5 Ways to Respond When Your Teen Messes Up


how to respond to a teens mistakes

When teens make mistakes, there are some phrases moms seem programmed to say. “What were you thinking?” and “How could you have done that?” are two I know I’ve said many times. But knowing how to respond to a teen’s mistakes can make a huge difference in his or her future decision making.

The right reaction to bad choices can be the difference between enabling and empowering your teenager. So instead of making more rules for the kids, we’re reversing roles and making rules for you, Mom. Here are 5 rules for you to follow whenever your teen messes up.

The Big Picture Rule

My son can be super infuriating at times. When he is, it’s easy for me to get discouraged and think all hope is lost. But before my thoughts go too far in that direction, I take a deep breath and look at the big picture. I remind myself of his good qualities and that there’s still time to help him learn better ways to handle himself.

The Talk to the Situation Rule

When your teen messes up, it’s tempting to direct your anger at their character and at them personally: “You’re so scatterbrained! You’re so irresponsible! What were you thinking?” Instead, focus on the situation. “I’m concerned about your pPhysics grade. It needs improvement. What’s your plan to do better and how can I help?”

The Privilege/Responsibility Rule

One simple rule for how to respond to a teen’s mistakes is that privileges are maintained when responsibilities are met. Want to use the car? Then you have to drive safely. When your teen messes up, zero in on that privilege/responsibility tandem. Rather than yelling at a teen for a fender bender he or she had while driving unsafely, say, “I see that you have reconsidered the privilege of driving.” Be specific about the responsibilities that come with their privileges.

The See/Feel/Remind Rule

In the heat of the moment, when we are very, very angry, it’s easy to lose it. Try not to. Our goal in parenting our teens is to help them learn how to redirect on their own and fulfill their potential. If we start attacking them and pointing out their shortcomings, they’ll go on the defensive. When possible, state what you see and feel, and remind them of the rules. “I see that you chose to go to the party when I told you not to. I’m incensed (you can use strong words to describe how you’re feeling, but not martyr-type words)! The rule is no parties on school nights.”

This rule goes hand-in-hand with the privilege/responsibility rule—irresponsibility leads to loss of privilege.

The Solution-Focused Rule

It’s OK to show disappointment with your teen’s choice, but we have to be very careful in how we express it. We want teens to hear, “That was a bad choice, and I know that’s not who you really are.” So focus on the solution to the problem. Help them deal with what’s happening at that moment instead of lecturing them about why it happened.

What advice can you share for how to respond to a teen’s mistakes?

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