Helping Teens Gain Control

Help Teens Take Control of Their Lives

We hope to raise teens with a sense of self-control so they will be positioned to become their best selves as adults. We want them to learn to make the kind of decisions that ensure healthy and successful lives. We wish for them to comfortably stand on their own as contributing citizens who model good character for their families and communities. This control and these hopes are at the roots of healthy teen development.

We also need to raise them to be resilient. Core to resilience is knowing that actions matter. People either believe they are passive victims of circumstance or that they can control what happens to them. A sense of control offers hope for recovery from even the most challenging times.

Young people must gain the protection that comes from an increasing sense of control if we are to promote their healthy development and support their growing resilience. Successful development of self-control is tightly tied to how adolescents are parented. Babies are born helpless, reliant on their parents for every need. On some level, parenting during the second decade of life is about gradually and intentionally shifting that control over time until our children know they can handle life on their own.

How to Use Discipline

Discipline is how we shift control over to our children. Discipline does not mean “to control.”  Quite the opposite. It means to teach or to guide. When we discipline well, our adolescents learn self-control and we prepare them to launch into adulthood.

How we discipline makes a difference in our teens’ sense of control. Teens that are told, “You’ll do what I say because I said so!” often have difficulty making their own decisions. Young people who know that their parents want them to be safe and to grow, understand that privileges are earned and freedoms are gained by demonstrating responsibility. They understand that they have control over their lives.

Helping teens gain control is part of a comprehensive strategy to build their resilience and prepare them for the future.

Young people gain increasing control when they learn that they can indeed recover from their stumbles

The 7 C’s of Resilience

The 7 C’s as described in Building Resilience in Children and Teens include those essential qualities known to prepare young people to thrive. The C’s are comprised of 7 interrelated elements including confidence, competence, connection, contribution, character, coping and control. We encourage parents and other caring adults to adopt this model in an effort to work together to guide children to be their best selves. We can’t just give our teens these qualities — but we can provide the kind of nurturing environments and supports so they develop them over time. Having a sense of self-control is a quality that takes time to develop. But it’s one of great importance for making good decisions and building resilience.

Actions Lead to Consequences

Resilience requires an internal sense of control. Resilient people understand that their choices and actions lead to consequences. They learn that they can make a difference, which further enhances the likelihood they will make wise choices. They can solve problems, make decisions, and alter outcomes. They are more likely to delay immediate gratification in pursuit of a long-term goal.

On the other hand, people who feel like things just happen to them tend to believe what they do doesn’t matter. This may lead them towards pessimism, passivity or anger. They may feel like victims and see themselves as powerless in the face of challenges.

When we help teens learn they can control the outcomes of their actions, they gain self-control. It helps them learn to take personal responsibility.

Solve Problems One Step at a Time

It’s common for teens to feel overwhelmed. They experience a great deal of pressure from school, work or extracurricular activities, family obligations, peers, and even themselves. Problems are often seen as mountains they can’t imagine climbing. But parents can help young people gain control over their lives by teaching them to break large problems into smaller, manageable pieces. We help our teens gain a sense of control when we guide them to re-visualize problems from being mountains too high to be scaled into hills resting one on top of another. Conquering one hill at a time, the problem becomes manageable. They feel in control. For more on this strategy, see Stress Management: Identify and Then Address the Problem.

Grow from Mistakes

In an effort to keep teens safe and healthy many parents are overprotective. But their overprotection stifles development and reduces adolescents’ ability to build resilience. They learn to fear mistakes because they sense that we see errors as potential catastrophes. We must teach young people that they can recover from their stumbles. That we fall down so we can learn how to right ourselves. With each recovery, we learn how to make better decisions.

Of course, we don’t want our teens to make mistakes that put them in danger. That’s why we set very clear boundaries beyond which they cannot stray. But within those boundaries, we let them experience trial and error, recovery and growth — resulting in increased levels of self-control.

Stay Within Safe Boundaries

If we want to increase our teen’s sense of control, we must not rigidly try to control their actions, emotions, thoughts, or choices. Development is about learning to stretch boundaries, and sometimes test limits. It is our role as parents to keep teens within safe and moral boundaries. Don’t expect to be thanked for setting boundaries — but know that our watchful eyes are precisely what allow our teens to safely gain a sense of control.

We must be mindful to not set boundaries randomly — our rules do not exist to control our teens. We set clear boundaries to honor their growing independence and recognize their developing skills and competencies. While some rules are always or never rules — always wear your seatbelt, never use drugs — most are in place on a short-term basis. They are flexible and can be adapted as children gain more experience or demonstrate the responsibility that shows they gained self-control.


Building Resilience by Helping Teens Gain Control

Parents can support teens to gain the protection that comes from having a sense of self-control.

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How Controlling Should We Be?

Decades of research tells us how controlling we should be in raising our children.  It is about how we balance two key forces of parenting — love and expressed warmth with rules and monitoring. When we consider those seemingly opposing forces we find four differing parenting styles. The style that most effectively offers a lot of love while still setting clear boundaries when it comes to issues that may affect safety or morality is known as “balanced” or “authoritative” parenting.

Children raised by parents who use a balanced style are most successful academically, are emotionally healthiest, and engage in the fewest worrisome behaviors. They also have the closest relationships with their parents.

Resilience depends on parents’ relinquishing tight control in favor of guidance, attention, and support so that teens have opportunities to develop their inner control. Parents should remain heavily involved by observing, offering a steadying hand, and guiding their teens’ actions. We do so by understanding that:

  • Our love is most protective for our teens when they know they are loved. Our words matter.
  • Our rules work best and are most closely followed when our teens know why they exist.
  • Our goal is not to control. It is to raise children with self-control.

Commit to your teen’s well-being and to strengthening relationships within your family by learning more about how to implement a balanced parenting style.

Make it Easier on Both of You

If you set boundaries that are different than those of other parents in your community, you’ll risk being viewed as unreasonable and controlling. This may set your teen up to rebel against you. Work with your community or the parents of your adolescent’s circle of friends to create some shared rules and boundaries. This allows your teens to meet your expectations, stay safe, and increase their own sense of control, all while feeling “normal” amongst peers.

Foster Interdependence

To become successful young adults, adolescents must learn to have control over their own lives — to become independent. But really, we hope they will remain close to us throughout their lives. We want our children to choose to gain our input and wisdom for years to come. We must make it clear that our intent is to guide, not control. They need to know that we care what they think, and are open to learning from them. By supporting their growing independence while they are living under our roof, we’ll foster healthy interdependence over their lifespan. They’ll want our involvement because they found it enriching rather than controlling.

About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional, and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit

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