None of us can see our own errors; deliver me, LORD, from (my) hidden faults! - Psalms 19:12
Being a superhero works out pretty well in the movies or comic books, but when it comes to parenting, rescuing your teenager every time can lead to problems. It can spoil their ability to see the world as it truly is, and it can cause uncaring, self-centered and entitled thinking in your teenager now and throughout their lifetime.
Parents are wired to protect their children. It’s natural and it is needed in the early childhood years, but some parents continue protecting their offspring far longer than they should. Beginning in the teen years, kids need to begin feeling the impact of their own actions and to be given more responsibility for their own survival.
Counter to what some people might think, I find that the most irresponsible teens come from the most responsible parents. I call them “Super Parents.” They are so fixated on fixing problems that they fix all of their teenager’s mistakes as well. They don their cape and fly off to badger a teacher who has given their teenager a bad grade. They run faster than a steaming locomotive and bend steel bars to get their errant teen out of jail. And in everyday terms; they pick up their teen’s room, manage his money, pay his speeding tickets, wash his clothes and rush him to school when he oversleeps in the morning.
When it comes to parenting in the teen years, another name for a “Super Parent” is an “enabler.” They enable a teen to go right on breaking the rules and stomping all over everyone – and each time the teen is rescued it is from something a little more serious.
If you are an enabler, I’d like you to consider a different approach, for everyone’s sake. Life doesn’t have to revolve around chasing after your teen’s problems – even if you like being the superhero! Believe me; the problems will only get worse, not better, with every rescue. You’re not doing your teenager any favors. In fact, you’ll likely end up with exactly the opposite of what you are hoping for – a childish adult who remains dependent on you and cannot manage his finances, his relationships, nor his life.
The only way out of this spin cycle is to bring it to an end. How? By having a good talk with your teenager to tell them you will no longer be intervening on their behalf. Then hand your teen’s problems right back to them. They won’t believe it at first. They’ll think you’ll still rescue them, but don’t do it! They need to feel the bite of making their own mistakes, and they need to know you won’t come running (or leaping tall buildings) to rescue them. I’m not talking about “not being there” for your teen, or ignoring them and “throwing them to the wolves.” I’m talking about rescuing them from opportunities they encounter in life that will help them develop responsibility, make better choices, and mature.
Until the pain of consequences of behavior is greater than the pleasure a teen gets from that particular behavior, their actions won’t stop.
Why Kids Need Consequences
It’s no mystery. Teenagers behave irresponsibly when they’ve not had to be responsible for their behavior. They do not magically become more responsible, mature, or wiser as they get older. They learn experientially, and they get wiser by living. They learn by being given responsibility and by facing uncomfortable consequences for failing in that responsibility or making bad decisions. If they put their hand in a flame, they need to learn they’ll get burned. Even if you tell them they’ll be burned, at some point they’ll test out your theory. And if they don’t feel the sting of the fire when they do test it, they’ll likely do it again and again, just to show you that you’re wrong!
So, what does Scripture say about consequences? In Proverbs it says, “The Lord disciplines those He loves” (Proverbs 3:12a) and “Discipline your son, and he will give you peace”(Proverbs 29:17). Discipline is a principle found throughout the Old and New Testaments. So, there is nothing more loving, biblical and godly than to give proper discipline to your children.
Consequences can be the natural result of foolish actions, such as breaking a leg from jumping off a roof, or they can be what employers, parents or authorities use to bring about a positive change in behavior. For parents, the goal of consequences is not punishment; it is to help your teenager grow up. In adult life, we deal with consequences every day, and if we’re smart we avoid them, but teenagers still need to learn that wisdom, even though they are capable of being adults intellectually and biologically.
When a teenager first misbehaves, parents can nip it in the bud by applying disproportionate first-time consequences. Unless a child learns a memorable lesson the very first time they are caught, each wrong deed can be a stepping stone to more serious missteps. Disproportionate first-time consequences ensure that the child never thinks about making that same mistake again.
For instance, if you catch your teen driving under the influence, you might consider donating their car to a local charity. Now, that’s a big deal to the teenager, but it could prevent them from dying in future a car wreck, or from having a lifelong problem with alcohol. Or, the first time they miss curfew you might require them to volunteer at the local mission every weekend for a month.
In both cases, the first-time consequences I’ve illustrated are both uncomfortable and memorable for a lifetime. The teen won’t soon forget that they lost their car or had to volunteer every weekend for making a stupid mistake, and they’ll wonder what bigger privilege they’ll lose if they do it again! Compare that to what most parents do today, which is to ground their child. Grounding can be appropriate at times, but grounding is more of a convenience to parents than anything — at least they know where their teenager is! If you resort to grounding, then couple it with something memorable and decidedly boring for your teen, like several hours of physical yard work with no iPod, no cell phone and no friends hanging around to entertain them.
Don’t Waffle on the Consequences
A parent is his own worst enemy when he waffles or makes idle threats in regard to consequences. It takes effort to properly discipline children, and that’s why it is easier for parents to warn, warn again, and then resort to yelling angry warnings instead of simply applying consequences. Warnings serve to tell kids that they have multiple opportunities to avoid consequences, and they quickly learn just how far they can exasperate their parent before the parent takes action. So, the house ends up in a constant state of chaos and everyone feels lousy.
If you waffle or don’t follow through, it’s an empty threat that will teach your teen that you don’t mean what you say, and he is not responsible managing the problems he creates. On the other hand, when your teen realizes that he’ll be held responsible for his actions and every part of his life, then your life will improve, and so will his.
So, what happens if your teenager holds out longer than expected? In other words, he keeps making the same mistakes in spite of the consequences. My advice is to hang in there. Rather than changing the game plan, continue to apply consequences, even if there seems to be no positive effect. Eventually they will take hold, but only if you don’t waver. If you stop or lighten the consequences, you’ll be giving your teenager exactly what he is holding out for. You’ll lose all credibility and it will undermine your ability to correct them at all in the future.
Rules Require Consequences
Some parents cringe at the thought of applying consequences, fearing it may harm the relationship they have with their teenager. Step-parents and adoptive parents can be especially conflicted on this point. But I’ve found that young people want rules from their parents, step-parents and adoptive parents. And what good are rules without consequences for breaking the rules? The world makes more sense to kids when they know what is expected and what is not. They feel safer when they know where the boundaries are. And they find comfort in the consistency of parents who stick to their guns, while loving their children just as much no matter how many mistakes they make.
My advice to you is to build maturity and character in your teenager through sound rules and reasonable consequences. Do this consistently, and with a strong and loving relationship, and I guarantee that someday you’ll hear your child call you their biggest hero — a true Superhero.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.org. You 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 ParentingTodaysTeens.org 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.