cases, parents might encourage them to pause and think carefully before acting.

On other occasions, teenagers may not have evaluated the potential risks of particular actions. This may occur because of a lack of experience. In such cases, parents can help by sharing the wisdom they have gained through their experiences.

Once parents and their teens listen to each other’s thoughts about a particular situation, in most cases, I encourage parents to let the teens decide how they want to handle similar situations in the future.

The Value of Punishments

Parents often ask about how to mete out appropriate punishments for misbehaviors. My opinion is that the purpose of punishment is to help prevent future misbehavior rather than penance or retribution.

Thus, if a teen appears truly remorseful about a bad choice, a punishment likely is unnecessary since the teen’s remorse should help prevent the recurrence of a behavior.

When the administration of a punishment is appropriate, such as when a teen’s misbehavior is recurrent, the punishment should involve rectifying the consequence of the behavior, if possible. For instance, if teenagers break something, they should be asked to replace the item using their financial resources.

If they do not have sufficient money, they can be asked to provide physical labor to “pay off” the damages they caused.

Punishments should not be excessive for a few reasons.

Teenagers will view excessive punishments as unreasonable and may focus their attention and anger on the nature of the punishment rather than asking themselves how they might improve their behavior.

Excessive punishments can lead teenagers to conclude that they might as well act out in more outlandish ways since whatever they do can land them in big trouble. Parents may later be tempted to reduce the extent of excessive punishment, in which case teenagers may repeatedly nag for a reduction or decide that the punishment should not be taken seriously.


In every phase of life, people learn through evaluating the consequences of their actions. Parents can best support their teenagers’ learning process by providing calm guidance and giving their teens the freedom to make their own choices.

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