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3 Best ways to respond when your teen’s moral compass goes haywire



Kimberly Coyle - published on 10/06/18

A few guiding principles for these trying years of testing boundaries.

Before I had children, I assumed if you raised them right and prayed enough and set the very best example, they’d skip the rebellious stage. The lying stage. The sneak out and drink, or swear or post terrible things on social media, stage. They’d love God and love me, and I’d pat myself on the back in my gray-haired years on a job well done.

I think you know where this is going.

My kids are great. Wonderful, even. Brilliant and hard-working and so funny. But they don’t always make the choices I expect of them, and I have come to see this less as a slap in the face to my parenting skills and more as the natural progression to developing a moral center. They are making decisions and learning to live with the consequences of them.

They write their own stories, and we can help them edit those stories, but we can’t write the narrative for them. I am in the thick of living these stories with my 17-, 14-, and 11-year-old kids. In an effort to stay sensible and sane, I’ve established a few guiding principles for these years of testing boundaries.

Remember, it’s not your fault they messed up

Assuming we’re operating out of a healthy place, it’s safe to say we’re doing our best. We want our kids to learn how to live in the world holding a healthy tension between grace and truth. We want them to embody kindness and integrity. More than anything, we want them to embrace a living faith — one that acts as a beacon to guide them into right living.

At 17 or 14 or 11, they can’t possibly live up to these standards. I struggle to live up to them as an adult. There will be times they will show cruelty. They will lie — to our faces. They will cheat on a test or take the drink or sneak out to meet their girlfriend at 2 a.m. When they fail to meet our standards, we often believe we’re failing with them.

When our kids make bad choices, it is not the time for self-pity, for beating ourselves up, for questioning where we went wrong. It is not about us. It’s about finding a moment in the mayhem to shine a light on their behavior, and then focus on the consequences of it.

When our kids fail, it’s easy to fall into the trap of calling ourselves failures, too. They have to own their behavior; we have to own our response. We’re here to teach them to make good choices, not how to manage our emotions. As the parent, it’s our job to keep our emotions in check, not our teenager’s. When they fail, it’s an opportunity for us to step in and show them how to spin gold from the straw they’ve made.

Be there to catch them when they fall (even if you’re beyond furious)

Good kids go wild, at least on occasion. Our homes should be the safest, softest place to land during the wild season. It should be a place of grace, of spaciousness, a place where we give them room to mess up and then help them clean up the mess. This is not to say we ignore consequences. I have a long-term love affair with consequences. But, when our kids mess up, and they will, it is far better they do so when they have a parent waiting with open arms to catch them.

Boundaries are good and necessary, but our kids will test them. This is as it should be. Let them push against the boundaries you’ve set, let them prod for the weak places, let them discover the flexibility, the push and pull, the safety of them. Let them know if they somehow break through to the other side, you will be waiting there to guide them back again.

Punish them, but be empathetic

As we recognize our own need for grace, we are better able to extend it to our kids. Remembering our own need helps us move from anger to empathy when dealing with negative behavior in our children. Let’s not engage in revisionist history. We’ve all made poor choices, perhaps even life-changing ones, and we may continue to do so.

What did you need most when you made a mistake as a child? Remember the feelings of fear, defiance, remorse, or dread you experienced. What response did you hope for from a parent and what did you most need? Most likely, it was a healthy dose of consequences clothed in grace.

Don’t tell my kids, but sometimes the consequences aren’t the point. The spirit behind my response is far more important. Our need for grace is just as great as that of our children, maybe even more so, given our fully developed brains and breadth of life experience. My daughter once used the unformed state of her frontal lobe as an excuse for her disobedience. It made me laugh, but I blessed her with consequences anyway.

Just like us, our children discover through trial and error how to navigate narrow passages, rough seas, and deep waters. Rather than wallowing in the hard, dark places together in defeat, our presence with them can cast a light, illuminating the way out.


Read more:
Good discipline isn’t about giving kids a consequence

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