When Your Teen Screws Up: The Soft Approach Versus the Firm Approach…

Posted: July 17, 2012 in For Parents and Guardians
Tags: , , , , , , ,

One of the most difficult decisions to make as an authority figure is when to be firm and hold your child accountable for their behaviors, and when to choose a softer approach where you’re validating what they’re going through. Teenagers by nature are impulsive and exhibit poor decision making skills. They also lack the self-awareness that comes only with life experience.  As parents, guardians or teachers, knowing which approach to take requires thought and clear goals.

The keys to choosing the right approach are in understanding the impact of the child’s actions, or inaction… and understanding their intention. If a child does something or says something, intentionally or impulsively, that negatively impacts someone else (physically or emotionally)… it is best to first hold them accountable (for their fighting, stealing, bullying, harassing), and then to help them reflect and understand the seriousness of their actions (by focusing on how the target/victim might have felt.) If a child does something, or doesn’t do something, that only results in them being negatively affected (like doing poorly in school or using drugs)… it is usually best to promote reflection first (helping them understand the underlying motivations of their struggles), and then hold them accountable for their actions or inaction by setting limits or creating new structure (by enforcing curfew or limiting contact with friends).

Obviously using authority to empower young people is an inexact science. There is no set of rules to follow that guarantee that the child learns and grows. If we as the authority figures can make the decisions that are in the best interest of the child, rather than the decisions that are most convenient or comfortable for us (or solely driven by our emotions), then it becomes more likely that our children develop in healthy ways.

Understanding the potential dangers of choosing the less optimal approach can motivate us to put more thought into our decisions when our children disappoint or defy us. Below are a few of the potential outcomes we want to try to avoid.

Potential dangers of choosing validation and softer approaches when a teenager needs more accountability:

  • We send the message that the behavior is acceptable, when it isn’t.
  • We send the message that we care more about how the child feels about us, than about what is in their best interest.
  • We send the message that we’re afraid to upset them, thus empowering them to manipulate us in the future by using pity, guilt or emotional threats.
  • We send the message that we don’t think they’re capable of making healthier or tougher decisions by conveying to them that “it’s okay”… when it really isn’t.

Potential dangers of being too firm or holding them accountable when the teenager needs more validation and understanding:

  • We send the message that holding on to our power is more important than their development or emotional needs.
  • We send the message that we care more about maintaining control than about their feelings.
  • We send the message that we’re not interested in what they have to say, nor do we respect them enough to give them a chance to speak.
  • We send the message that we’re too rushed to take the time to teach them valuable life lessons.

Obviously some of us are more comfortable taking the firm approach, while others are more comfortable with the softer approach. But whichever approach is most comfortable to us, the most responsible thing to do is to choose the approach that maximizes the likelihood that our child learns the lesson. Sometimes our kids will benefit most from immediate consequences followed by a quiet conversation… and sometimes our kids will benefit most from an immediate quiet conversation followed by limits and increased structure appropriate to the situation. So next time you’re in the position to assert your authority in response to something your child did they shouldn’t have done, think first, and choose the approach that you think will inspire their growth… not the one that will make you feel better.

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