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Good Cop, Bad Cop: How to Avoid Policing Your Kids

I have some good friends who work for the local Highway patrol.  They’re all upstanding men, whom I admire and respect.  But while they’re on duty, I’m not so eager to spend quality time together with them.  As much as I like my friends, I know they’re not going to stop me on the freeway to say, “Hey, great job driving.  Just thought I’d stop you to say that you’re doing a fantastic job!”  In my (rather recent) experience, when the police pull you over, they are about to level some strict justice in the form of tickets and fines.  No small wonder I’m a little nervous when I see my cop friends on the highway.  I feel like I’m always looking over my shoulder to see if they’re following me.

As parents, we can come off like highway patrol officers.  We pull alongside our kids and wave them to the side to levee fines, issues warrants, and take them into custody if we have to.  Our intentions are to instruct and guide our teens, but to them it can feel like we’re hot on their tails with the lights flashing.  It could be the reason that our relationships are strained, or why our kids enjoy being away from us rather than with us.  A constant attitude of judgment pushes our teens to run and hide, or dig in their heels and resist.

When communicating with our teens, it’s important we instruct and nurture them as parents, and not just officers of judgment.  Here are a few things I’ve learned throughout the years that might help you form a warmer relationship with your kids.

Step #1:  How Am I Coming Across?

At a party, if you noticed that people were dodging conversations with you, you might ask your spouse or a close friend, “Is it me?  How am I coming across?”  This is a great question to ask yourself as a parent, as well.  If your teen seems to be avoiding you or shutting down during conversations, it could be that your intention is good but your delivery is bad.  Instead of gleaning wisdom, your teen might be hearing judgment instead.  To avoid this trap, ask your teen point blank, “How do I come across to you?”  As a matter of fact, stop right now and text them that question. Just as kids share things through text that they wouldn’t share face-to-face, they’ll probably do the same with you. Come on, give it a shot and see their response. And hey, allow them to respond honestly.  This will provide needed insight into how your child hears you. (Hint…when they respond, don’t correct them, tell them where they are wrong, or how they should have replied.)

Another helpful trick I found is to ask your teen to repeat what they heard.  I’ve employed this technique numerous times in counseling sessions.  After explaining certain issues with a student, I’ll pause so I can ask, “Now what did you hear me say?”  If what they echo in response is way off course, I can correct the misunderstanding and find another way to get the information across.  I want to ensure that teenagers hear my heart and understand what I’m saying, even if it takes a couple of attempts.

Step #2: What Am I Saying?

Take some time to reflect back on past conversations with your teen.  How many of your comments or concerns were negative rather than positive?  I’m the first to admit that kids need instruction and guidance.  But keep in mind that your child receives correction constantly.  They wake up to instructions about school, chores, and responsibilities.  Then they go to school and hear reproofs and criticisms from teachers and staff.  Finally, they come home and kids may hear added judgment from parents and siblings.  It can be exhausting!

I had one student explode in frustration and blurt out, “I know a lot of what I do is wrong.  But could you tell what I’m doing right?”  It was a humbling conviction to realize that I wasn’t taking as much time to reinforce the positive as I was to point out the negative.

It’s like those new GPS systems.  I try to follow its instructions as closely as possible, but being the man that I am, I like to use my own directions at times.  And then, inevitably, and to the chagrin of my wife, I end up getting lost.  But the GPS doesn’t help.  For every wrong turn I take, it chimes in with the annoying word, “re-calculating.”  I know that it’s trying to help me, but at the same time it’s continually pointing out my flaws with its constant correction.  It didn’t praise me for following the directions prior to taking the wrong turn.  But every time that GPS says “re-calculating” I want to throw it out the window.

Don’t become a constant source of correction in your home.  Take inventory of the words you use around your teen.  Spend time highlighting the things your child is doing well along with the areas where they might need improvement.

Step #3: Who is This About?

Hearing criticism can be tough, even for parents.  Nobody wants to hear that their parenting style could use a few tweaks.  But in the end, you want what’s best for your teenager.  And if that involves changing up your communication style, it’s a small price to pay.  It’s important we constantly remind ourselves, “Who is this about?”  If a teen can’t benefit from what I am trying to say because all he hears is judgment, then it takes some humility on my part to say, “Okay, let me change it up, and approach it differently.”  Changing our communication habits lets our kids know that we care more about instructing and encouraging them than brow-beating them over the head.

When your teenager accuses you of judging them or excessively pointing out the flaws, don’t be quick to dismiss it.  Though you may be imparting some great wisdom, use this as an opportunity to say, “This is about her, not me.”  Try using a different method to explain your case.

Step #4: Am I on a Loop?

Few things are more frustrating than repeating the same thing over and over to your teenager.  If you find yourself on a constant looping pattern—stop.  Insistent reminders about the same issues over and over again will likely come off as judgment to your kids.  This will only encourage them to tune you out even more.

Instead, find a new way to make the same point.  If the issue is something simple like not leaving shoes out on the floor and you’ve preached the same sermon a dozen times, come up with a new way to get the message across.  Hang a sign in the entryway to remind would be violators of the penalties of shoe tossing.  Create a footwear impound where shoes found on the floor are held for bond until the perpetrators can post bail.

Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.  Don’t make yourself loopy; stop the repetition and develop a different method for reaching your teenager with your point.  It might take a little creativity, but it will pay off in the end.

Talking with teens is a delicate business.  It takes a whole lot of patience, love, and understanding.  And when a teenager tunes us out and avoids us, it’s difficult not to take it personally.  I’ve known plenty of great kids with great families attending great churches who go off track.  Don’t allow a struggling teen to make you doubt God’s provision.  But do allow God to change your conversation and communication habits so that judgment is kept in check.  You don’t want to be the cop in the family.  You want to be the parent.


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.