As parents, we instinctively are inclined to protect our children. We put padding on the sharp corners of the coffee table. We put dangerous chemicals in locked cabinets and make them hold our hand in parking lots. In the first few years of their life, children are not capable of “good” judgment and keeping themselves safe. They need constant supervision by a responsible adult.
But in just a few short years, our babies become toddlers, our toddlers become school-age children and our school-age children become teenagers. As they get older, they need us less and less for their physical safety—but our parental protective instincts are still there. Consequently, for many of us, our focus shifts to protecting them from disappointment, sadness, frustration and struggle—their emotional safety.
But, this is where I am going to invite you to consider another perspective. Could a little disappointment, sadness, frustration and struggle be a good thing? Think of it this way: It is kind of like physical exercise. The benefits are only gained as you work through the pain and discomfort.
So what are the benefits of your teenager making a mistake and then working through the emotional pain to find a solution? Resiliency and resourcefulness.
Now I know what you are probably thinking: That sounds awesome, but I can’t just leave them hanging. The key is to make the shift from your instinctive desire to protect or rescue your teenager, to the long term goal of their personal development. Here is an example from my journey as a parent that demonstrates the three key steps you can take.
Steps for letting your teenager make mistakes
1. Move from a “rescue” to an “empowerment” mindset
One summer evening, my 17-year-old son came into the house with a distraught look on his face. Turns out, he and one of his friends had decided it would be fun to drag race on one of the main streets in our town. What they didn’t know as they sat at a stop light waiting for it to turn green to start the race was that there was a police officer sitting right behind them in an unmarked car. Both my son and his friend were cited for reckless driving.
My wife and I agreed that this was an opportunity for our son. If you are confused by this statement, let me explain. The reality is that your teenager is going to make mistakes. Our role as parents is to empower them so that they learn as much as possible as they work to overcome the circumstances of their choices. This particular “bad” choice made by our son was a tremendous opportunity for personal growth, but in order for him to benefit from these lessons I would have to resist the urge to rescue him and shift to an empowerment mindset.
This first step, a shift in your perspective, is letting go of the belief that your teenager can’t handle the struggle or find a solution to their problems. Focus your attention on their strengths and potential.
2. Provide a safe space for their negative emotions to dissipate
Continuing with this story, our son was noticeably upset as he shared what had happened. He was overwhelmed with a combination of fear and frustration. In my book, “How To Be The Parent Your Teenager Needs You To Be” I note that a teenager is not in a position to grow and learn when they are overwhelmed with negative emotions. Consequently, the second step in your efforts to empower your teenager is to provide a safe place for any negative emotions to dissipate.
The key here is to stay grounded in compassion and forgiveness. If you find yourself getting pulled into the negative emotions your teenager is experiencing, take a few deep breaths and say something like this to yourself, “I can best serve my child right now by providing a safe space for them to regain their composure. My job is to listen and engage with a compassionate and forgiving heart.”
3. Give the problem back to them
Eventually, the fear and frustration our son was experiencing subsided and it was time to shift into a coaching role. Step three is to give the problem back to your teenager and use open-ended questions to help them come up with a plan of action. Here is what this sounded like with our son: “This is a difficult situation you have gotten yourself into, but you are a smart kid, so I am sure you can handle it. What do you need to do first?”
Teenagers make mistakes. The question is how do the mistakes serve them in their journey to becoming an adult? If your goal is to empower them to be their absolute best, try the three steps I have outlined the next time your teenager gets into a tough spot. A change in perspective can change everything.
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