Our goal in parenting is to raise children prepared to thrive far into the future. If only the route they chose was uniformly smooth and our role was just to be the wind behind their sails. But the course, in the best of cases, is bumpy. Therefore, our challenge is to help them learn from their mistakes, move forward, and somehow be better off precisely because of the wisdom gained from their experiences. As a parent, there are a few things you can do as part of effective parenting — and others you shouldn’t — to assure your child learns from mistakes.
Five Ways to Drive Home Life’s Lessons
- Be grateful you know. Seriously. I know life would be much easier if we just could keep blinders on. But the fact that you know means you are in a position to be protective. If your child told you something — no matter how upsetting — it means you have that vital protective connection.
- Stay calm. Your fear, frustration, and anger will transfer immediately to your child. Even if they are not in panic mode, they can easily be pushed into it by absorbing your feelings. Don’t get us wrong, we are not suggesting that you are not allowed to feel angry or frightened out-of-your-mind. Those feelings are justifiable. We are just saying to take a time-out until you can discipline properly. (Remember “discipline” means to teach, not to punish.) You discipline best when you are in teacher-mode rather than attack or I-told-you-so mode.
- Be a sounding board. Trust in your teen’s ability to think through the problem and be there as they process what happened. Feel free to prompt with, “What might you do differently next time?” or “If a friend or your little sister was in a similar circumstance, what advice would you give?” Listen and notice their increased wisdom.
- Express your trust in their ability to problem-solve. Base this on an existing strength or positive past experience. Rather than saying, “You always do this. I shouldn’t be surprised you got into this mess,” try something along the lines of “Well this certainly is a mess, but in the past, you were able to do (fill in the blank). That is a real strength of yours. How do you think that strength/skill might help you now?”
- Be unconditionally loving. Remember that unconditional love does not mean unconditional acceptance. You should not accept behaviors that compromise safety or morality. (For example: using illegal drugs, vaping, drinking while under the influence of alcohol.) But your presence is unquestionable and there is always the possibility to be forgiven and to get a do-over. A consequence is an act of love designed to help your teen own or solidify a lesson. Loving parents give consequences because they care, not to punish or get even. Another reason to remain clearly loving is to be certain your teen never feels as though they have done irreparable harm to your relationship. If they do, they will feel as though they have nothing to lose in continuing the undesirable behavior. Maybe even worse is that next time they might hide the behavior from you rather than letting you help them get through it.
Five Things NOT to Do
In the most challenging parenting moments, every instinct in your body drives you towards actions you may regret later. We need to rise above our baser human instincts to be strategic in our parenting. Here are five things to avoid whenever possible.
- Don’t try to talk through a problem while in a panic. It is critical that your teen is able to think in order to solidify a lesson. That means they can’t be in “running from danger” mode. It is not possible for the teen brain to absorb a lesson in active panic mode. Remind your child how happy you are that they are safe. Hug your child if it feels like it will help and tell them you’ll talk later.
- Don’t lecture. Your goal is to have your teen own the solution and incorporate them into a growing repertoire of decision-making wisdom. Lectures backfire because they aren’t understood by young people, especially when they are upset.
- Don’t use guilt. There is a good chance your teen already feels bad. They should absolutely know how concerned you are. They should know what the right way to handle the issue should be in the future. They should be reminded of the open and respectful communication you deserve. But if you make it about you, instead of the lesson, your teen may feel so bad they’ll miss the point. What’s more, guilt could push them above the emotional threshold they can handle. That could cause your teen to reject you rather than attempt to feel what they are not capable of processing.
- Resist the urge to point out a pattern. As much as it may be obvious to you that they should have learned this lesson previously, adolescents don’t respond well when they feel like you are “piling on” with past memories. It could trigger them to say something like,“You’re always bringing that up. You just want to make me feel worse.” On the other hand, you can calmly invite your teen to draw from past experiences.
- Never say, “I told you so!” Enough said.
Commitment and Safety
Ten tips are always nice to get. But expert advice can feel unrealistic when the challenges are overwhelming. So, consider two critical points.
- The best of parents become overwhelmed at times. It is not a sign of failure to seek professional help. In sharp contrast, it is a sign of strength and committed parenting.
- When something is an immediate or serious safety issue it is your responsibility to launch into protective mode. The lesson can be learned later. The “teaching” can wait. Just as you grabbed your child’s hand before they put it on the stove, rather than launching into a calm discussion on burns, you do not allow your teen to risk their life in a car or take other hazardous risks.
A Heart on the Outside of Your Body
Having a child is like having your heart on the outside of your body. You must protect your heart. Sometimes that requires drastic action. Sometimes it takes a team approach that involves building your child’s own wisdom. That wisdom is sometimes earned best through lessons learned from circumstances we wish our children never experienced. Remember, preparation is protection for the future. Earned wisdom is longstanding protection.
Image by: Samantha Lee/Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia