How to Avoid Enabling Bad Behavior in Your Teen

Parents almost always have the very best of intentions in raising their teen. No mother is trying to reinforce bad behavior and no father wants to encourage problems. Parents want to help and support their children in their growth and development.  Unfortunately, sometimes the ways parents try to support their child can actually prevent teenagers from learning healthy behaviors needed to become a responsible and productive adult.

A common term in psychology is “enabling.” An enabler is a person who, through his or her actions, allows someone else to behave in ways that are destructive. For example, a person might be an enabler of a gambler by lending them money to get out of debt. The gambler must experience the negative consequences of his problem before he can reach a point of making positive changes.

Enabling is usually born out of parental love and concern, as well as not wanting to see your teen suffer. But lying, ignoring or covering up for a teen not only allows negative behavior to continue but also slows down the process of learning to be responsible for the consequences of their actions. It is very difficult and uncomfortable for many parents to allow their child to suffer and they want to rescue them. A parent may lie to their child’s teacher about why their child didn’t finish their homework so they get another chance to pull up their GPA. A parent may blame another child to save their child the shame from not making the goal on their sports team. A parent may provide an alibi for their child when confronted with the possibility that they might get suspended for some bad behavior. In the moment, the parent believes they are saving their child’s future – rescuing the teen from a severe punishment for a minor or one-time infraction – but instead they are sealing their teen’s fate as a failure. Children who are rescued by their parents don’t know how to function in the “real world” when they are adults.

So, how does a parent avoid enabling their teen? The first step is understanding the difference between loving your child and enabling their bad choices. If you realize in hindsight that you have enabled your teen, acknowledge your mistake and learn from it. Be honest with yourself about your reasons for wanting to help your teen.

But the most important thing to remember is: don’t take responsibility for issues or problems that belong to your teen and not to you. For example, if your child comes to you panicked because they have procrastinated and now their project is due tomorrow, you should not solve this problem for them. You can help them brainstorm ideas for ways they can solve their own problem, but you should not offer to “fix” this situation. A teen must suffer from the consequences of their choices in order to learn and not repeat their mistakes.

Along these lines, it’s important that parents define clear boundaries with their teens and stick to them. Consistently follow through on appropriate consequences for rule infractions. Refuse to tell lies for your teen for any reason. Let your teen know clearly that you will not make excuses or cover up for them in any way.

Although letting a child suffer from the consequences of their actions can pull at a parent’s heartstrings, it truly is the best way to ensure they will become responsible problem solvers who can handle the world as adults.

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