How to Steer Teens Away from Negative Behaviors

It doesn’t make you a bad parent if your child experiences trouble. Teens are people. And people make mistakes. They need you to stand by them during both good and challenging times. When your teen strays down a negative path, don’t shame them for making a poor choice or lecture them about their wrongdoing. Instead, tell them you dislike the behavior because it is preventing them from being the person you know they really are. It is highly protective when parents continue to see all that is good and right about their children. We must keep holding them to high expectations and believe they can do better. 

Steer Teens Away From Negative Behaviors

Parents can help steer their teens away from negative behaviors by using the “heart-belly-head-hands” approach. The key to this approach is using their strengths as a starting point to help them find another course of action. By building on your teen’s strengths, you cause a ripple effect that diminishes their need to engage in undermining behavior. This strategy allows you to deal with problems while avoiding shame and pushback. It is an approach grounded in respect and helps redirect teens back toward their better selves. You don’t use the words “heart-belly-head-hands.” Rather, this is a memory tool to help you with the flow of your guidance. 

By building on your teen’s strengths, you cause a ripple effect that diminishes their need to engage in undermining behavior.

Heart-Belly-Head-Hands Approach

The heart contains the depth of your feelings. Share with your teen specific things you love about them, so there is no doubt you care deeply. Ideally, it will be the very strengths you recognize in them that will be the starting point to correct the misstep. 

The belly often constricts when you are worried. Who hasn’t experienced butterflies in the stomach when anxious? Explain to your teen why you are concerned. Make it clear you fear their choices may prevent them from reaching their full potential.

The head solves problems. Tell your teen that you want to work together to find a solution. Remain calm so they can do their best thinking. Let your teen be the expert in their own life. 

The hands are there to guide. Ask your teen how you can best support them. Remind them that you aren’t going anywhere as you offer wisdom and experience. You may guide them to professional support, but you will always be by their side. 

Consider this example for handling a teen’s alcohol misuse.

One of the greatest things about you is how deeply you feel. It means you’ll have strong and loving relationships in the future. I love that about you. (Heart) I’m worried you are drinking to escape your feelings because they can be overwhelming. I’m concerned that alcohol will take away from the sensitive and caring person you can become. (Belly) Let’s work together to come up with a plan to help you manage your feelings. We need to think of other ways to feel better without alcohol. I have thoughts but I want to hear yours as well. (Head) I’m here for you and will always be by your side. You are strong and will get through this. [(Optional dependent on depth of problem, or to assess the depth of the problem) We would both benefit from a professional by our sides.] (Hands)

See the Good in Your Teen

During challenging times, draw on your memories of your child’s innate goodness. Your love and steadfast presence will remind them who they are and who they want to be. It will energize them to learn from their mistakes and bounce back. 

Remember good parents don’t have children without problems. They offer their children what they need to return to their better selves. You are not alone. Reach out to a professional for support if the problem feels too big to handle. Both you and your teen deserve it. Professionals are trained to help families through difficult times. You’ll start the process on the right foot because you’ve taken a strength-based approach. Check out this article for tips on how to prepare teens for professional help.

This article was co-authored by Elyse Salek, MSEd.

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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