Parents’ Role if Teens Get in Trouble

Parents’ Role if Teens Face Trouble

We all make mistakes. Some are worse than others. One of our worst fears as parents is to receive a call or letter home that lets us know our child has made a mistake — one that’s gotten them into serious trouble. It could come from school, a family friend or neighbor, even the police.

Being on the receiving end of this call, we may be consumed with emotions. Fear. Anger. Shock. Disappointment. Even shame or guilt.

Our role is critical in these moments. We can make the difference in how deeply the event shapes our tweens and teens sense of themselves as well as  how the rest of the world sees them. We need to react quickly, calmly, and effectively.

As we strive to meet this challenge, our goals must include:

  • Making sure our teens are safe.
  • Ensuring they learn an appropriate lesson. That they grow from the experience.
  • Preventing other adults or systems (educational or law enforcement) from labeling our children as “problems” based on a single  incident.
  • Making sure that our relationships are enhanced, rather than harmed, by the experience. That we position ourselves to continue shaping their lives.
Everyone makes mistakes. The measure of our character is whether we grow from them, repeat them, or descend into a spiral of downward behaviors as a result of them.

Getting to Calm

We are rarely our best when our emotions run strong. Learning our teens are in trouble can cause our stress hormones to surge.

To best fill our role here we need to be able to think as clearly as possible. We need to be prepared to communicate to the other adults handling the situation — to let them know that we are involved, caring parents who want the best possible outcome. This includes taking charge, problem-solving, and helping with decisions. We also have to be there in a supportive way for our teens.

Our ability to think wisely is directly related to our ability to get to calm. Strategies to get to calm include:

  • Being sure there is no safety issue. If you’re told over the phone that your child is in trouble ask clearly, “Is my child safe, and can I be certain you will keep him/her safe.”
  • Letting go of the shame and self-blame ALL parents feel when their children make serious mistakes. Children with the most involved parents can still get into trouble. Parents and caregivers are most certainly part of the solution moving forward — focus on that, rather than the past.
  • Create a space to let your emotions cool off. Take a time out. Walk or run it out. Even if you have only 15 minutes, exercise can use up those stress hormones and restore your ability to think. Take deep breaths or a shower. Taking a few minutes to get yourself together will pay off when you’re better able to take charge.

Make it Known That You Support Your Teen

Depending on the circumstances and their temperament your adolescents may be visibly shaken . . .  or pretending very hard to not care at all. They might be feigning toughness or trying hard to shift the blame. No matter what your teens show on the outside, remember that this is likely more frightening for them than it is for you. A squeeze on the shoulder or a quick hug with a clearly spoken message like, “You’re going to get through this . . .. actually, we’re going to get through this together,” offers critical reassurance in the moment. As importantly, those words will impart that, “In the toughest of times, at my very lowest, my parent was there for me.”

Make it Known That You Take it Seriously

Adult authority figures often experience parents who jump immediately to the defense of their children and deny their child could have done anything wrong. Parents’ best intentions may backfire when they try to protect their children in this way. It leaves authority figures believing they are solely responsible for making sure teens learn appropriate lessons.

Parents have every right to have the situation explained and to ask for specific details related to what’s been done wrong. However, once we have gained a grasp of the situation, we must state clearly that we take it very seriously and want to make sure that it is not repeated.

Be Your Child’s Advocate

You do not want your teen to  become labeled as a problem. These labels stick. When young people are seen through problem lenses, they may get noticed more for what they do wrong and less for what they do right.

This is a time to share precisely what is good and right about your child. You might say: “I am surprised and disappointed by this behavior. It is not like my son/daughter, usually he/she is _____________.” [Fill in the blank with an authentic statement that describes strengths.]

In the event there are particularly stressful special circumstances, it is reasonable to bring them up as a possible explanation for out-of-character behavior. This will help most responsible adults put on their supportive problem-solving hats rather than rely on punishment as the only way to react to the situation.

Be your child’s advocate. Insist that none of the labels that describe conduct (for example: bad, risky, violent, delinquent, or the more formal diagnoses such as Oppositional Defiant or Conduct Disorder) be attached to your child. This will be challenging if your teen has a clear pattern of this kind of behavior. But if this is a first-time offense or if it can be explained by a recent event (for example: the death of a loved one) ask the authority figure to avoid drawing conclusions or placing labels. Because unfortunately, there are some harmful labels that can follow young people within educational or juvenile justice systems.

You may be more successful in requesting an approach that allows for second chances and opportunities to make amends if you make clear that you are committed to monitoring your teens closely and ensuring they learn a lesson. By authentically highlighting your teens’ strengths, the incident will seem less like a pattern deserving of a label.

How Well do you Handle Your Teen’s Mistakes?
Take this quiz to discover if you’ve mastered this challenging aspect of parenting.

Encourage Growth From the Experience

Everyone makes mistakes. The measure of our character is whether we grow from them, repeat them, or descend into a spiral of downward behaviors as a result of them.

One way to ensure lessons are learned is to offer effective consequences that help young people recognize how their actions may have hurt others and that they need to make amends.  Consequences are not the same as punishments. Punishments make young people feel like victims and can prevent them from achieving desired growth. Whenever possible, try to make the consequences match the error. Provide your teen an opportunity to make amends. Consider these examples for making clear and effective consequences.

  • “Because your action hurt _________’s feelings, it is important you apologize in a way that shows you genuinely understand what you did was wrong by _______ (E.g. apologizing for breaking the window and offering to work to pay for the repair.).”
  • “When you cheated, you made it seem like you don’t care. In order to show that you are willing to put in the work, and that you do care, you need to ____________ (E.g. talk to your teacher, redo the assignment, accept the zero, work harder on the next assignment, etc.).”
  • “By defacing public property, you hurt the community. Saying you’re sorry only goes so far. You have to put in the work to show you care about this community. We’re going to sign you up for some volunteer work at ____ (E.g. the local park, community center, church, etc.).”

All of these examples do more than teach a lesson. They also create an opportunity for the young person to earn the right to be forgiven and considered as a person of good character.

See how different this approach is compared to just punishing teens? To learn more about this strategy, consider reading about restorative justice practices.

When parents partner with adult authority figures to ensure adolescents learn lessons and grow from mistakes we build their resilience. Tweens and teens benefit from being included as full partners in coming up with strategies to make up for their mistakes. They want to grow and to show us they have done so —  we must give them this opportunity.

Maintain a Positive View of Teens

Adolescence is the time when young people are shaping their identities. It is the critical time when youth work to answer a fundamental question, “Who am I?”  We must not allow part of that answer to be “I am a problem,” “a source of trouble,” or “a disappointment to my parents.” That self-assessment is harmful.

From a distance, teens may look every bit like adults. But inside they are the same children we have always cherished. With the same need to please. With the same desire to be noticed. If they gain most of our attention when they mess up, they will continue to do so. If they think they have already lost our belief in them they will feel as though they have nothing else to lose.  They will look for attention and recognition elsewhere.

Never Lower Standards

Young people raise themselves to the level of expectations we set for them. This doesn’t mean that if we say they should be star quarterbacks they will. Nor will they get straight A’s because we suggest they should. This is about character. About being a good person — even when nobody’s looking. Never stop believing that your child has real character strengths.

A danger of misbehavior is that adults see an action and expect it to be repeated. They stop expecting the good because they’ve seen the bad. These kinds of expectations are often enhanced by implicit biases — too easily making assumptions or generalizations for the sake of simplicity. Unfortunately, this sometimes can be the nature of systems like schools or juvenile justice.

It is important to make it very clear to the adults that influence your teen’s well-being and sense-of-self — professionals, coaches, teachers, relatives — that your child is not defined by this incident. Their expectations must remain high, unchanged, and consistent.

Now look in the mirror and pledge to do the same for your own adolescent. For the sake of the 35-year-olds you are raising them to become, let them know they have a lot to offer. And you expect to see them reach their fullest potential.

Young people will benefit from hearing messages like this: “We all make mess up sometime. I certainly have. Look around. Nobody’s perfect. When we grow from our mistakes, learn from our failures, and make genuine apologies, we get better.  You’ll get through this. It doesn’t define you. Can I tell you what does? You are the person who _______________. [Fill in this blank with a genuine thought of what’s good about your child.] That’s who you are. And I love that you’re my child.”

The unwavering love of a parent is deeply protective now and far into the future. Love is seeing someone as they deserve to be seen, as they really are, not through the lens of a behavior they may have displayed.

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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